Dominican Diamonds

In the Dominican Republic, Baseball Isn't Just a Pastime--It's an Obsession
| By Jim Daniels | From 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.)

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.

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.