04/05/2003 12:51 AM ET
Countrymen salute Sosa
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
They were dancing in delight on the malecon in the Dominican Republic Friday night, celebrating Sammy Sosa's 500th home run.
At the Champions Sports Bar at the Ramada Renaissance Jaragua Hotel in Santo Domingo, the Caribbean island's capital city, all of the 27 television sets were tuned to the Chicago Cubs game.
Sosa did not disappoint. The right fielder ended his winter-long wait and the wait of all Hispanic ballplayers when he clubbed his 500th career homer off Cincinnati's Scott Sullivan.
Sosa became the 18th player to join the 500 club and the first Latin player.
"Everybody celebrated here," said Champions manager Ramon Hernandez of the boisterous reaction by the nearly 200 patrons when Sosa connected in the seventh inning. "Everybody raised a glass to Sammy."
"He's the best player in my country, so I always looked up to him," said New York Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who also is from San Pedro de Macoris, the hotbed of baseball talent on the island and also Sosa's hometown. "My country will be very excited."
Excited? They were honking car horns and banging pots and pans in the streets in celebration of the skinny shoeshine boy who is now a slugging superstar.
"He's opened the door for a lot of players," said Soriano, who met Sosa at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee last year. "This is great for him, and for all Latin players."
A free swinger who has learned to hit not just for power but for average, Sosa has impressed his baseball brethren with his patience at the plate.
"He was a wild swinger when we first got him," said Florida manager Jeff Torborg, who managed Sosa when he was with the Chicago White Sox. "Ivan Calderon gave him the nickname 'Zorro.' Every once in a while, Sammy would swing at a bad ball in the dirt, and (Calderon) would kid him, saying, 'Sammy, you have got to get a better hop.'
"But that kid came to play," Torborg said of Sosa. "I used him for a leadoff hitter for a while. I platooned him with Lance Johnson, depending on who we were playing, as the leadoff hitter. He did get more fastballs in that position."
When Sosa was with the White Sox in 1990, he batted .233, hit 15 homers and struck out 150 times. He's matured and has averaged .306 over the last five years as well as being the only big league player to have three 60-homer seasons.
"I'm so proud of what he has done. He's a great kid," Torborg said. "It seems like yesterday to me. Now, you look back and see all the home runs he's hit, and it's like, 'Wow.'"
Texas' Alex Rodriguez, who clubbed his 300th home run on Wednesday, was awed, too.
"Obviously what Sammy has done the last five or six years is second to no one," Rodriguez said. "I'm sure he is very proud and I know the Dominican and all of Latin America will be very proud of what he has done. The thing I like most is how he respects the game and gets after it every year."
Sosa is one of four players closing in on 500 this year. Rafael Palmeiro (491) is next with Fred McGriff (478) and Ken Griffey Jr. (469) closing in.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said the newer, smaller ballparks and stronger players may diminish the accomplishment in the future.
"(The 500 club) is still going to be an elite group to be part of," Schmidt said, "but the fact that in the next 10 years, you'll have 20 more guys in the group, it has to diminish the eliteness of it to a degree."
But Sosa has achieved an elite status. He's the first Latino. Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican player to reach the big leagues, doing so in 1956 when he made the Giants. Two years later, San Francisco manager Felipe Alou made his Major League debut.
"It's good for Latin players for Sosa to get there," Yankee pitcher Antonio Osuna said.
Osuna served up home run No. 371 to Sosa on Aug. 7, 2000, when he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I'm not alone," Osuna said.
No, he's not. This was the fourth homer Sosa has hit off Sullivan, one of the 303 different pitchers he's victimized.
Sosa did not connect in the Cubs' three-game series in New York. He came close Wednesday night, hitting a fly ball to the warning track in left field. Sosa did his trademark homer hop, but it was premature.
"I'm just glad he didn't get it here. Congratulations to him," said Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd, who caught the near-miss Wednesday.
WGN Radio broadcaster Pat Hughes knew it immediately on his call.
"Sullivan set for the 1-2," Hughes said on his play-by-play. "Sosa drives one in the air -- deep right field. It's got a chance -- 500 home runs for the great Sammy Sosa."
The solo shot pulled the Cubs within 8-7 but the Reds held on for a 10-9 victory, their first at the Great American Ballpark.
It isn't just Latino players who respect what Sosa has done.
"It's unbelievable how he's put up the home runs he has, especially on a team that didn't contend in a couple of those years," said Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi. "It's impressive.
"You never wanted him to be the one to beat you, especially when he didn't have anyone hitting behind him," Giambi said. "Now he's got some guys there with him, so it's a little easier to take."
Jon Lieber watched a majority of those home runs when he pitched for the Cubs from 1999-2002.
"What he did those four years, just to be a part of it was amazing," said Lieber, now with the New York Yankees. "I don't know if I'll ever play with an individual who can put up numbers like that again. Just to be around him was phenomenal.
"Any time you face an opponent, there's always one or two guys you don't want to let beat you," Lieber said. "He was definitely that guy -- and he still is. It was much nicer having him on my side."
The Yankees will face Sosa and the Cubs at Wrigley Field June 6-8 in an Interleague series. Expect Giambi and Sosa to talk dinger strategy.
When Sosa returned to his homeland after the 1998 season in which he belted 66 homers, breaking Roger Maris' single season record along with Mark McGwire, the entire island gave him a hero's welcome. They'll be partying all weekend.
"It's a big deal in my country," said Tampa Bay pitcher Jorge Sosa, no relation, who is from Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. "He's already very big there, but now he's even bigger."
"He's already like a giant there," said Devil Rays pitcher Jesus Colome, also from San Pedro de Macoris. "His accomplishments will help many young baseball players who follow."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.