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Friday, April 4
Updated: April 5, 12:03 PM ET
 
Sosa becomes 18th player to hit 500 HRs

Associated Press

CINCINNATI -- As soon as the ball left the bat with an authoritative crack, Sammy Sosa knew he had it.

Sammy Sosa
Sammy Sosa waves to the crowd after hitting his 500th career home run.

Sosa became the 18th player to hit 500 career homers, connecting for a solo shot Friday night that ended a winter of waiting and three games worth of drama.

He raised his arms, took his trademark home run hop and ran the bases with his head down, providing the first truly historic moment in the Cincinnati Reds' new ballpark.

Relief accompanied his induction into an elite group.

"It's great because I don't have to think about it anymore," Sosa said. "I don't have to go up there every at-bat thinking of hitting the ball out of the park.

"I'm happy about it. There's still no time to celebrate because it's a long season. I've got to keep my focus."

For four games, everything was focused on Sosa, who spent the offseason knowing he needed only one swing to enter rare territory. He failed in three games in New York, which included one fly to the wall.

His wife, mother, brother and four close family friends accompanied him to Cincinnati, and watched him take some uncharacteristically poor swings in his first three plate appearances.

When he lined a 1-2 pitch from Scott Sullivan into the right-field seats in the seventh inning, he set of a tussle for the ball and got one of the loudest ovations in the ballpark's brief history.

At home plate, he pointed both index fingers toward the sky, then at his wife and mother sitting in a booth behind home plate.

"When I made contact, I knew the ball was gone and I'm like, 'Wow, I got it,'" Sosa said. "When I went to the plate, I pointed to the sky to show my respect to God."

The crowd of 29,048 continued its ovation until Sosa came out of the dugout for a curtain call -- a rarity for a visiting player.

A 22-year-old man scraped his knee and knuckles while coming up with the ball, which was at the bottom of a pileup. The fan gave the ball to the Reds for authentication, but wasn't sure what he was going to do with it.

"He's claiming somebody offered him $20,000 for it while in the scrum," Reds spokesman Rob Butcher said.

Sosa's wife, Sonia, got the ball from Butcher and held it for a few minutes before giving it back.

"I feel so proud of my husband," she said. "I feel like him right now -- it's so exciting, and God bless America."

Sosa doesn't care about what the fan decides.

"What matters to me is I got 500," he said. "He caught the ball. Whatever he wants to do with the ball, God bless him."

Sosa could be the first of four players to reach the milestone this year. Texas' Rafael Palmeiro has 491 homers, Los Angeles' Fred McGriff has 479 and Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr. has 469.

"I still have a lot more in my body, so I really don't know where I'm going to stop," Sosa said. "I want to just keep having consistent years the way that I have been. The pressure's off. Now I can come back and help the team and relax. I don't know where I'm going to stop."

He had an idea No. 500 would come at his latest stop. Great American Ball Park has been a hitter's haven in the first four games, surrendering 18 homers. The Cubs hit three and the Reds had three as they won 10-9 on Friday.

Sosa is a dozen homers short of former Cub Ernie Banks, who finished tied with Eddie Matthews at 14th on the list. Mel Ott had 511, and Eddie Murray is next ahead of Sosa with 504.

The 34-year-old outfielder reached the mark with one of the greatest home run surges in history. He raced Mark McGwire to the single-season home run record in 1998, finishing second with 66 while Big Mac hit 70.

Sosa kept on going, hitting 63 homers the next year and 64 in 2001. He has 293 homers in the last six years, putting him among the game's elite sluggers.

The sudden and sustained burst made Sosa only the fifth player to reach 500 homers before his 35th birthday. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays also were 34, and Jimmie Foxx was 32 years old.

"When he was a young kid, he got pushed around," Reds manager Bob Boone said. "He was a wild swinger, but he's made himself a great player. He's special.

"It was a special moment. It's too bad he couldn't have done it in Chicago against somebody else."

Like Aaron, Sosa also hit one of his milestone homers in Cincinnati, the home of baseball's first professional team.

Aaron hit the first homer at Riverfront Stadium when it opened on June 30, 1970. He hit the most historic homer in the stadium's history, tying Ruth at No. 714 in the season opener on April 4, 1974, by hitting a 3-1 pitch from Jack Billingham over the left field wall.

Exactly 29 years later, Sosa hit the first historic homer at Great American Ball Park, which has developed a reputation as a hitter's park in its first week. The Pittsburgh Pirates hit eight homers while sweeping the opening three-game series, and Sosa found the field's cozy walls an inviting target in batting practice.

His second swing sent one into the seats in right field. He later hit one over the batter's eye party room in center field, then slammed one off a catwalk over the Reds' bullpen in left-center.

Before the game, he spent a few minutes with Griffey, who has homered once in the new ballpark. Sosa didn't try to get any tips on how the ballpark played -- he preferred to learn firsthand.

"Once you've taken batting practice in a ballpark, that's enough," Sosa said. "You can take it from there."

That's what he did.

Flashbulbs went off during his first three plate appearances against Danny Graves, who nicked him with a pitch, then struck him out and got him to fly out.

That was no surprise -- Sosa is 6-for-24 career against the closer-turned-starter, and has never homered off of him. He's had a lot more success against Sullivan, who throws sidearm and left a fastball down but over the plate.

"He's unique," said Sullivan, who has given up four homers to Sosa. "Most power hitters like the ball up, but he can hit the low ball. He can go with it away. That's what he did tonight.

"It wasn't a terrible pitch. It was a decent pitch. Hitters like Sammy can hit a good pitch out."





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