Sammy Sosa was honored during a special Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Friday, the start of a visit to New York in which he is also to be the star of his own parade.
At the Spanish-language Mass to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal John O'Connor awarded the Medal of John Paul II to Sosa and four others who have been active in the Roman Catholic Church.
Sosa hit 66 home runs for the Chicago Cubs this season and captured the nation's imagination with St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire in their race for the home run title. Both shattered the major-league home run mark of 61 that had stood since 1961 with McGwire hitting 70.
Sosa, from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, was especially popular in Dominican neighborhoods in New York City where he is regarded as a hero.
A parade taking Sosa through the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan was scheduled for Saturday afternoon and he was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.
Inside St. Patrick's on Friday, Sosa was given a standing ovation by many of the 1,000 or so worshipers as he received the medal for his sportsmanship and charity efforts. Several people waved Dominican flags.
Sosa, dressed in a dark suit, gave his trademark gesture in which he taps his heart, kisses his fingers and looks skyward in a silent salute to honor his mother.
After awarding him the medal, the cardinal placed a red skullcap, called a zuchetta, on Sosa's head. It was similar to one worn by the cardinal.
"Once you were a little Cub," the cardinal told the slugger, "now you are a big Cardinal."
In a brief speech, Sosa said that the idea that he -- who as a 7-year-old shined shoes and washed cars in the Dominican Republic to help his family survive -- could be honored with a medal from the cardinal was difficult to fathom.
"I never thought there would be a day like this," he said in Spanish. "But it shows that if you keep going, you can accomplish anything."
Sosa, who still lives in the Dominican Republic, has bought ambulances and founded a baseball academ near his hometown. After Hurricane Georges ravaged the island nation last month, he led efforts to provide food and medical supplies to victims.
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