04/04/2003 11:59 PM ET
Welcome to the 500 club, Sammy
Sosa becomes first Latin player to break the mark
By Carrie Muskat and Jim Molony / MLB.com
Sammy Sosa gets a hug from his wife Sonia at the beginning of his postgame interview on Friday. (AP)
CINCINNATI -- Sammy Sosa knew the minute it left his bat.
"When I made contact I was like 'Wow, I knew I got it, that's it, that's (number) 500," a joyful Sosa said after becoming the 18th member -- and first Latin American player -- of the 500 Home Run club.
Sosa's historic homer came off Reds reliever Scott Sullivan in the top of the seventh inning Friday night at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. Sosa's blast came on a 1-2 fastball at the knees and he ripped it over the right-center field wall. It was Sosa's fourth career homer off Sullivan.
"I knew it was (gone) and so did Sammy," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "This was a great moment and a great event. Sammy's worked very hard to get to where he is today."
That would be in very select company.
"When I got to home plate I thanked God," Sosa said. "This was very special for me, especially since my family was here watching. That's something that I never will forget."
"I feel so proud of my husband," said Sosa's wife Sonia, who watched the game with the slugger's mother. "It's so exciting and God Bless America!"
The crowd of 29,048 gave Sosa a loud ovation and roared when he came to the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap. They gave him another round of applause when he went to his position in right field in the bottom of the inning.
"They showed me their appreciation, I was very happy about that," Sosa said. "Hopefully I can continue to make all my fans very very happy."
Sosa was also pleased to go where no Latin American ballplayer had ever gone before.
"Been working so hard all my life to be who I am, but I'm not going to be the only one," Sosa said. "I know there's more Latin people coming out. I'm the first to get to 500 and I'm going to celebrate this time."
Sosa's feat will definitely be celebrated in his native Dominican Republic.
"Sammy's consistently unbelievable," Cubs teammate and countryman Moises Alou said.
Sosa's steady climb to 500 began when he hit his first as a rookie with Texas in 1989. He has hit 30 or more homers nine times and 49 or more each of the last five seasons.
"He's a guy who consistently changes the game with one swing," said Mark Grace, Sosa's former teammate and current Arizona first baseman. "He's kind of the modern day Reggie Jackson. Even when Sammy strikes out, it's exciting. When he makes contact, it usually goes a long way. That's what fans love to see. He definitely changes a pitcher's mindset when he steps up, no question."
In 2001, Sosa became the first player in big-league history to have three 60-homer seasons. He has hit at least 50 homers in four consecutive seasons -- and missed by just one tater the first to do it in five consecutive seasons last year. Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire each accomplished the feat four straight years.
Ernie Banks holds the Cubs' career homer record with 512, but it's only a matter of swings before Sosa eclipses that as well.
"I told him he's at an age and point in his career and all the conditions, the parks and the team, that he could finish with 800 home runs," Banks said this spring. "He could pass Henry Aaron."
When Sosa first came to the big leagues in 1989, he swung hard in case he made contact, pulling almost every pitch. Still, former Chicago White Sox teammate Frank Thomas saw potential.
"He had tremendous power," Thomas said of Sosa, who played for the White Sox from 1989-91. "He'd hit a ball to center field straight. He's always had that power. It took him a while to get a plan and stick to it. And now, you watch his balance and as flat as he's swinging the bat consistently, with that kind of bat speed, it happens."
Sosa struggled under White Sox hitting coach Walt Hrniak because, as Thomas said, "Sammy wasn't a Walt-type hitter."
"He was a free-swinger," Thomas said of Sosa.
Traded in late March 1992 to the North Side of Chicago, the Cubs let Sammy be Sammy. In his first full season with the Cubs, Sosa hit 33 homers and stole 36 bases. However, he wasn't consistent at the plate, batting .261 and striking out 135 times.
It wasn't until Sosa hooked up with hitting coach Jeff Pentland in late 1997 that the home runs really started to fly.
"When Pentland came over, that's when Sammy took off as a dominating power hitter," Grace said of Pentland, now the hitting coach for the Kansas City Royals. "He changed him around from his swing to his stance -- he absolutely overhauled Sammy's approach and swing. 'Pent' made me a better hitter, but he took Sammy to a level nobody else gets to."
Their first year together produced immediate results. Sosa finished second to McGwire in the super-hyped 1998 home run race with a career-high 66, but Sosa led the Cubs to the playoffs, paced the National League in RBIs with 158 and won the MVP award.
"There's no comparison," Pentland said when asked about the '98 Sosa and now. "Just the way he's matured as a hitter and his ability to make adjustments and actually know what he's looking for is different.
"You can work all you want, but the real deal is when he steps up in the box and has a feel for what he's doing. There's so many things involved to be the elite hitter that he is."
Pentland and Sosa would set goals: .300 average, 100 walks, 100 RBIs. Home runs were never on their list. In 2001, Sosa batted a personal-best .328 and drew a career-high 116 walks, the first time he topped 100. He drew 103 free passes in 2002.
"It doesn't come easy for Sammy," Pentland said. "That's why he deserves a lot of credit because he's so tenacious about it and works every day to get to where he feels he needs to be."
Opposing pitchers learn quickly that they can't sneak much past Sosa. Last Aug. 16 at Wrigley Field, Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling tried to out-macho Sosa and get a fastball by him in the ninth inning.
Instead, Sosa, who had struck out twice against Schilling on breaking pitches earlier in the game, jumped on the fastball and smacked his 42nd home run.
Schilling can take some consolation in knowing he's not alone. The right-hander is one of 303 different pitchers to serve up one of Sosa's homers. Now, Sosa has one in 2003, 500 in his career and plenty of swings left.
Welcome to the club, Sammy.
Carrie Muskat and Jim Molony are reporters for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.