Elias Sosa

This article was written by Rory Costello

Elias SosaRighty Elías Sosa was a useful reliever for eight different big-league teams. He appeared in 601 games at the top level from 1972 through 1983. He posted 83 saves, with a high of 18 in both 1973 and 1979. Though Sosa was never a big strikeout pitcher, “he’s got a good fastball and excellent slider,” said one opponent, Ted Simmons. “He comes at you.”1

The Dominican’s delivery featured a kick, modeled after that of his boyhood idol and future teammate, the great Juan Marichal. Sosa learned it in high school from the man who scouted them both, Horacio “Rabbit” Martínez. “I couldn’t kick as high and still can’t,” said Sosa in 1973, “but from then on I used that kind of a windup.”2

Elías Sosa Martínez was born on June 10, 1950, in La Vega. It is a large city in the Dominican Republic and the capital of La Vega province in the center of the nation. The names of Sosa’s parents are not at present available, but his father worked in gold mines as a mechanic.3 Elías was one of nine children.4

Sosa grew up in Bonao, a city in what is now Monseñor Nouel province (which was split off from La Vega in 1982). “We played with taped-up balls,” he recalled in 1973. “Until I was 13 or so I had to play barehanded. Then I got hold of an old small glove.” Sosa attended Liceo Elías Rodríguez in Bonao. There he played volleyball as well as baseball.5

“Pitching in the big leagues was my dream,” said Sosa, “but I always thought it would be impossible for me.”6 He got his first foot on the ladder when Horacio Martínez signed him for the San Francisco Giants in 1968. The bonus was $2,000.7 Martínez had been a slick-fielding shortstop in the Negro Leagues and various Caribbean leagues in the 1930s and ’40s. Hall of Famer Alex Pómpez, who had employed Martínez with the New York Cubans, went to work for the Giants in 1950 (when the team was still based in New York). Pómpez hired Martínez as a bird dog, and Rabbit helped to bring in the first wave of Dominican major leaguers – men like Marichal, the Alou brothers (Felipe was also a hero to Sosa), and Manny Mota.

Sosa’s first professional season, with Salt Lake City in the Pioneer Rookie League, was rough. In eight games (five starts), he was 0-5 with an 8.00 ERA. Wildness was a problem – although he struck out 15 batters in 18 innings, he walked 14. He also gave up 33 hits.

In the winter of 1968-69, Sosa made his debut in Dominican winter ball. He joined Leones del Escogido, one of the nation’s two longest-running clubs. The 18-year-old must have been nervous. He faced two batters, walking one, hitting the other, and throwing two wild pitches. It was his only appearance that winter. He went on, however, to pitch in 10 more seasons at home. Seven of those were with Escogido.

Sosa’s next two minor-league seasons appeared nondescript on the surface: 0-3, 5.33 and 6-8, 4.96. Yet his promise was evident: he reached Double A briefly in 1970 and cut down markedly on his walks.

Sosa spent all of the 1971 summer season at Class A with Fresno of the California League. He continued to develop, posting a 12-9 record with a much-improved 3.32 ERA. The latter mark ranked second in the league, and he also received honorable mention as a league all-star.

The following year, Sosa jumped to Triple-A Phoenix. There the Giants organization focused him on the bullpen. In his first four years as a prospect, Sosa had started in 44 of his 86 games. With Phoenix, just four of his 55 outings were starts. He was 10-2 with a 2.93 ERA. He benefited greatly in spring training that year from the tutelage of the Giants’ minor-league pitching coach, Gordy Maltzberger.8

Thus, when the rosters expanded in September 1972, Sosa got his first call to the majors. He never pitched again in the minors until he made a brief comeback 15 years later.

Sosa’s first appearance as a big leaguer came on September 8 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The Houston Astros had knocked starter Jim Barr out of the box in the third inning, and when Sosa entered, there were runners on second and third with two outs. He got Doug Rader to ground out to shortstop and then pitched a scoreless fourth inning. He pitched seven more times over the rest of the season, picking up saves in his last three outings.

The 1973 season was one of Sosa’s best. He finished in a tie for third in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year. (The award went to teammate Gary Matthews.) He pitched in a career-high 71 games, which tied the franchise record set by Hoyt Wilhelm in 1952. “I like to pitch almost every day,” said Sosa that August. “I feel strong. I don’t mind pitching four or five days in succession.”9

Sosa won 10 games, which was also a career high, and his 18 saves led the Giants. Among other things, he appeared in the same game as his hero Juan Marichal for the first time on April 15, and got his first of two saves for Marichal on May 28 (the other came on July 20). With his good sinker, Sosa gave up just seven home runs in 107 innings. Over the course of his big-league career, opponents homered against him once every 14.3 innings.

Sosa got into 68 more games with San Francisco in 1974. Though he had nine wins, his save total dropped to six. Shortly after the ’74 season ended, the Giants traded Sosa and catcher Ken Rudolph to the St. Louis Cardinals for another catcher, Marc Hill. Jerry Donovan, assistant to Giants President Horace Stoneham, called Hill “the best young catcher in baseball.”10 The Sporting News wrote that the Cardinals were “trying to add some muscle to their relief corps.”11

St. Louis general manager Bing Devine called Sosa “one of the topflight relievers in baseball” and went so far as to put him in the same class as iron man Mike Marshall, who was then at his best.12 Bill Madlock, who went on to win the first of his four batting titles in 1975, agreed.13

Sosa’s first wife, Stephanie Berner, was a native of San Francisco. They had two children: a son named Brandon and a daughter named Anjelica. Sosa thought that Stephanie would like St. Louis.14 Yet he didn’t stay there long enough to find out. On May 28, 1975, the Cardinals traded him and Ray Sadecki to the Atlanta Braves for Ron Reed and a player to be named later (who turned out to be Wayne Nordhagen). Braves general manager Eddie Robinson said, “While we hate to give up Reed, we felt that we should get a good left-handed pitcher and a relief pitcher.”15

Sosa’s stay in Atlanta was also rather brief, just over a year, and mediocre. A couple of months after he joined the Braves, he entered manager Clyde King’s office, apologized for his performance, and promised better things. “And he’ll deliver too,” said King.16 That did eventually come true, but not with the Braves. On June 23, 1976, they sent Sosa and Lee Lacy to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Though Los Angeles acquired their contracts for cash, the transaction was related to another deal, for none other than Mike Marshall. Earlier that month, the prickly Marshall had openly criticized his teammates’ fielding. A group of Dodgers went to general manager Al Campanis and asked him to trade the 1974 Cy Young Award winner for the good of the team.17 Marshall was put on waivers, and the Braves claimed him for $20,000.18

Six days later, against Atlanta at Dodger Stadium, Sosa got one of his most memorable saves. LA was leading 2-1 when manager Walter Alston summoned him with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth – and with a 3-and-1 count inherited from Charlie Hough. “I told him not to try to aim the ball,” said Alston, “but just cut loose as hard as he could.” Sosa got Rod Gilbreath to hit into a game-ending 5-2-3 double play. “I can’t remember being in a spot like that before,” said Sosa. “But I’m happy it turned out that way. I like to do a job whenever I pitch. I went up there with the idea of throwing a fastball to the plate to make him hit it. As soon as he did, I knew it was a double-play ball.”19

Tommy Lasorda, who was then the Dodgers’ third-base coach, had a funny line. “That’s like getting caught red-handed robbing a bank with 18 guys shooting at you, and still getting away with the money.”20 Lasorda knew Sosa from his days as Escogido’s manager in the 1970-71 season. They’d also been on opposing sides of a war of “duster” pitches.” It started when Lasorda was managing Escogido’s archrival, Licey, in the 1972-73 season – and carried over to Los Angeles vs. San Francisco in 1973. As a result, Lasorda and Giants manager Charlie Fox got into a fight.21

Lasorda, who became LA’s manager at the tail end of the ’76 season, used Sosa sparingly in the first half of 1977. He got more action down the stretch, though, and was quite effective overall (2-2, 1.98 in 44 games). An amusing moment came on September 17, when Lasorda invited comedian Don Rickles to put on a Dodgers uniform and sit in the dugout. The Dodgers were up 5-1 in the ninth inning and Sosa was on the mound when Lasorda decided to have a little fun. He sent “Mr. Warmth” (wearing number 40 but no name) out to the mound to give the pitcher the hook. Sosa wouldn’t leave, telling Rickles, “You’re not the manager; you’re not even a coach. You can’t pull me out of the game.” Home-plate umpire John McSherry then came to the mound, said, “I’ll be damned, Don Rickles,” and proceeded to ask for tickets to a Las Vegas show. After that, Sosa set the Braves down in order to finish the game.22

That year Sosa made it to the postseason in the United States for the first time. In the National League Championship Series against Philadelphia, he pitched twice, taking the loss in Game One. He also got into two games in the World Series. In Game Six at Yankee Stadium, he gave up the second of Reggie Jackson’s three home runs that night. “I wanted him to throw a strike on the first pitch, try to get ahead,” recalled “Mr. October” in 1993. “He threw me a fastball right down Broadway.”23 Reggie had an idea what to look for because he got on the phone to Yankees scout Gene Michael as soon as Sosa came in.24

The month after the World Series, Los Angeles signed reliever Terry Forster as a free agent. Thus, the well-traveled Sosa was soon on the move again. “They [the Dodgers] told me I wasn’t going to be No. 1 in the bullpen under any circumstances. So I told them, I wasn’t going to sign under any circumstances. I took it personally. I wasn’t asking for a lot of money, not the kind they paid [Forster].” Sosa set up an arbitration case, but Al Campanis got mad and refused to go to arbitration. Los Angeles promptly put Sosa on waivers, and on January 31 the Pittsburgh Pirates – the team that Forster had left – acquired the Dominican.25

Before Opening Day, however, Sosa was traded again. On April 4 he went with countryman Miguel Diloné and a player to be named later (Mike Edwards) to the Oakland A’s; Pittsburgh reacquired the very popular veteran Manny Sanguillen. Pirates GM Pete Peterson said, “Diloné didn’t have any options left and he didn’t want to play in this organization. And with Sosa, we felt at the time, based on what he showed in spring training, well, we weren’t that impressed with him.”26

Yet as it turned out, Sosa was in good form with Oakland in 1978: 8-2, 2.64 with 14 saves. That August, Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke – an outspoken critic of Campanis and Lasorda – said, “He’s sticking it to them now. I bet they wish they had him back.” Sosa himself was gracious, saying, “I am not mad at anybody. To me, the Dodgers were the best organization in baseball when I played with them and they’re the best organization in baseball today.”27

That November, Sosa became a free agent. Interest in him was high; the maximum 13 teams selected him in the re-entry draft. In January 1979 he signed a five-year contract with the Montreal Expos for $1.2 million. Montreal’s general manager, John McHale, had hoped to sign both Mike Marshall and Sosa. After Marshall signed with the Minnesota Twins, though, McHale focused on Sosa. Jack McKeon, who had managed Sosa in Oakland for most of 1978, had joined the Expos to manage their Triple-A club in November. He filed a positive report.

“McKeon said that Sosa is definitely at his best when the game is on the line,” said McHale. “He said that Sosa had a tendency to be less effective in a two- or three-run ballgame but that when the games were at stake, then he was a helluva pitcher.” McHale had received other good reports – including one from Felipe Alou, who was then managing Montreal’s Double-A team in Memphis.28

Not long after the signing, Sosa himself said, “There’s more than money. I wanted to go to a team that has a chance to win the pennant. I think the Expos are a good young team.” He added, “I like cold weather. I’ve pitched in Oakland and San Francisco and I’ve been very successful in the cold. I can pitch just about every day in the cold.”29

Sosa’s longest period with one team in the majors ensued. The 1979 season was his best overall. He was 8-7, with a 1.96 ERA, a career-low WHIP of 1.18, and just two homers allowed in 96⅔ innings pitched. He matched his big-league high with 18 saves; that number also led the Expos, who came in second behind the Pirates in a hard-fought race for the National League East title. Expos beat writer Ian MacDonald commented, “He did all that could have been asked as their main stopper in the bullpen.”30

Sosa dropped off to just nine saves in 1980, though, as Montreal turned more to 40-year-old Woodie Fryman in those situations. Sosa’s ERA looked good at 3.07, but late that summer, Ian MacDonald wrote, “The Expos were hoping desperately for Elias Sosa to become consistently solid. Too often, Sosa was flashing top form after a stray pitch had permitted a previous pitcher’s runners to score.”31 Sosa himself acknowledged, “I’m not concentrating as I did last year. … When a pitcher doesn’t concentrate he loses his rhythm. When that happens he makes mistakes and he gets hurt.”32

In May 1981 Montreal obtained hard-throwing young reliever Jeff Reardon, which reduced Sosa’s role. The Expos made it to the postseason for the only time in that strike-split season. Sosa pitched twice in the divisional series against the Phillies, and after the Expos advanced, he made one brief appearance in the championship series against the Dodgers.

Sosa, who had skipped winter ball for five straight years after the 1975-76 season, returned in the winter of 1981-82. He joined Estrellas Orientales and spent two seasons with that club.

The Expos and Sosa parted ways near the end of spring training in 1982. Personal reasons were a big factor. His wife, Stephanie, was not happy in Montreal and had often said she wanted to be closer to family business interests in Phoenix. Sosa also said that his income tax was much more than he was told it would be. It all added up to the desire for a fresh start. He said, “You don’t want to spend your life working in the same place. You have to move around and you have to make changes. You change your car and you change your house. The Expos are a good team and a fine organization … [but] I simply think that it is time for a change. My arm is strong. I have never been injured. I can help a team.”33

“We will not trade Sosa just because he wants to be traded,” said John McHale.” When and if we trade Sosa it will be to benefit the Expos.”34 Soon thereafter, though, he was sent to the Detroit Tigers in a cash transaction. Detroit pitching coach Roger Craig said, “I haven’t seen him pitch in a while. But I know he throws everything hard. He has a good hard curve and hard slider. I also know he can take the ball a lot, he can throw almost every day – if need be.”35

Sosa spent just one undistinguished year in Detroit. The most telling statistic was that he allowed 11 homers in 61 innings pitched. Shortly after that season ended, the San Diego Padres purchased his contract. Two of his backers were in San Diego: The manager was Dick Williams, Sosa’s skipper with the Expos, and the general manager was Jack McKeon.

During Sosa’s 12th and final season in the majors, he got into 41 games with the Padres. In the nightcap of a doubleheader on August 29, he made his last of just three starts in the majors, going five innings and getting no decision. He got his 59th and last big-league win on June 19 at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. His final big-league save came at New York’s Shea Stadium on September 4.

Sosa concluded his winter-ball career in the winter of 1983-84, pitching in 17 games for Azucareros del Este. Over his 11 seasons in the Dominican League, he pitched in 175 games, starting 18 of them. He won 21, lost 28, saved 25, and had a 3.64 ERA in 366 innings pitched. His teams made it into the league playoffs in four years, reaching the finals twice, but Sosa never had the fortune to play for a champion at home.

Sosa became a free agent again after the 1983 season but did not attract any offers. San Diego released him in mid-February 1984, but his original team, the Giants, invited him to their camp as a nonroster player.36 That didn’t pan out, and so, at age 33, Sosa retired as a player.

Three years later, at age 37, Sosa made a comeback. The San Jose Bees, an unaffiliated team in the California League, signed him in May.37 The Hardball Times later described this club as “part Japanese farm team, part independent league, and part … well, I don’t know what the third part was, but it was fun.”38 Quite a few former big leaguers suited up for the Bees in 1986 and ’87.

Sosa got into three games with San Jose, allowing 12 hits and nine walks in 6⅓ innings. He also pitched in the summer of 1987 for Yucatán in the Mexican League – notably, all eight of his appearances came as a starter. He went 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 50 innings.

Sosa served as a minor-league pitching coach for the Expos in 1988 and the Braves in 1989, but he still wasn’t quite through pitching himself. When the Senior Professional Baseball Association began play in the fall of 1989, he joined the St. Petersburg Pelicans. He was effective as a swingman, posting a record of 3-4 with a 2.90 ERA in 59 innings pitched across 20 games. The Pelicans were the SPBA’s champions in the league’s only full season. He returned to St. Petersburg for the second season, but the SPBA folded in late December 1990.

Sosa remained active in baseball as a minor-league pitching coach at various levels with at least two other different organizations, the Giants and Cardinals, until 2000. He became a member of El Pabellón de la Fama del Deporte Dominicano – the Dominican Sports Hall of Fame – in 2001. That year, he also joined Major League Baseball as coordinator for the Latin American division of MLB’s International Baseball Envoy program. The job led Sosa to travel extensively throughout the region – even to destinations one would not normally associate with baseball, such as Guyana.39

On his profile page at LinkedIn.com, Sosa stated, “We send coaches to work with Baseball Federations. We also conduct seminars for coaches covering topics including physical development, baseball instruction, player motivation, character development, teamwork and sports medicine. Our program includes classroom instruction followed by practical application on the field.”

A quote from 2008 captured Sosa’s feelings about his work. He said, “I have been very fortunate in my career. I just feel strongly that at my age I still haven’t done enough to help. Doing this job brings me so much happiness and satisfaction. … I feel that I need to give and help build kids’ skills and work ethic. If I can help, by using baseball as a means to inspire a kid to become a better player and citizen of his country, then it’s all worth it. Who knows, I may help someone who will become a major-leaguer someday.”40

At some point around 2016, Sosa departed his envoy position.41 He and his second wife, Robin Trent (whom he married on December 9, 2012), make their home in Matthews, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte.

Last revised: October 29, 2022

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Treto Cisneros, Pedro, ed., Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V.: 11th edition, 2011).

history.winterballdata.com/ (Dominican statistics).

LinkedIn.com.

Facebook.com.

 

Notes

1 Neal Russo, “Simmons-[Al] Hrabosky Duo Off-Season Hit on Radio,” The Sporting News, February 1, 1975: 38.

2 Pat Frizzell, “Giants Getting Big Kick Out of Sosa’s Work,” The Sporting News, August 25, 1973: 7.

3 Neal Russo, “Nothing So-So About Sosa’s Love for New Card Pals,” The Sporting News, January 11, 1975: 30.

4 Neal Russo, “Sosa Says St. Louis Is ‘Wish Come True,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 24, 1974: 10.

5 Frizzell, “Giants Getting Big Kick Out of Sosa’s Work.”

6 Ibid.

7 Russo, “Sosa Says St. Louis Is ‘Wish Come True.’”

8 Frizzell, “Giants Getting Big Kick Out of Sosa’s Work.”

9 Ibid. Gary Lavelle broke the franchise record for appearances in 1977.

10 Associated Press, “Cards Obtain Elias Sosa, Ken Rudolph,” Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, October 15, 1974: 10.

11 “Giants’ Sosa, Rudolph to Cardinals for Hill,” The Sporting News, October 26, 1974: 21.

12 Neal Russo, “Devine Defends His Deals, Gloats Over Sosa,” The Sporting News, November 2, 1974: 15.

13 Bob Hallstrom, “Madlock Elects Cardinals as Team to Beat,” Decatur Herald, November 7, 1974: 25.

14 Bob Broeg, “Fans Will Get a Kick Out of Sosa,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1975: 13.

15 United Press International, “Braves Trade Reed to Cards,” Pocono Record (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania), May 29, 1975: 14.

16 Wayne Minshew, “King Sees a Rainbow in Atlanta Gloom,” The Sporting News, August 30, 1975: 14.

17 United Press International, “Braves Obtain Marshall from L.A. for Lacy, Sosa,” Fremont (California) Daily Argus, June 24, 1976: 17.

18 Gordon Verrell, “Dodgers Bid Marshall Adieu Without a Kiss,” The Sporting News, July 10, 1976: 11.

19 United Press International, “Dodgers’ Sosa Preserves Win,” Van Nuys (California) Valley News and Green Sheet, July 1, 1976: 59.

20 Gordon Verrell, “[Rick] Rhoden Dazzles as All-Star Scholar,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1976: 10.

21 Melvin Durslag, “A Duster Artist,” The Sporting News, August 25, 1973: 7.

22 Like many such stories, this one has been told in a variety of ways over the years. Don Rickles with David Ritz, Rickles’ Book (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 221-222. T.J. Simers, “Don Rickles Is a Hotter Ticket Than the Dodgers,” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2011. Mark Langill, Dodger Stadium (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 63.

23 Mike Lupica, “Reggie’s Triple-Header,” New York Daily News, April 19, 1993: 160.

24 Bruce Lowitt, “Mr. October Lives Up to Star Billing,” Tampa Bay Times, November 28, 1999: 46.

25 Bruce Isphording, “New Pirate Sosa Raps Move by L.A.,” Sarasota Journal, March 24, 1978: 10C.

26 Ed Rose Jr., “Peterson Insists Trades Weren’t Bad,” Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times, May 24, 1978: C-1.

27 United Press International, “Ex-Dodger Sosa Is Now Mainstay of A’s Bullpen,” Galveston Daily News, August 11, 1978: 30.

28 Ian MacDonald, “Expos Give Pitcher Sosa Five-year Pact,” Montreal Gazette, January 9, 1979: 17.

29 Ian MacDonald, “‘More than Money’ Says Newest Expo,” Montreal Gazette, January 20, 1979: 24.

30 Ian MacDonald, “Expos Redouble Hunt for Hurlers,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 48.

31 Ian MacDonald, “Sun Always Shines for Expos’ [Bill] Gullickson,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1980: 41.

32 Ian MacDonald, “Big 3 a 4-Star Show on Expo Hill,” The Sporting News, October 4, 1980: 7.

33 Ian MacDonald, “Elias Sosa Unhappy in Montreal; Asks Trade So He Can Start Again,” Montreal Gazette, March 2, 1982: C2.

34 Ibid.

35 Associated Press, “Tigers Acquire Reliever Sosa from Expos,” Poughkeepsie (New York) Journal, March 31, 1982: 40.

36 United Press International, “Sosa Reports to Giants,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), February 23, 1984: 58.

37 “San Jose Bees Sign Elias Sosa,” San Bernardino (California) Sun, May 17, 1987: 43.

38 Brandon Isleib, “Weird History: 1987 San Jose Bees,” The Hardball Times, August 27, 2010.

39 “MLB Coach to Conduct Training in Georgetown,” Guyana Times, April 26, 2014.

40 Raymond Sarracino, “Charlotte Resident Elias Sosa Tours with U.S. Southern Command All-Stars in Latin America,” press release, U.S. Southern Command Public Affairs, Panama City, Panama, May 1, 2008.

41 Telephone conversation, Rory Costello with Chris Haydock (international development director, Major League Baseball), December 4, 2018.

Full Name

Elias Sosa Martinez

Born

June 10, 1950 at La Vega, La Vega (D.R.)

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