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Sosa Makes Latin Quite a Bit Easier to Understand

September 25, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

Juan Samuel. Jose Offerman. Jose Vizcaino. Jose Gonzalez.

In my previous life as a baseball writer, I covered dozens of players from Latin America.

In the beginning, I couldn't say I knew any of them.

Stan Javier. Pedro Guerrero. Pedro Martinez. Pedro Astacio.

I spent hours at their lockers, on their bench, behind their batting cage, trying to understand these strangers with the friendly smiles and incomprehensible pasts.

In the beginning, I couldn't say I knew any of them.

I rarely quoted one. I rarely made one the focal point of a story, because I could never understand exactly what their story was, and most of them didn't speak enough English to fill me in.

Alfredo Griffin. Alejandro Pena. Mariano Duncan. Omar Daal.

In the beginning, I couldn't say I knew any of them.

Then one winter I traveled to Puerto Rico. The next, to the Dominican Republic.

I worried that the players, like their American counterparts, would be upset to see a reporter during vacation.

Instead, they were thrilled.

"I can't believe you came," catcher Benito Santiago told me. "Nobody ever comes."

They invited me into their tiny childhood homes, showed me their poverty-touched stories, opening my eyes to the length of their journey, the difficulty of their task.

I'll never forget the stench of the open sewer that seemed to run through the tiny apartment of the mother of then-rookie Jose Offerman.

I'll never forget the look of longing on the faces of the countless barefoot and rope-belted kids who entered the Dodgers' Dominican Academy, a place so important it was guarded by a man with a gun.

And I'll never forget the revelation offered me by the family of then-youngsters Ramon and Pedro Martinez after I spent a delightful afternoon with them in their matchbox home on an unpaved road.

Did you know, the family said, that Ramon's first year in professional baseball was the first time he had ever used a flush toilet?

I realized, if a Latino player is quiet, maybe that doesn't mean he is moody, merely overwhelmed.

If he plays recklessly, maybe that doesn't mean he is a showboat, only worried about losing his job and returning home.

And after being consistently misunderstood in fractured Spanish, I will never again be so quick to quote fractured English.

After each trip, I flew home thinking everybody who has ever had a misconception about a Latin American player should see this.

Well, this summer, everybody finally has.

Thank you, Sammy Sosa.

The home runs have been nice, the history has been neat, but more compelling has been the face he has helped give a long-misunderstood baseball minority.

More important has been the barriers of ignorance that he has helped break on their behalf.

"He has shown America that Latin players can be nice guys," Cub first baseman Mark Grace said. "That Latins are, you know, regular people."

Although Sosa charmingly downplays his role in this regard, the only sound louder than a line drive off his bat is the shattering of stereotypes.

"Sometimes, people believe certain things about Latin players," said Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster. "Sammy, I'm so proud of him, he's such a positive image for everyone."

While such Latino stars as Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez--among many others--have proved the narrow-mindedness of such stereotyping, it is Sosa who has shown the world.

Baseball people said Latinos were free swingers, hacked at everything. You couldn't build an offense around them because nothing was more important to them than that swing.

Oh, yeah? Sosa still strikes out a lot, more than anybody in the league. But his on-base percentage is better than that of Cub leadoff hitter Lance Johnson, he is batting above .300, and he consistently engages in situational hitting that puts the wild-card race ahead of the home run race.

Baseball people said Latinos were undisciplined in other parts of their lives. Every team should hire an old Latino coach--put him in the bullpen or at first base--simply to make sure the young Latinos didn't blow their money on women or cars.

Oh, yeah? Sosa has been the model family man, playing with his children before games, allowing 13 Dominican relatives to stay in his Chicago condo last weekend even though the Cubs would have paid for a hotel room.

Baseball people said Latinos had a low pain threshold. If a hamstring injury would sideline an American-born player for a week, managers assumed it would be a month for a Latino player.

Oh, yeah? Sosa fights through every ache and pain, sometimes limping around the bases, never complaining, played in 155 of 159 games, leads the Cubs in that category too.

Baseball people said Latinos would never fit in, period. They were to be given lockers in the same corner of the clubhouse, allowed to live in their own little world, made to translate for themselves.

Oh, yeah? Sosa has learned the language, assimilated brilliantly, his new words only enhancing his old personality.

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