In the Dominican Republic, Baseball Isn't Just a Pastime--It's an Obsession
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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On the stairs leading to the patio, Rafiero Robles, 22, talks about life in the Cardinals camp. "Concentration is hard. You eat, drink and sleep baseball. There's nothing else to do. I was signed in '91 and I want to play in the big leagues," says Robles, an outfielder who has briefly played Double A ball. He then adds with a look of frustration, "I'm trying." Robles, a handsome, affable man who speaks English well, is old for a player at this stage in his career, and he knows it. Later, when the camp manager, Bobby Diaz, is asked about Robles' chance of making it to the big club, he says simply, "He has no chance."
Professional players in the Dominican Republic play in one of two leagues--Winter or Summer. The Winter League consists of eight locally owned teams in a single division that play for a championship at the end of the season. Many of their rosters are made up of players already in the minor league system of a major league team, who head south once the season is over in the United States. Additionally, major leaguers seeking rehabilitation or training will play winter baseball in the Dominican Republic (Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela also have winter leagues). Although the players are predominately Dominican, each team is allowed to have up to eight foreign players, or importados.
The players who compete in the Summer League--which is played year-round--are young prospects, usually around 17 or 18 years old, who have been recently signed by a major league team and are part of its Dominican training camp. The teams from the various camps compete against each other in a two-division, 20-team league. If a prospect shows promise, he's promoted to the team's minor league system in the States, usually to a rookie league like the Florida Gulf Coast League. If he's lucky, he might even be promoted to the minor league A or AA divisions and find himself playing for a team like the Portland Seadogs, the Florida Marlins' AA team in Portland, Maine. The point is less about winning the league championship than it is about making it all the way to "The Show."
It is February, and the Cardinals' Summer League team, the Boca Chica Cardinals, is in second to last place in its division, but Diaz isn't concerned. "If I can develop players who make it to the big league club, then it's a success," says Diaz, who is the major league Cardinals' director of Dominican operations and their lead scout. He's also concerned about the future of the development system. Declining attendance in ballparks across North America and the ever-increasing multimillion-dollar contracts that players are demanding are draining the resources of the major league baseball teams. Eventually, this is felt at the development level, where the Boca Chica Cardinals are already stretched to the limit.
Baseball exists on many levels in the Dominican Republic. Driving to the outskirts of the capital, leaving behind the fancy stadium and the municipal fields, you pass games being played on traffic islands, on fields crowded with livestock and on asphalt. In Los Frailes, a small town about 20 miles east of Santo Domingo,a kid is attacking a rock with a pick ax next to home plate. Because there's nowhere else to play, this field is literally being chiseled out of the limestone. Andre Galva, the team manager, is hitting balls to his infielders, who use bases made from pieces of old foam and cardboard. Galva proudly explains that his program is a community effort; the field was donated by a local businessman who also helped pay for the short wall behind home plate. Just then, Antonio Williams, 12, walks up holding a baseball he made from yarn. He shyly shows off his masterpiece. In the Dominican Republic, baseball transcends the definition of national pastime. It describes a national spirit.
Jim Daniels is a Maine-based writer-photographer who reports frequently from Latin America.
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