SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic--Just
beyond the cracked left-field wall where Sammy Sosa hit his
earliest home runs, in a tattered batting cage behind fading stars that
read "Alou," "Marichal" and "Mota," Roberto Corporan was
chasing the dream that drives so many in this storied Dominican
Sweating rivers in the blazing sun this week, Corporan and his
scout were the lone figures in Alfredo Raynold Stadium, the muddy
and rutted field of dreams where the Chicago Cub slugger--like so
many others before him--first played baseball.
And like Sosa, who signed his first major league contract here
at 16, Corporan was slamming the ball through patched holes in the
rope-mesh cage, hoping to follow that same meteoric trajectory
from San Pedro's poverty to wealth, fame and legend.
"What have I learned from Sammy Sosa?" Corporan, 16, said
as he swung a battered bat on the day Mark McGwire broke
Roger Maris' home run record.
Moreno Tajeda, a local scout who hopes to sign his latest
prospect in the days ahead, said, "For us, Sammy Sosa is more
than just a hero. He's more even than an idol.
"Here in San Pedro de Macoris, Sammy Sosa is synonymous
Such is the mood during these magical days of September in
this gritty coastal city 45 miles east of the Dominican capital, Santo
Domingo. The home run chase between Sosa and McGwire that
has so electrified the United States is playing itself out here in Sosa's
hometown with equal drama, grace and lessons of hope.
When McGwire hit his 62nd homer Tuesday night, beating
Sosa to history, Dominicans here cheered. When St. Louis Cardinal
fans stood in reverence as Sosa stepped to the plate in the
Cub-Cardinal matchup, his fans here nodded with gratitude and
shared respect. And when the two sluggers bearhugged during
McGwire's moment in a stadium more than 1,000 miles away, many
"For us, Mark McGwire is a home run machine, a good man, a
clean man, a great man for baseball," said Luis Padilla, a merengue
composer who was born not far from the clapboard shack that was
Sosa's birthplace. "But together, Sosa and McGwire are
perfect--black and white, rich and poor, now together as equals in
"Of course, we all wish--everybody here is praying--that
Sammy wins the title. There are still a lot of games ahead. Besides,
Sammy already has proved to us and to the world that anything in
life is possible."
This town of 300,000 where Sosa, at 7, shined shoes is living
proof. San Pedro has produced more than a dozen major league
stars through the years, and it embodies this amazing summer of
limitless dreams and the ever-expanding boundaries of possibility.
Just ask Jesus Nolasco, who scrapes a living shining shoes in
San Pedro's Plaza Duarte.
"For us, to have a man like Sammy Sosa is to have an example
to live for--and to live by," said Nolasco, 20, who knew Sosa back
when he started shining shoes so his family could eat.
"There are so many negative examples around us. There are
drug capos here--wealthy dons who have used the cocaine trade to
get their fancy cars, gold chains and big houses," he said. "There are
millions and millions of pesos in dirty money floating around here.
There are so many temptations, so many vices.
"Sammy has given us a positive example. He has shown that if
you work hard, live clean, don't smoke, don't drink and believe in
God and in yourself," you can succeed.
For Sosa, who rose from Plaza Duarte's cracked sidewalks
where he earned $1 a day to a $42.5-million contract, there was
also a good bit of luck. The story is almost folklore now, as it's told
and retold by every shoeshine boy in the square: How American Bill
Chase, who ran a shoe factory in San Pedro's duty-free zone,
befriended the young shoeshine boy and bought him his first bat and
glove; how Chase now works for Sosa as his financial advisor.
"Imagine," said Mario Jimenez, San Pedro's municipal
president. "Sammy Sosa once cleaned his shoes, and now he's
Sammy's employee. It's something rare with a message for
everyone: There are no limits to achieving greatness.
"And there's no better messenger than Sosa. He is a
humanitarian man, a good brother, a good son, a good father and a
good friend. He is an ambassador for our town and for his country,
and yet he is the most simple and humble man in the major leagues."
Asked to explain the ingredients it took to produce a Sammy
Sosa, Jimenez cited San Pedro natives such as Julio Franco, Rico
Carty, Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Santana and Rafael Batista.
Most of them started like Sosa, catching balls in mitts fashioned
from milk cartons on rocky and rutted fields. A scene this week in
Consuelo, the village on San Pedro's outskirts where Sosa was
born, documented the phenomenon: A dozen young Dominicans
were practicing in a garbage-strewn lot, using a taped tree limb for
a bat and a plastic bottle cap for a ball.
"That's why we Dominicans are so good, because we start out
playing against all odds," Jimenez said. "We break our bones
learning this sport from the earliest age under the worst conditions."
But Sosa's elder sister offered a more mystical explanation: "It's
in the land, in the soil," said Sonia Sosa, 31, who runs an upscale
clothing boutique in town.
"The people are poor, but the land is rich. If you plant a seed
here, like Sammy, it will grow into a magnificent harvest."
Sonia's shop is on the second floor of a small shopping center
that, together with the stately home he built for his mother here,
testifies to Sosa's enduring ties to San Pedro. Sosa dubbed it Plaza
30-30 when he built it two years ago, after his first season with
more than 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases.
In the center of the plaza's courtyard, there is small statue of
Sosa, bat in hand, atop a wishing well that bears the words:
"Fountain of the Shoeshine Boys. Your contribution will be donated
to the shoe shiners of Macoris. Sammy Sosa 1996."
"Sammy, as a person, is the same as he always was," his sister
added. "All his fame and wealth, they haven't changed him. He still
comes back here every year and stays from October to February.
For him, this is home."
Sosa's lifestyle during the off-season in the capital appears
anything but simple. He lives in a mansion in the city's most
exclusive district, where he parks his Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and
Mercedes-Benz. He is a friend of President Leonel Fernandez and
a permanent fixture among the nation's rich and powerful.
But even among the shoeshine boys in Plaza Duarte, Sosa is
seen as a superstar who refuses to turn his back on his roots. And
none appeared to begrudge him his success.
Each year, they said, Sosa returns to the plaza, embraces the
co-workers he left behind and asks each one to tell him their
problems. He distributes food to the poor and donates heavily to
Dominican charities. Last year, officials here say, Sosa gave 250
computers to the Dominican school system; he has pledged an
additional 40 for each home run he hits this year.
"But the most important thing Sammy Sosa has given this town
is the gift of hope," Municipal President Jimenez said. "For us, it
doesn't matter who was the first to hit 62 home runs or even who
finishes the home run contest in first place this year.
"For us, Sammy Sosa already has achieved more than anyone
here could imagine. He has taught us that nothing is impossible."
Copyright Los Angeles Times