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Dominican Diamonds

In the Dominican Republic, Baseball Isn't Just a Pastime--It's an Obsession
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

On a baseball diamond in San Pedro de Marcoris, a port city on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, a tall, skinny kid digs a shoe into the hard dirt of the batter's box. He wiggles his bat menacingly over his head a few times and stares at the 15-year-old pitcher with the good fastball. The kid takes a ferocious cut just as the first pitch explodes into the catcher's mitt with the sound of a rifle shot. His swing forces his helmet to fly off, spilling out three baseball caps that were stuffed inside.

"Murio! Murio!" ("He's dead! He's dead!") a few players yell from the infield. Unfazed, the kid picks up the old helmet, a large crack stitched with heavy twine visible on one side. He restuffs the caps, replaces the helmet and cocks his bat. He swings and fouls the next pitch past the smoldering trash heap behind home plate. The ball rips through a couple of dirty palm fronds before it lands in a vacant lot about a hundred yards away. Instantly, two small boys bolt over to the lot, their bare feet somehow missing the rocks, sharp twigs and broken glass. The players use the down time to stretch and chat until the boys find the ball and throw it back to the pitcher.

The kid misses the next two pitches, and like ballplayers everywhere vents his disgrace on the poor helmet, slamming it to the ground in disgust. Immediately the team manager rushes out, picks up the helmet by the third base line and turns to scream mercilessly at the batter, sending his player sulking to the dugout. It turns out it's the only batting helmet available to both teams, and here in the Dominican Republic, where baseball is religion and resources are precious, mistreating the equipment is a sacrilege.

Baseball is played everywhere in the country, but one of the best places to experience béisbol Dominicano is in San Pedro de Marcoris, an hour's drive from the capital of Santo Domingo. This grungy city of dirt streets, donkey carts and chaotic traffic doesn't look as if it would attract much interest, but it's a nerve center for Dominican baseball. About 20 major league teams in the United States and Canada have training centers here.

The town has its share of famous residents. Although Madonna immortalized San Pedro in her hit song "La Isla Bonita," ask anyone in town where the rock star lived and you'll likely get a blank stare. But stop any kid on the street and ask directions to George Bell's house and he might take you there himself. When Bell comes home after a season of playing ball (most recently with the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox), he's back at his electric-fenced estate in San Pedro, just a line drive from the house of his brother, Juan, who was in the Boston Red Sox organization. In the middle of the winter, when snow is piling up in the cold stands of Comisky Park and Fenway Park, George and Juan can be seen shagging flies on a field outside of town.

The Dominican Republic is well known for exporting two world-class products: handmade cigars and professional baseball players. In major league baseball today, one out of every six players is from Latin America, the majority from the Dominican Republic. Baseball has been the national sport in this country since the late 1930s, when it was imported from the States, and over the years the development of raw talent has steadily improved. Many major league teams now have academies, or training schools, in the Dominican Republic, where young prospects are housed, fed and taught the fundamentals of baseball. Professional scouts comb the countryside looking for the next Juan Marichal, Jose Mesa or Tony Peña.

At a training academy in the tiny town of Mendoza, a 20-minute ride from downtown Santo Domingo, Montreal Expos scout Fred Ferreira leans against the wire backstop and watches a hot young prospect taking batting practice on a hot February morning. The field is well maintained and, except for the donkey eating grass behind a dugout, you'd think you were in Anytown, U.S.A. Some of the players are in official Expos uniforms and some are wearing red T-shirts with Expos marked on them, distinguishing the signed players from the tryouts. The other dugout is filled with locals who have come to watch the action.

Ferreira, a former minor league infielder in the Red Sox system, has signed 25 players currently playing in the major leagues. He talks about scouting in the Dominican Republic: "We get recommendations from everywhere. It could be from a doorman or an elevator operator. I never say no to a prospect; you have to look at that kid. You can't always evaluate someone on what you see initially. Some of these kids are so poor they may not have the correct shoes on, or they may have two different sizes. You see a kid catching ground balls with the worst piece of leather you ever saw, but give 'em a nice glove--comfortable, soft--and you see a better player come along. You're projecting."

About 30 players on the field are taking part in an intersquad game. Ferreira has his attention on a big 19-year-old center fielder named Vladamir Guerrero, who he says is one of the highest-rated prospects in baseball. Guerrero didn't look good his first two at bats, and as the big kid steps into the batter's box for the third time, Ferreira glances over his shoulder at his boss, Jim Beatty. A former pitcher for the New York Yankees, Beatty is now the Expos' general manager. He's at the camp to evaluate players, and Guerrero is high on his list. On the next pitch, Guerrero launches a missile high and deep into the Dominican sky, sending it soaring over the left field wall. A few spectators gasp as the ball lands somewhere over the horizon.

Ferreira glances back at Beatty and the two exchange smiles. Ferreira, who is also the Expos' director of international operations, turns and tells a visitor, "Here's a kid from the Dominican Republic who, two years ago, was playing with made-up baseballs, made with tape, whatever. He's got talent, great poise, great composure. He's only 19, and people are saying he's going to finish the season in the big leagues this year. We consider him our superstar of the future." (Ferreira's instincts were on the mark. After winning the Class AA MVP in the minors, Guerrero was called up to the Expos in September.)


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