By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 28, 1998; Page A16
SAN PEDRO de MACORIS, Dominican Republic, Sept. 27—Although
his life has been turned upside down since a tree crashed through his roof
and destroyed his home during Hurricane Georges, Juan Richards found
solace today in American baseball, his love for Dominican slugger and
home-town hero Sammy Sosa, and Sosa's quest to set a new home-run
Leaning against a betting parlor wall under a baking sun, Richards, 28,
listened intently to a radio as Sosa's Chicago Cubs played the Houston
Astros in what was almost the last chance for Sosa to overtake or match
home-run leader Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals in their running
battle for baseball fame.
"Among all the bad we are going through, there is some good, and that
good is Sammy Sosa and the game today," Richards said. "He has lifted
our spirits, not only in normal times but in this [hurricane] crisis. For me,
Sosa has done something grand. He is a hero. He represents hope, pride
Throughout this gritty port city of 120,000 residents, many people turned
their attention from the ravages of Georges -- which struck the Dominican
Republic with a vengeance last Tuesday, killing more than 200 -- to their
local icon's come-from-behind bid to finish out the season ahead of
But for most fans, watching the game was an exercise in frustration, since
San Pedro is still without electricity and the hurricane knocked out
television cable service. Most bars and betting parlors that would have
televised the game were closed, and there were few batteries available to
enable people to tune in the game on radio.
There were few alternatives to view the game, but one was the Florimar
Carwash, a bar and pool hall near the city's sea wall. As a favor to San
Pedro, several television stations provided the establishment with a satellite
dish so it could show the game.
By the time the contest got underway at 2:35 p.m., the Florimar was
teeming with hundreds of fans who drank warm beer and erupted into
booming cheers and whistles when Sosa came up for his first at bat.
All pool playing came to a halt. Amid chants of "Sammy! Sammy!" the
home-town boy struck out, but onlookers brushed it off and pinned their
hopes on the next time he would come to the plate.
Sosa -- who came into today's game with 66 home runs, four behind
McGwire -- would then drive a ball deep into center field, riling the
agitated bar crowd. But it was caught by an Astros outfielder and a
collective "Oh, no!" filled the bar as fans shook their heads in
"I still feel a lot of pride for Sosa because he is a Dominican, and a
respected Dominican. I also feel pride because he is a Latin, and a very
grand Latin," said Carlos Alberto, 33, in explaining that he was not
disappointed about Sosa's failure to catch up to McGwire.
"I feel sad at the moment, sad because we are living in a very difficult
situation and have nothing, and sad because Sosa did not break the
record," said Aquiles Romero, 20.
Sosa will play Monday in a one-game playoff for the National League
wild-card berth, and any home runs he hits will count toward his total. But
for many Dominicans, whether Sosa shatters the major league home-run
record is not paramount.
"He is the most important man in the world for all Dominicans," said
Christian Munoz, 22, a patron at the Florimar. "Since the hurricane passed,
we were fixing houses and helping people . . . but we are here because it is
important. We have been going through hard times and now the hurricane.
He is an inspiration for us, and if he wins it or if he does not, it will be the
same. He is a Dominican superman."
At a time when this nation of 8 million is struggling to rebuild from the
destruction unleashed by Georges, which was one of the most ferocious
hurricanes in recent memory, Sosa has become a poignant symbol of hope.
Scores of Dominican homes were leveled or heavily damaged by the
hurricane, which snapped and uprooted countless trees and power lines
now piled up in the streets. The Tetelo Vargas baseball stadium, where
Sosa once played, suffered a tremendous blow from Georges, which
knocked down the light tower and a broad section of the outfield wall, and
ripped and twisted large portions of the facility's metal structure.
The stadium has been serving as a makeshift shelter for people made
homeless by the storm, and this afternoon a group of boys were playing a
pickup game of baseball there.
Passions run high for Sosa in San Pedro, where a statue of him stands in
shopping mall that he built for the town, one of several projects he has
undertaken here, including building a house for his mother and other
There is widespread passion for baseball in this town, which has produced
more major league players per capita than any other. Seven of the 62
Dominicans on this season's Opening Day rosters are from here, and
Dominicans far outnumber other foreign-born players in the major leagues.
Local residents have been moved by Sosa's efforts to help his birthplace
dig its way out of the ravages of Georges.
The Cubs outfielder, who has a four-year, $42 million contract with the
team, has organized a relief effort through the Sammy Sosa Charitable
Foundation for victims of the deadly storm across the Caribbean, including
his native Dominican Republic. He has also pledged to sell his 62nd
home-run ball and give the proceeds to his country.
"I'm just glad I'm in the position to help the people, because they need
right now," Sosa said. "All the information I've gotten from my country is
bad. They have found a lot of bodies, a lot of people have died and they
are still looking for more. A lot of people don't have homes."
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez phoned Sosa, who grew up in the
poor neighborhood of Barrio Mexico, before today's game, telling him of
the damage and wishing him well. Sosa said Fernandez told him: "Don't
worry about it. We're taking care of everything. Go out there and play
"Sammy is the kind of person who is happy if you are happy. He knows
poverty, too," said one of Sosa's brothers, Carlos, 21. "But Sammy's
money can only do so much, because a lot of infrastructure and agriculture
have been destroyed."
Not everyone was finding peace of mind today in baseball or in Sosa as
they continued to confront the severity of their situation.
"We cannot celebrate all this, because we have been ruined by a
hurricane," said Victor de la Cruz, 39. "We cannot be satisfied at this
point. I cannot celebrate, because my country has been destroyed."
But most people clearly took comfort in knowing that Sosa has not
forgotten his home town.
"He has a big heart because he believes in God and feels for his country,"
said one resident, Jimmy Rice Evanson, 48. "He may live in the United
States, but he was born in the Dominican Republic, in San Pedro de
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company