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Monday, September 10, 2001
Another nation's pastime
By Jimmy Roberts
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on ESPN.com on Sept. 16, 1998.

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- From sea to shining sea, the breathless chase of history has captivated a nation. The most revered and well-known record in sports fell not once, but twice in the space of just one week. Mark McGwire may have gotten there first, but he can't claim all the fans.

There are two things you can say with absolutely certainty about this tiny Caribbean nation 800 miles south of Florida. The level of poverty is extreme, and so too is the love of baseball.

What then would it mean for a Dominican to hold the most prestigious of all records.

"That's what Sammy is," said Omar Minaya, Mets assistant GM. "The hope he has given to so many people, so many people from all parts of the world that may come from Third World nations like Sammy has."

Scores of major leaguers have sprouted here from the ragged fields and garbage strewn alleys. Successful ones like Juan Marichal, George Bell and Pedro Martinez.

But Sosa has commanded a special affection, which isn't only about home runs.

When the local fire department needed an ambulance, Sosa pitched in to help buy it. When the nation's school children lacked the necessary tools for a proper education, Sosa bought 250 computers, and 21 ended up in a school in his hometown.

"I don't remember any ball player before, did anything like that," said Elsa Wehr, principal of San Pedro de Macoris Public School.

And when the budding baseball stars of San Pedro de Macoris needed help, he stepped in, funding an academy that provides not only uniforms but equipment, and perhaps most importantly a place to sleep and eat three meals a day.

But more than any of the tangible things, there is something else. There is the pride he brings to nation as they watch their native son triumph. When the Cubs play, Dominicans gather everywhere to watch and live Sosa's dream.

But as much as baseball is part of the reason Dominicans seem to adore Sosa, it is important to remember that it is just that - a part of the reason. Sosa didn't even start to play baseball until he was 14, an age at which most players have developed their talent a great deal. Young Sammy had other responsibilities in the town square.

Like the poor today ... he sold fruit ... he washed cars ... he shined shoes ... anything to help his widowed mother support their family of plaza.

That was long before 30-30 plaza, Sosa's monument to 1993 -- the first year he hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases. It is dedicated to the shoe shine boys of San Pedro -- the plaque invites passers by to toss in coins for their benefit. The building itself houses the various enterprises in which Sammy has set up his siblings: a boutique, a hair salon, and of course, Club Sammy.

But what reminds people most that despite his success, Sosa hasn't strayed from his roots is this simple gesture. It has become a national salute, known by everyone: a symbol of Dominican pride.

In reality it is a personal message of love from a son to his far-away mother. As she sits in the house he built for her, watching him play -- too nervous to even hold a glass while he is at bat -- you need no interpreter to understand how she feels every time she sees it.

So much has been made of the home run duel and how it brought baseball back from a petulant and self-destructive abyss. And the pursuit of Roger Maris' record has created interest among thousands who might not have known the differene between a double play and a double dribble.

But others have had their eyes keenly trained on this chase, really before it even started. For them it hasn't been about restoring the reputation of the game, catching a magical prize or even about Mark McGwire.

It's about a man, and a country and the fact that for one summer at least, he made them forget about their troubles and feel good again.





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