Sosa returns home to his countrymen
SAN PEDRO de MACORIS, Dominican Republic - Sammy Sosa
returned home 66 times this season. That, at least, is how many times
he stamped on home plate after hitting baseballs out of ballparks.
But Tuesday he really came home.
The Chicago Cubs slugger was greeted by tens of thousands of his
countrymen in the Dominican Republic, recently ravaged by Hurricane
Georges. They stood dozens deep by the roadside, some barefoot in
the mud, eager for a glimpse of their national hero.
By the time he spoke his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris Tuesday
night, he was five hours late because of traffic delays from the airport in
Santo Domingo. No matter: Thousands had waited in the soft rain.
Sosa cried as he told a story about growing up in poverty and once
begging for money to buy his mother a gift - a single cigarette. He
promised then that someday he would be able to give her all she would
''I'm crying for happiness,'' Sosa told the crowd as he wept. ''I'm a
person touched by God.''
Sosa said the celebration was far beyond what he had felt in Chicago
the day he hit his 62nd home run. ''They don't have anything bigger than
when I returned to my country and the people said, 'I love you,
Sosa spoke for about 10 minutes and was interrupted several times by
ovations from his countrymen.
''I feel very happy and honored that my people are on their feet, waiting
for me,'' said Sosa, who will be in the Dominican until Oct. 29 and then
return to the USA.
''It is the first time a Dominican has been applauded by people in the
United States. It is amazing that a person who is not from that country
could steal the hearts from the American people. I am happy and proud
to be Dominican.''
Those were the twin emotions of the day: happiness and pride.
''BIENVENIDO A TU PAIS, SAMMY,'' said one of hundreds of
handmade signs. ''Welcome to your country, Sammy.''
President Leonel Fernandez, who had declared Tuesday a national
holiday in honor of Sosa's return, was among the crowd that welcomed
him warmly at the airport in Santo Domingo.
Fernandez will name Sosa a ''Roving Ambassador to the Glory of
Sport'' on Friday when the president presents the slugger with the
nation's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Duarte,
Sanchez and Mella at a ceremony in the National Palace.
''After suffering the effects of Hurricane Georges,'' Fernandez said, ''we
know what it felt like for the teams facing Sammy Sosa to feel the force
of Hurricane Sosa.''
Sosa established a foundation to raise funds for hurricane relief last
month, as his season wound down. San Pedro provincial Mayor Sergio
Cedeno said Tuesday that Sosa sent home three planeloads of food
and medical supplies.
''For being a humble person who has reached the hearts of many
people . . . he's the best ambassador we could have to show the
disaster that has stricken us,'' Cedeno told The Associated Press.
Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, the former San Francisco Giants pitcher
who is director of sports in the Dominican Republic, presented Sammy
with a plaque. ''I feel great,'' said Marichal on his 61st birthday. ''Today
is my birthday and Sammy returned to my country on my birthday. It's
a great gift.''
The gift was his presence.
''Sammy is not someone for what he gives away,'' said motorcycle taxi
driver Luis Alex. ''He's someone we hold here inside,'' pointing to his
heart, ''for what he gives as pride.''
Sosa wore a tailored brown suit and yellow tinted glasses and was
accompanied by his wife Sonia and his mother Lucretia. The 25-mile
motorcade from Santo Domingo to his hometown of San Pedro would
normally take about half an hour. The crowds and traffic mobbing the
two-lane roads stretched the trip into two hours. As Sosa left the
airport tarmac in a black Humvee, he stood on the back of it
surrounded by five bodyguards, with his jacket off in the falling rain.
On the trip home he could see homes with their roofs stripped off and
uprooted palm trees marooned by the roadside. But reminders of
misery were not what this day was about.
It was a day of flag-waving celebration in a tiny Caribbean nation. The
people chanted and tooted horns and waved Dominican flags as they
danced by the side of the road. Windshields were painted with
greetings. ''SOSA, CRISTO TE AMA,'' read one sign. ''Sosa, Jesus
Fitzgerald Astacio, 34, spent four hours in the traffic jam while driving
from his home in Santa Domingo to San Pedro for the Sosa
celebration. ''We survived a hurricane,'' he said. ''Now he's coming
back and bringing a happy life to San Pedro. Everybody loves him.''
In San Pedro, merengue music filled the streets where so much sorrow
flowed only weeks ago.
The Cubs outfielder made his name this summer when he and St. Louis
Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire assaulted the single season
home run record set by Roger Maris in 1961. Maris had broken Babe
Ruth's record of 60 set in 1927.
McGwire broke Maris' record before Sosa got there and finished with
70, four more than Sosa. But Sosa, already a star in Dominican eyes,
burst into international prominence during the epic chase. After the
season, he got a parade in New York. He threw out the first pitch at
the first game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
But it was Tuesday, as Game Three of the Series was played in San
Diego, that Sosa got his most heartfelt homecoming in San Pedro, city
of his youth.
Scooters swarmed around the procession and Sosa stood through a
sunroof, smiling in the rain. The noise swelled when he stopped outside
his old barrio, called the Jarro Sucio, or Dirty Jar, to give the salute
baseball fans have come to know so well: a thump of the chest and a
two-fingered V-for-victory sign.
San Pedro's seaside boulevard was lined with palm trees before
Georges took many of them down on Sept. 22. Thousands in San
Pedro lost their homes, and many are still waiting for electricity and
water. Nationwide, the storm killed at least 283 people and left
It was against that terrible backdrop that Sosa hit the final home runs
his dream season.
Alfredo Griffin, a former major league shortstop who is also from San
Pedro, said that Tuesday was the first day since the hurricane that he
saw smiles on people throughout the Dominican Republic.
''He brings happiness to the country,'' said Griffin. ''If you look at
people here, there are a lot of poor people. This makes people forget
about their problems and enjoy life.''
Griffin was asked when was the last time he could remember a
Dominican player bathed in so much adulation. Griffin just shook his
''Never,'' he said.
By Carrie Muskat, Special for USA TODAY
Contributing: Erik Brady and wire reports