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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

(continued from page 1)

O n a narrow dirt street in a poor neighborhood of San Pedro called Playa de Muerto (Dead Beach), a small group of kids, all about 10 years old, are playing a makeshift game of baseball with a tapa, a hat-shaped plastic top from a milk container. The pitcher, wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, has a handful of brightly colored tapas in his hand, and he pauses to wing one across the street. The disk sails through the air in a jerky motion toward a young boy holding a broom handle; the backstop is a bright purple wall covered with graffiti. Other boys are lined up to one side, waiting their turn to bat. The bottle top looks more like a flying saucer than a baseball, but most of the boys manage to connect with it, often sending the top flying into the trees.

From out of a nearby doorway, where older kids had been watching, a boy of about 15 steps over to the batter and snatches the broom handle out of his hands. He looks as if he stepped out of a rapper video: baggy black shorts, a single earring and a radical haircut. The top is thrown and the older batter smashes it over a wall on the other side of the street. The younger kids watch approvingly as the older boy struts in front of his friends in the doorway. When asked for his name, the boy replies with a smirk, "Sammy Sosa," as in the famous right fielder for the Chicago Cubs.

On a warm February night in Santo Domingo, the lights of Quesqueya Stadium light the sky above the capital; the beloved Dominicans are battling the Puerto Rican team, and the roar of the crowd can be heard five blocks away. It's the third night in the weeklong Caribbean Series, a round-robin championship between the best players of Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Near the park, it seems every store along Avenida Tiradentes has a television with the game on. It's a little before midnight, and inside an open-air fruit market, beyond the locked wire fence and the covered bags of oranges, a small gathering of workers cluster around a little black-and-white television with bad reception, rooting for the Aguilas Cibaeñas (Eagles), as the Dominican team is known.

Last year, the Puerto Ricans beat the Dominicans for the crown; this year's series is referred to by the locals as El Desquite (The Revenge). Many teams carry a number of well-known major leaguers, but no team has as many as the Dominicans, who are known popularly as the Equipo de Sueno (Dream Team). Their roster reads like a who's who of professional baseball: Tony Peña and Julio Franco of the Indians, Luis Polonia, now with the Atlanta Braves, Moies Alou of the Expos, Stan Javier of the San Francisco Giants, Raul Mondesi of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Juan Guzman of the Blue Jays.

Inside the stadium, a small riot is breaking out. The game is in the ninth inning. The Dominicans are leading, 3-1, but the Puerto Rican team has two on and one out with the winning run at the plate. The crowd in the stands is delirious; many are shouting and a number are waving enormous Dominican flags. Even the vendors have put down their boxes of empanadas (stuffed turnovers) to watch the drama. Roberto Alomar, playing for his Puerto Rican homeland, is the runner at second. (The superstar second baseman had just signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles.) Ivan "Pudge" Rodriquez of the Texas Rangers, one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, is at bat.

The Dominican manager, Terry Francona, walks to the mound to comfort his suddenly struggling pitcher, Juan Guzman. Although Guzman has experienced the pressures of playing in (and winning) the World Series, he has the look of a man about to let his country down. Just then, a fan charges onto the field carrying a big Dominican flag. The crowd goes wild and the players stop to watch as the man rounds the bases, holding the flag high over his head. Scores of National Police and stadium security guards, presumably there to keep the peace, look on with big smiles. The man with the flag ends up sliding, face first, into home base to another loud cheer. He stands up, dusts himself off and returns to his seat. Try this at Jacobs Field or Dodger Stadium and you're likely to spend the night in jail; but here it's accepted--everyone understands the fever.

Back on the mound, the manager raises his right hand and, moments later, the meringue music is interrupted by the announcement of a pitching change. The instant the words "José Mesa" blare out of the P.A. system, the crowd explodes in an ovation so thunderous that the entire stadium seems to shake.

Mesa, who led the Indians to the World Series last year, uses the same devastating fastball that made him the best relief pitcher in major league baseball. With each strikeout, the big screen above center field shouts: ¡Fuera de Ahi! (He's outta there!) In short order, Mesa strikes out the two batters he faces and wins the game. Although it's now two in the morning, the crazed crowd lingers in the stadium in a state of euphoria.

(The Dominicans would wind up the Caribbean Series in third place, while the Mexican team would win the championship.)

About five hours later, in the coastal town of Boca Chica, a group of young ballplayers struggle to shake the sleep out of their eyes inside the meager facilities of the St. Louis Cardinals' training camp. There's a game against the San Pedro Braves, an Atlanta Braves farm team, and none of the Boca Chica Cardinals seems in a hurry to get there. The conditions at the camp are sparse, and some of the players complain that the Cardinals organization isn't spending enough money on it. In the dorm, a few players sleep on mattresses on the floor; the weight room consists of a few old green machines with frayed cables. The life of a major league prospect can be difficult.

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