Ever since his career with the Cubs began to take off, American journalists seeking deeper truths about Sosa have been traveling to San Pedro de Macoris, a city that produces more major-league baseball players, per capita, than any city in the world. What they quickly realize is that San Pedro, like Sosa, is never still.
Cars and motorcycles blaze through intersections with little regard for traffic laws or traffic lights, and in the shadow of Estadio Tetelo Vargas -- the concrete baseball stadium that was constructed to be the city's heart -- barefoot children with dirty faces and just a few pesos to their names sell oranges and sugar cane. At night, many of them sleep on dirt floors.
Congress of this fact when he was called to testify. As a boy, he shined shoes in the Parque Duarte, the city's main park, and washed cars and sold fruit, candy and cigarettes for anyone who would hire him. He rarely knew where his next meal would come from.
Though many have tried, no writer has documented this time in Sosa's life better than Julio C. Malone, a journalist and author who, like Sosa, was born in the tiny Dominican village of Consuelo, just five miles from San Pedro de Macoris. Malone, who now lives in New York and writes a weekly column that is published in many Spanish newspapers, lived in San Pedro de Macoris and worked for a radio station during much of Sosa's childhood.
He can remember seeing Sosa in the northeast corner of the park, carrying the wooden box that held his shoeshine brushes -- a sight that gave Malone a unique perspective when he sat down to write a book about Sosa's life and the history of Dominican baseball in the summer of 1998. An English edition of the book, Sammy Sosa in 9 Innings, was recently published.
"One of the wonderful things about living in poverty -- and believe me, there should be something wonderful about it for all its heartache -- is that it exposes you to extreme difficulties," Malone says. "It isn't until you get to the bottom of the pit that you find out who you really are."
The true bottom is not easy to pinpoint, however, when so much of your life is full of despair. Sosa's father, Juan Batista Montero, died of a brain hemorrhage when Sosa was 7 years old. His mother, Mireya Sosa, remarried a truck driver named Carlos Peralta, but his two children from a previous marriage, when combined with Sosa and his five siblings, meant there were now 10 mouths to feed. Mireya prayed each day, asking for God's help, and made what little extra money she could by selling food to San Pedro factory workers.
"She is everything to me," Sosa says. "She is the reason why I am here playing baseball. I wanted to help my mother so much. My family went through so many hard times, and that motivated me."
In San Pedro de Macoris, the Sosas were among the city's poorest residents, but they also considered themselves lucky. The family managed to secure a one-room apartment in an abandoned public health building, just across the street from Estadio Tetelo Vargas. Homeless people had settled there after the government left it empty, and the Sosas were able to secure a tiny room, thanks to a friend. Malone describes in his book how the heat and the mosquitoes were often unbearable in the windowless rooms, and that residents would nearly "boil in their own sweat" on the hottest summer nights. There was no electricity either, though sometimes at night, the lights from the baseball stadium across the street would fill their home.
"That room is the place," says Luis Sosa, Sammy's older brother, "where everything came together for us."
"That was the first time, I think, we started to talk about something bigger," Sosa says.
There was no denying or hiding his raw talent from anyone. Certainly not once he started practicing and started dreaming of being the next Roberto Clemente. Mireya Sosa would cook rice and beans for her family, still Sosa's favorite food, and Sosa would get a larger portion in hopes that it would help him put on weight. He wasn't big, but he attacked the ball like a hungry animal when he swung the bat, and soon, people took notice. Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, has known Sosa since he was 12, and he has a simple story for people who ask him whether he thinks Sosa used steroids.
"When Sammy was just a skinny kid, he weigh maybe 145 pounds, and I saw him hit a ball 390 feet over the fence," Bernhardt says. "Everyone knows Sammy's power is natural. In the Dominican, we say it comes from the yucca and the sugar cane. In America, you have your hamburgers and hot dogs, but in the Dominican, we have mucho bananas to eat instead."
Though current Mets general manager Omar Minaya is often credited with discovering Sosa, the truth has more layers than the legend. Sosa originally signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, but his contract was voided when the scout was fired and it turned out Sosa was only 15, too young by baseball's rules. A year later, in 1985, it was Texas Rangers scout Amado Dinzey who begged Minaya to come take a look at the young prospect, who was working out at a camp sponsored by the Toronto Blue Jays. Minaya, who thought Sosa was malnourished, offered him $3,000 to sign a contract with the Rangers. Sosa countered by asking for $4,000. The two sides haggled, though not for very long, before agreeing to split the difference at $3,500.
With some of that money, Sosa bought a bicycle. He gave the rest to his mother. Soon, he was earning enough playing in the minor leagues to buy a small plot of land in the Barrio Mexico, one of San Pedro's poorest slums. On that land, Sosa eventually built a one-bedroom house with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Mireya Sosa's eyes still well up with tears when she tells this story.
"It's very hard to describe the way I felt," she says. "When he built that house, he said, `Mami, I'm going to get you a better house than this one. But this is the one I can buy you right now. I promise you, as soon as I get more money, I'm going to buy you a mansion.'"
That modest house in Barrio Mexico is standing today -- unlike the public health building, which was torn down years ago -- though Sosa (who has large houses in La Romana, Santo Domingo and Miami) is no longer its owner. The cement walls have been painted pink and white, and the roof is peeling away. Still, it's in better shape than most of the houses in the neighborhood. There are no street signs, but a woman walking by with her young children tells visitors the calle, or street, is named Uruguay.
An old woman at the house answers a knock at her door, but politely declines a visitor's request to see the inside, see the home that Sammy Sosa built. She is very poor, but she is also proud. It's not that she doesn't want to talk. She does not own any chairs for people to sit on.
Worried, yet brash
A man of meager beginnings, Sammy Sosa won over the baseball world and then lost it
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