But then, all of a sudden, circumstances jolted Sosa into the international limelight.
The ever-grateful Sosa always deferred to the frontrunner, calling McGwire, a redheaded native of southern California, the man to break the Ruth-Maris record.
In late September, Sosa was slugging his way into baseball's legendary inner sanctum, and also leading the Cubs to a rare post-season appearance, when Hurricane Georges ripped through a dozen Caribbean nations.
By leveraging his baseball fame to help relieve the suffering of victims of a natural disaster, Sosa is following in the footsteps of his idol, the late great Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
Like Sosa, the Carolina, Puerto Rico, native never forgot his modest origins as the son of a sugar plantation worker, nor his role as a representative of his people.
Four years old at the time, Sosa grew up on the nearby island of Hispaniola admiring Clemente, a Latin American whose stature transcended his achievements on the field.
Last August 31, a night game in which Sosa hit his fifty-fifth homerun, my first glimpse of this broad-shouldered figure with brown skin and white Cub uniform and the number 21 on his back sent chills down my spine.
At season's end, after the Cubs were swept by the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs, Sosa turned his attention to raising money for hurricane victims--going from the Chicago City Council, where he suggested maybe he'd run for alderman someday, to national television talk shows.
October 18 was "Sammy Sosa Day" in New York City, home to a huge Dominican emigre population.
Three days later, Sosa finally managed to make the long-awaited return home to see, among other things, that relief was actually getting to the victims.
Cubs general manager Ed Lynch doesn't sound worried that Sosa might burn himself out only one year into his four-year deal.
The physical resemblance between Sosa and Clemente has been apparent to Rodriguez for years.