In July 1986, a few months after Sammy Sosa’s pro baseball career began, the Dallas Morning News reported from Sarasota, Florida:
Sammy Sosa doesn’t miss anything about his home in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
In March, he left the three-room house with no indoor plumbing that he shared with nine other family members.
He left desperately hoping to find a future.
Having dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work 12 hours a day in a shoe factory, Sosa’s only chance is baseball.
Major league scouts report that young Dominican players looking to escape their impoverished homeland, where the per capita income is $1,300 a year, are the most driven of all Latin players. Puerto Rico, by contrast, has a per capita income of $12,000 per person.
“In terms of demands, there is no comparison,’ says Luis Rosa, the Latin America scouting coordinator for the Texas Rangers, whose responsibilities include Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “You could sign most Dominican kids for the price of a visa and $1,000. Kids from Puerto Rico, for example, begin by demanding the sun and the moon.’
San Pedro de Macoris, a port city of 128,000 on the Dominican Republic’s southeast coast, has produced 11 of the country’s 25 current major leaguers. Sammy Sosa, a 5-11, 170-pound outfielder, dreams only of joining Pedro Guerrero, Joaquin Andujar, George Bell, Carmen Castillo, Mariano Duncan, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Alfredo Griffin, Stan Javier, Rafael Ramirez and Juan Samuel in the major leagues.
Sosa, who has shown his skills in Dominican camps run by the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays, signed his first contract with the Phillies. He was 15.
Dominican players must be 17 before they can sign. The Phillies’ scout, who has since been fired, planned to hide Sosa until he turned 17. But when the scout was fired, Sosa found himself a man without a connection.
Omar Minaya, the Rangers’ scout responsible for the Dominican Republic, heard about Sosa and legally signed him for this season.
Sosa, who turned 17 in November, signed with the Rangers for $3,500. He has spent this season playing right field for the Sarasota Rangers in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. Like all his teammates, Sosa earns $700 a month. What money he has left at the end of the month is sent home.
Sosa’s signing bonus went to buying a 10-year-old Toyota van the family planned to convert into a taxi. Unfortunately, the van proved to be too old and too weary. The Sosas sold it for $100.
“It was God’s will,’ Sosa says. “What can we do?” Sosa answers his rhetorical question. “We can work harder.”
No one, Sarasota manager Rudy Jaramillo says, works harder than Sosa. Jaramillo mentions Sosa in the same sentence as the touted Juan Gonzalez when discussing his team’s top prospects.
“Why not?” Sosa says. “If I don’t try to take someone’s job away from them, they will keep it and I will have to go home.”
Three years later, Sosa was a big Rangers prospect, playing for the Tulsa team. The Tulsa World took a look at his status in June 1989:
Of all the gifted prospects the Texas Rangers have assembled in a flourishing farm system, Sammy Sosa has perhaps the most uncertain future.
At 20 and in his fourth year as a professional, Sosa is the leading hitter on the most talented team the Rangers have ever assigned to Tulsa. He is the fastest player in the organization, a good outfielder and has a powerful and accurate arm. Sosa is the prototype rightfielder. However, that is the position of the Rangers’ Ruben Sierra, 23, and blooming into one of the American League’s better players. Sosa has been told he might play centerfield. Driller Manager Tommy Thompson thinks Sosa can be a major league centerfielder. So does Sosa.
But centerfield is the position of Sosa’s 19-year-old teammate Juan Gonzalez, the Rangers’ most raved-about prospect. Before Gonzalez turned 18, veteran scouts predicted he would be the Rangers’ centerfielder for 10 years.
Where all of this leaves Sosa is anyone’s guess. He does not begin his days by looking at Texas box scores to see what Sierra did or end his days wondering if he should be playing centerfield or if his future is somewhere other than Arlington.
“My time is coming,” Sosa said. “I don’t worry. I will play wherever they tell me. I don’t know when I will get there. I don’t think it will be too long. I think it’s good that they don’t push me too fast. I don’t have a time when I think I will be there, but I will get there.”
The Dominican Republic native “can do everything, all he needs is some refining,” Thompson said. The one thing about Sosa that Thompson wants most to refine is a line drive swing.
Sosa’s baseball hero is Rickey Henderson of the Yankees. The Rangers think Sosa could become a Henderson-type hitter if he avoids lapses of swinging as though he wanted to be Jose Canseco.
At 6-0, 175, the right-handed batting Sosa has the body and skills of a leadoff hitter. He never hit more than 11 home runs but led two leagues in doubles and triples.
“He gets out of kilter and swings for home runs,” Thompson said. “We want him to keep that line drive swing and hit doubles. He might hit 15 home runs without trying and hit .280 to .320. By trying to hit home runs, he might still hit only 15 and hit .240.”
Sosa agrees and said he “is trying hard to keep my swing under control. I know I am not a home run hitter. I don’t want to hurt my batting average.”
Another habit Sosa must temper is his temper. After striking out swinging in his second time at bat in Thursday night’s doubleheader with Arkansas, Sosa slammed his bat to the turf. Thompson removed him from the lineup.
It was a low point of an 0-6 night by Sosa that saw the division leading Drillers lose both games and plunge themselves into a pennant race they once controlled. It dropped Sosa’s batting average under .300.
It was an a typical night for Sosa. This has been his best season. After hitting .275 and .279 his first two seasons, Sosa hit only .229 last year at Port Charlotte in the Class-A Florida State League.
Winter ball “really helped me,” spring training with the Rangers and buoyed by Sierra’s encouragement, Sosa has been hitting better here than Sierra did in 1985.
The only part of his game that is down is stolen bases. He had 42 last year.
Although on base considerably more season, he has but 15 stolen bases. Being caught 10 times explains why Thompson has not given Sosa the green light he had at Port Charlotte.
“I think he can steal 30, maybe 50 bases,” Thompson said. “But I don’t see him as a (Vince) Coleman who steals 80.”
Sosa said, “I’d like to steal more but he doesn’t give me the light.” He stressed he was not complaining.
“I feel good about everything this year,” Sosa said. “I like it here, I like this park and this is the best year I’ve had.”
He thinks his figures should improve, because he is a hot weather hitter. He said, “In my home in the Dominican Republic it never gets cold. I play winter ball in hot weather. I play pro ball in Florida. I never play in the cold until I get here. If I hit .300 now, I think I will do better when it gets hot.”
Sosa said he was not adept at hitting in rain, which he has seen a lot of this week. But a postponement Wednesday night gave him an opportunity to exercise another talent.
Sosa cooked a chicken dinner at his apartment for three members of the Arkansas team – second baseman Geromino Pena, rightfielder Jesus Mendez and shortstop Julian Martinez, his teammates in winter ball.
“I am a pretty good cook,” Sosa said. On minor league wages, he explained, it “helps” to be able to cook.
Sosa was traded to the White Sox for Harold Baines in the summer of ’89; the above stories are intended to show what he was like as a teenager and the kind of pressure that he probably felt to become a bigtime player who could bring home million-dollar salaries.