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The Kansas City Star

Sosa Aims For Hero Clemente In Greatness, Generosity


March 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved. 

Before Sammy Sosa was a home-run hitter, he was a dreamer. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, he heard the men talk about Roberto Clemente -- the greatest Latin player of all-time.

Sosa wanted to be Clemente -- to be the best. When he was just starting out in the major leagues, Sosa had goals bigger than one good season, or even a good career.

"He talked about Roberto Clemente a lot and how good he was," said Jeff Pentland, who worked with Sosa as the Cubs' hitting coach and is now a member of the Royals' staff. "He wears his number (21). That was very important for him and a driving force for him -- to be the best Latin player in the game ever."

Sosa is halfway home. As proud as he is of his 499 career home runs, he's prouder of being the pre-eminent Latin-born player in baseball today.

"No question," Sosa said. "I've become someone to follow. I really am very proud of myself because everybody coming from the Dominican wants to be like me. Not only Dominicans, but a lot of people in America, too."

Many Latin players have tried to earn the title as best ever. Tony Perez was a cornerstone of the Big Red Machine. Tony Oliva was well on his way to surpassing Clemente until a knee injury derailed his career. Oliva, who has heard himself compared with the late legend, said it's impossible to rank Clemente and Sosa.

"It's hard to make comparisons because these are different times, and they both are different players," Oliva said. "Both are great ballplayers."

Sosa is a role model in other Latin countries as well. His metamorphosis from strikeout-prone prima donna to personal friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton began in 1998.

Sosa, tapping his chest and smiling into TV cameras, captured the baseball world's heart during his home-run battle with Mark McGwire. Even though he lost the race 70-66, Sosa put verve and fun into the historic competition, loosening up the more reserved McGwire. Together, they forged an important comeback for baseball from the 1994-95 strike.

"I think Mark and I in '98 were motivation for everybody," Sosa said. "It was something that people really appreciated at the time because it was a record that had stood for 37 years. Mark broke the record and I was right behind him, and I think we made a lot of people happy. It was a moment I'm never going to forget. It was beautiful for everybody."

McGwire has since retired, but Sosa continues to perform wonderfully. He's the only player in major-league history -- not McGwire, not Ruth -- to post three 60-plus home run seasons.

When asked his opinion on the best Latin-born player of this generation, Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez didn't hesitate.

"Popularity-wise, I would say Sammy Sosa," Gonzalez said. "Young-age big-league player, maybe Vladimir Guerrero. Pedro Martinez kind of falls in the middle. These guys are all very popular and considered kings in their countries."

Or make that country. All three are from the Dominican Republic, the most prolific provider of professional baseball talent.

Sosa, born in San Pedro de Macoris, had his own models as he developed.

"Juan Samuel, Pedro Guerrero, George Bell, Alfredo Griffin -- I had so many players ahead of me that I looked up to, and they motivated me every day, every time," he said.

When he first broke into the bigs with Texas, Sosa was more prone to strike out than homer. But when Oliva saw him play, he knew Sosa had what it took. Sosa honed his talent, and by the 1990s he was a bona fide superstar.

In Pentland's view, Sosa motivated himself to greatness.

"He's one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, I've ever had," Pentland said. "He never missed a day of cage work or batting practice. He really enjoyed the work. It was something he did to make himself better, but then again, he did it because he liked it.

"He was making a lot of money with Chicago, and he could have more or less taken it and been satisfied with how good he was, but he decided to try to be one of the best players in the game."

And, like many Latin players, he uses his wealth to help at home through his own foundation.

"I love to help people," Sosa said. "I still run the clinic for the foundation. We vaccinate hundreds and hundreds of people every day. Every opportunity we can get to help any family with any problem -- medical problems, house problems -- anything, we take care of that."

"So, really, it's an opportunity that God gave to me to take care of, so I'm really very happy about it because I get to take care of so many people."

Oliva said Sosa's desire to bring something back to Latin America brings him closer to Clemente.

"He does a lot of things for his country, the same thing Clemente did for his country (Puerto Rico)," Oliva said.

The Sammy Sosa of today is indeed a happy man.

"That's my charisma," he said. "To come here and be happy and play great. To have everything I was working for. What else can you ask?"

When McGwire ultimately won the home-run duel in 1998, Sosa was quick to congratulate Big Mac.

"One of the things he said was: `Mac is No. 1 in the United States, and I'm No. 1 in Latin America,' " Pentland said.

Will Sosa someday be considered the best ever from Latin America?

"History," said Pentland, "will tell us."

Wright Thompson of The Star contributed to this story.

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