Sosa Given Hero's Welcome

Greeted by a crowd of thousands that included his country's president and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, Sammy Sosa finally returned home Tuesday.

"I feel very happy and honored that my people are on their feet, waiting for me," said Sosa, in the Dominican Republic for the first time since his 66-homer season.

"To see that in the United States they applauded a Dominican makes me happy and proud to be Dominican."

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On a day of national celebration, President Leonel Fernandez was among the throng to cheer the Chicago Cubs slugger as he emerged from a private jet at Santo Domingo's international airport.

"After suffering the effects of Hurricane Georges, we know what it felt like for the teams facing Sammy Sosa to feel the force of Hurricane Sosa," Fernandez said.

Also in the receiving line on a rainy day was Marichal, the great San Francisco Giants pitcher who is now the Dominican sports minister.

Before Sosa arrived, cars with windshields painted "Welcome Sammy" and "Go Sammy!" jammed the two-lane highway from the capital to the airport. Thousands more fans took free bus rides to welcome Sosa, who has become an idol like none this Caribbean nation has known.

"He scrapes, he gives his all, it's the Dominican style!" gushed Maximo Sosa, a fan who is no relation to Sammy.

Since the season ended, Sosa received the keys to New York City, threw a ceremonial first pitch in the World Series and raised money for hurricane victims. In his homeland, he had a winter league season named for him and will receive the nation's top medal.

After his stopover in Santo Domingo, Sosa headed for San Pedro de Macoris, his hometown 40 miles east of the capital, where a victory procession and merengue party awaited.

In San Pedro, the seaside boulevard was lined with palm trees before Georges smashed them Sept. 22. Thousands lost their homes, and many are still waiting for electricity and water.

Nationwide, the storm killed at least 283 people and left 100,000 homeless.

Sosa's final home runs became Dominicans' only cuse for celebration after the storm, even though Mark McGwire took the crown with 70 homers.

San Pedro provincial Mayor Sergio Cedeno said Tuesday that Sosa sent home three planeloads of food and medical supplies.

"For being a humble person who has reached the hearts of many people ... he's the best ambassador we could have to show the disaster that has stricken us," Cedeno said.

The government also has diplomatic plans for Sosa. Fernandez planned to name him a "Roving Ambassador to the Glory of Sport" when he presents him with the nation's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Duarte, Sanchez and Mella, at a National Palace ceremony Friday.

But Sosa's most precious gift to Dominicans was one that couldn't be quantified.

"Sammy is not someone for what he gives anyway," said motorcycle taxi driver Luis Alex, who wears black batting gloves on both hands, just as Sosa does.

"He's someone we hold here inside," Alex signaled to his heart, "for what he gives as pride."

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