Just hours before the World Series began at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, New Yorkers welcomed an out-of-town hero like one of their own.
Tens of thousands of fans, many of them Dominican-Americans, roared cheers at Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa as the city treated him to a parade through the "Canyon of Heroes" in lower Manhattan.
Dominican flags were waved to honor one of the Caribbean nation's favorite sons, and fans yelled "Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!" as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave Sosa a key to the city.
"It's a great thing for baseball and for the people of New York," said Richard Viera, who wore a Yankees cap and an American League champions T-shirt. "Even though we're Yankees fans, we still want to give our support."
Sosa's 66 home runs and his record-breaking race with Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals electrified the baseball season. Although McGwire finished with 70 home runs, fans said Sosa's good sportsmanship, humility and devotion to his community made him a perfect role model. Roger Maris of the Yankees had held the previous record of 61 home runs since 1961.
"A lot of people portray Hispanics, particularly Dominicans, as the kid on the corner selling drugs," said Margie Bermudez, of Jersey City, N.J. "We need someone positive, and right now Sosa's there, to show ... we have ambition, we have dreams. ... A lot of poor kids, he gives them ambition to do more for their lives."
Sosa waved to the crowd as a float carried him up the same stretch of lower Broadway where New Yorkers have saluted Charles Lindbergh, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, veterans of the Gulf War, Nelson Mandela and the 1996 World Series champion Yankees.
Parade-goers waved signs proclaiming their love for Sosa in English and Spanish, and a singer on one float bellowed "Viva Sammy Sosa!"
"It's been unbelievable, it's been a great moment," a soft-spoken Sosa told hundreds of cheering, flag-waving fans who gathered in City Hall Park to see him receive the key to the city. "To be here in New York with all the Dominican people, that's what I am."
Sosa was scheduled to throw out the first ball at the World Series Saturday night, and Gov. George Pataki gave him the Jackie Robinson Empire State Freedom Medal Saturday morning.
Giuliani, a lifelong Yankees fan, presented his favorite Cub with a New York City jacket, a copy of the city's seal and a proclamation declaring Saturday "Sammy Sosa Day." In return, Sosa gave the city a bat that deputy mayor Rudy Washington said was the one that hit home run 66.
"Sammy Sosa's achievements go beyond the 66 home runs," Giuliani said. "His achievements have more to do with what an exceptional human being he is and what a tremendous representative of the Dominican community."
Giuliani offered to throw Sosa a parade in the Canyon of Heroes after officials nixed Domnican community leaders' hopes of feting him in the Washington Heights neighborhood, where many of the city's half million Dominican immigrants live.
Washington Heights residents excitedly followed Sosa's spectacular summer and were especially grateful for his efforts to help those who were displaced when Hurricane Georges hit the island.
The parade "brings Washington Heights downtown instead of keeping us isolated uptown," said Jesus Abikaram, a Dominican immigrant who works as an insurance agent.
But a town that takes its baseball seriously would only go so far to honor a Cub whose own city did not give him a parade. Chicago may be Sammy's kind of town, but the police band that led his parade played "New York, New York."
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed