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Chapter One: Humble Beginnings
The Dominican Republic occupies two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in the West Indies. The country of Haiti is located on the western third of the island. Puerto Rico is situated east of Hispaniola, and Cuba to the northwest. The Dominican has a population of just over 8,225,000 people, with more than 3,000,000 of them located in the capital city of Santo Domingo. The country occupies over 18,700 square miles and has a population density of 438 people per square mile. By contrast, the United States has a density of only 72 persons per square mile.
Agriculture is the Dominicans principal economic activity, with some 50 percent of the workforce employed within that industry. The primary cash crop produced for export is sugar cane, with fluctuating world prices often severely affecting the country's economy. The poverty level is usually quite high.
There is, however, one other constant that has always brought people of the Dominican, and people throughout Latin America, together. That is baseball. Without exception, baseball is not only the favored sport of the region, it is a passion. That's why there have been, and currently are, so many Latin American ballplayers in the major leagues. While kids in America can divide their sports dreams among baseball, basketball, football and, to a lesser degree, sports such as hockey, tennis, golf, and soccer -- youngsters in Latin America think only about baseball. They point to heroes such as Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal, and dream of duplicating or surpassing their deeds in the major leagues.
This was the atmosphere in which Sammy Sosa lived as he grew up.But in Sammy's case, there were always more important things than playing baseball in his early years, namely, making sure the family could get its next meal.
Samuel Peralta Sosa was born in the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris on November 12, 1968. He was the fifth of seven children born to Juan Montero and Mireya Sosa, a hardworking couple who wanted only the best for their growing family. In young Sammy's earliest years he followed the other kids around, playing in the fields, often running barefoot through the streets, and sometimes seeing as many horse-drawn carts as automobiles. But he was still too young to know about baseball heroes, and the fact that sports and education could pave the way to a better life.
But for Sammy and the rest of his family, things changed suddenly a short time later. When Sammy was just seven, his father died, and life quickly became a struggle just to survive. Mother and seven children lived in a home that was the equivalent of a one-bedroom apartment. Yet the cramped conditions only served to bring the family closer together and instill in them an iron will to overcome any and all adversities. Mireya Sosa began delivering food to workers at San Pedro's textile factories. She didn't make nearly enough money doing this, so the children chipped in as well. Young Sammy began shining shoes for the equivalent of twenty cents. He also sold oranges and washed cars. All the money he made went immediately to his mother, as did the earnings of the other children.
Sammy sometimes made as much as two dollars a day to help his family pay the bills and buy groceries. Ironically, he once washed the car of George Bell, another native of San Pedro de Macoris, who would become an outstanding player for the Toronto Blue Jays in the early 1980s. But Sammy still wasn't thinking about baseball. While kids in the United States were already playing Little League, wearing colorful uniforms and learning the game on neatly manicured fields, Sammy and many others in the Dominican were working day after day just hoping to make a few dollars. Later, when people would ask Sammy about the pressure of playing in the majors, he always looked back at his roots.
"Pressure is when you have to shine shoes and sell oranges just to make sure there's enough to eat at the next meal," he would say. "That's the real pressure."
As Sammy approached his teen years he still hadn't played any baseball. In fact, the first sport that drew his interest was boxing -- another sport that is popular in Latin American countries. When young Sammy put on the gloves and sparred with his friends, his mother became very upset. She didn't like to see her son being hit.
"He would tell me not to worry," Mireya Sosa said, "that it was nothing. And I would tell him, 'My son, for a mother it's a lot.'"
When he was about fourteen, one of his older brothers suggested he try playing baseball for the first time. He didn't have a glove, so he had to make do with an old milk carton turned inside out. It was apparent from the start that he had a feel for the game and some natural talent. And Sammy also remembered something else.
"I would see major league players from the Dominican, such as Joaquin Andujar, Julio Franco, and George Bell. They would build beautiful houses. People would come up to them. They were always in the middle of a crowd. And I can remember thinking it would be nice to live like that."
Andujar, Franco, and Bell all had success at the big-league level. There were others as well. Juan Marichal, from Laguna Verde, was known as the "Dominican Dandy." He was a 20-game winner as a pitcher for the Giants in six different seasons and retired with 243 victories. In 1983, just as Sammy was beginning to develop as a player, Marichal was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Then there was Rico Carty, who also came out of San Pedro de Macoris. Carty played for fifteen years, retiring in 1979. He batted over .300 eight times, won the National League batting crown with a .366 average in 1970, and finished his career with 204 lifetime home runs. So there were plenty of role models in a baseball hungry country.
And, of course, all Latin American youngsters would eventually learn about the great Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Fame outfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. In the ensuing eighteen years, he would win four National League batting championships and help the Pirates win a pair of World Series championships. Clemente was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1966, and the Most Valuable Player in the 1971 World Series. He was a spectacular player on a par with the other great superstars of the day -- Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron.
On the final day of the 1972 season, Roberto Clemente was thirty-eight years old. He was still good enough to hit .312 that year, and in his last at bat of the season, he slammed the 3,000th hit of his career. By that time, Clemente was not only regarded as the finest Latin-born player ever to play in the majors, but was also known as a humanitarian who was anxious to contribute to his people. He already had plans to build an ambitious sports city in his native Puerto Rico, a place that would stress both athletics and education to young people. Then, shortly before the new year, there was a horrendous earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente quickly organized a massive relief effort for those affected by the quake. On New Year's Eve 1972, he boarded a plane in Florida loaded with medical and food supplies. The plane took off, then tragically crashed into the ocean off San Juan, killing all aboard.
Though Roberto Clemente's life ended suddenly and tragically, his legacy lives on. He was so well regarded as a player that the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its rule that stated a player had to be retired for five years before becoming eligible. Clemente was voted in the following year and remains a role model for all the Latin players who followed.
So once young Sammy Sosa began playing baseball and learning about the game, there were plenty of role models for him to follow. When he joined the Chicago Cubs years later, he would request uniform number 21 as a lasting tribute from him to Roberto Clemente.
As a baseball player, Sammy didn't become an instant star. Though he could soon hit the ball a long way, he often swung and lunged at bad pitches. His arm was powerful, but his rocket-like throws from. the outfield would often sail over the backstop or into the crowd. Every game was an adventure for the youngster. Yet it didn't take long for those in the know to realize that Sammy had real talent. He played on local teams for more than two years. Then, in July of 1985, a man named Omar Minaya found out about him. Minaya, a scout for the Texas Rangers, was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in New York. At the time, he was coaching for the Texas Rangers' Class-A team in the Gulf Coast League.
One day Minaya received a call from another Rangers scout, Amado Dinzey. Dinzey told Minaya that there was a skinny, sixteen-year-old kid in the Dominican who had a big bat and a live arm. He asked Minaya to fly down and take a look at the kid, since he was unsigned and still available. Minaya arrived in the Dominican and soon learned that Sammy was working out at a camp run by the Toronto Blue Jays in Santo Domingo. He contacted Sammy and arranged for him to take a bus to Puerto Plata, where Minaya would take a look at him.
Sammy borrowed an old uniform from a friend and then took the four-hour bus ride to Puerto Plata. When he got off, Omar Minaya couldn't believe his eyes. The youngster he had traveled so far to see was wearing old pants, a faded red baseball jersey with holes under the arms, and baseball shoes that also had holes in them. In fact, Minaya thought the shoes looked older than Sammy. But he soon noticed something else. "He [Sammy] got off that bus ready to hit," the scout said.
Though Sammy was already about 5'10" tall, he was very thin at about 150 pounds. Minaya noticed that as well.
"He almost looked as if he was malnourished," the scout said. "I noticed some of the balls he hit to the outfield. They'd run out of steam, and to me that was malnourishment. But I noticed something else even more, Sammy's bat speed. And there was another thing. I sensed something inside him, a kind of fire. Right from the start you could see how aggressive he was."
Even Sammy remembers his swing back then. "It was crazy," he admits, looking back, "all long and loopy."
But Minaya was a shrewd evaluator of talent, and he was willing to look closely at the whole picture before him. It was apparent the youngster enjoyed playing, that he wanted to play. He decided to take a chance. He went to Sammy's home and spoke with the whole family. He told them the Rangers wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent. His initial offer was a $3,000 bonus. Sammy asked for $4,000, and they compromised at $3,500.
To the Sosa family, $3,500 must have sounded like a lot of money. Life had been so difficult that Sammy knew he had to take a shot, had to do it for his family. He signed a contract and gave nearly all the money to his mother. His only indulgence was to buy a bicycle, the first one he had ever owned.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Gutman