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Dominicans Give Sosa Highest Honor

October 23, 1998

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ Sammy Sosa received his nation’s highest honor Friday and had the winter baseball season dedicated to him as Dominicans set aside their cares a day.

Sosa mania still rules here in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges, which killed about 300 people and left thousands homeless on Sept. 22. His name, likeness and ``66″ _ the number of home runs the Chicago Cubs outfielder hit this year _ appear on T-shirts, car windows, caps, buttons, medals and other items.

President Leonel Fernandez awarded Sosa the Grand Cross of the Order of Duarte, Sanchez and Mella at a National Palace ceremony. He also named Sosa a ``Roving Ambassador to the Glory of Sport″ for his Caribbean country.

``Sammy’s exploits last season in the major leagues merit this and much more,″ Fernandez said.

``I am so proud of the way my people have treated me,″ Sosa said. ``I never thought that I could be the recipient of everything you have done for me in the past few days.″

Thousands of Dominicans gave Sosa a hero’s welcome on Tuesday after his return from the United States, where he had raised funds for hurricane relief after the season. The winter league season was dedicated to Sosa, who was to toss the first pitch Friday night.

Other Dominican big leaguers were honored by Fernandez including Moises Alou of the Houston Astros, Raul Mondesi of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox, Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos and Expos manager Felipe Alou.

Sosa’s popularity has produced a souvenir sales boom and some vendors are calling him ``Sammy Claus.″

``It’s incredible,″ said Miguel Ogando, a street-corner T-shirt salesman. ``Yesterday I sold more than 100 Sammy T-shirts and today I’ve sold 40 and it isn’t noon yet.″

Ogando said Sosa-related sales were outstripping souvenirs of Pope John Paul II’s 1992 visit to this predominately Catholic country.

``My home was badly damaged in the hurricane, but without him knowing it, Sammy has allowed me to earn enough money to fix it,″ said Edgar de la Cruz, 34. He said he sold more than 200 medals featuring Sosa.

In Sosa’s hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, the baseball stadium was destroyed by the hurricane, leaving the local Estrellas Orientales team with no place to play. The same goes for another of the country’s six teams, La Romana’s Sugar Growers.

Residents say about 50 people would normally work at the San Pedro stadium and others make a living by selling goods outside during the season. The town also relies on sugar cane, but nearly 90 percent of that crop was wiped out by Georges.

``We survive on hope,″ said 16-year-old Isaias Ozoria Torres. ``The only person who can help us now is God above.″

Sosa sent three planeloads of food and medical supplies to his hometown according to San Pedro provincial Mayor Sergio Cedeno, who said he had received no government aid.

``For being a humble person who has reached the hearts of many people ... he’s the best ambassador we could have,″ Cedeno said of Sosa.

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