Soriano on-deck hero in land that made Sosa

Alfonso Soriano followed Sammy Sosa out of this region of sugar fields and into the hearts of Cubs Nation, the current favorite of so many fans who once adored his fellow Dominican slugger at Wrigley Field.

This year's Cubs playoff run could signal another succession, this time along the lush southeastern coast of this baseball-mad Caribbean island, where the two players' childhood homes are 15 miles apart.

The low-key Soriano has not achieved Sosa's mythic status in San Pedro de Macoris -- yet. That could change if the speedy leadoff hitter stars in a historic title run by the long-cursed Cubs.

Despite the problems that led to Sosa's unpleasant departure from the Cubs in 2004, he retains a reserve of goodwill in San Pedro because of his larger-than-life personality and generosity to poor children. A statue of Sosa in Cubs pinstripes remains a landmark in the 30/30 Plaza that he built.

"We still love Sammy, but he will soon be of the past," said Jesus Nolasco, a student of baseball history and childhood friend of Sosa's who said he used to wash cars next to Sammy's shoeshine stand.

"Soriano has the chance to replace Sosa as our idol, like he did in Chicago," he added. "If he can win the championship, we would give Soriano a big party here."

The Dominicans threw quite a bash in 1998, when Sosa socked 66 home runs for the Cubs, joining Mark McGwire in surpassing a longtime record. This nation's president led the celebration as jubilant fans joined Sosa's motorcade for the 40-mile trip from Santo Domingo's international airport to San Pedro.

Soriano, in Arizona preparing for Wednesday's playoff opener, said Tuesday that his role model growing up was a different San Pedro native: five-time All-Star Tony Fernandez.

"He was a middle infielder, I was a middle infielder," Soriano said. "He could hit, field, throw, run -- all the things you need to do to be a great ballplayer. I wanted to be a great ballplayer, so I tried to play like he did.

"Sammy Sosa? Everybody knew who Sammy was, paid attention to Sammy," Soriano said. "I had already signed in pro ball when he had the great homer year with Mark McGwire in '98. But I followed it and I was proud of him because he was my countryman. There are a lot of great ballplayers from the Dominican, and he's one of the best."

San Pedro produces the most major-league players, per capita, of any city in the world, so residents are used to superstars in their midst. They want their heroes to be more than just great athletes. The word that comes up, time and again, is humilde. Humble.

The apparent majority who still love Sosa recall times when he would pass out Christmas baskets of food in the rough-and-tumble Barrio Mexico where he grew up.

Few seem bothered that Sosa was branded a cheater for using a bat filled with cork to help the ball fly farther. Others brush aside rumors that Sosa amassed his gaudy statistics with the help of steroids.

Jose Luis Paulino, who played one year at the White Sox academy here, said Dominicans will give players a second chance.

"That corked bat didn't go over well around here," he said. "But for that we aren't going to judge him and say that he's not our hero anymore."

Still, Sosa started suffering nicks to his public image. Some grumbled at the lavish birthday parties with guests from Hollywood's A-list. This city of 125,000 is like a small town, and residents convey secondhand accounts of Sosa neglecting to shake hands at a restaurant, for example.

Sosa also drew criticism for what some considered a limited response after Hurricane Georges in 1998. Even the 30/30 Plaza shopping center began falling apart.

Abrahan "Frank" Solano helps run the Rico Carty Foundation, a charity started by the former major leaguer to provide San Pedro's children with transportation, food and medicine.

Solano, who coached Sosa as a youngster, said he thinks his philanthropy was sincere but that he eventually found it tough to stay grounded as his fame grew.

"When you start hanging out with Jennifer Lopez and Bill Clinton, you can't expect to remain an everyday person," Solano said.

Enter Soriano, from the Quisqueya settlement just outside San Pedro, who joined Sosa in the "30/30 club" by producing 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season, a rare combination of power and speed. That talent earned Soriano a $136 million contract, the richest deal in Cubs history.

Soriano responded with 33 home runs in his Cubs debut season, including a late power surge of 14 homers in September to help lead his team to the playoffs.

In contrast to the hops and kisses that mark Sosa's extroverted style, Soriano is a quiet, insular player who does most of his talking on the field. In a country where merengue music offers a daily soundtrack for life and citizens keep few of their passions under wraps, that personality has turned off some fans, Nolasco said.

"Sammy comes and he hugs the whole world," Nolasco said. "Soriano seems a little cold, even rude. He has the talent but he is still working on the personality."

But Arturo De Oleo, the assistant general manager for Estrellas del Oriente, San Pedro's professional team in the Dominican Winter League, said he and many fans actually prefer Soriano's less flashy approach to that of the showy Sosa.

"Sosa lost his popularity when he became 'The Great Sosa,' when he thought he was the king," De Oleo said. "Yes, it's true that Soriano doesn't like to talk much. But he is a simple and sincere person. He isn't a hot dog, and I think people accept that."

De Oleo, who has known Soriano since he was a teenage prospect, said the player is proud of his Dominican roots. He notes that Soriano tried to play last winter for the sad-sack Estrellas, the nation's equivalent of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but was overruled by Cubs management worried about protecting its investment.

Residents say they are poised for something special with Soriano taking center stage in the playoffs. Other Dominican athletes, such as David Ortiz of the Red Sox and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, reached another strata of popularity here after winning titles.

Although Sosa famously called Wrigley Field "my house," the foundation's Solano said Dominican players want most to be loved in their homeland, not on their home field.

"For Chicago, these players are just passing through," Solano said. "They really belong to us."