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.