Pelota In The Sun

Pelota In The Sun
Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images
Children play baseball at the Olympic Centre in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Baseball is the supreme sport in the Dominican Republic, and the small country has created more major leaguers than any nation other than the United States

The sun beats down, punishing green and brown ballfields. The image is every bit as familiar as the strains of meringue and salsa rising from the dusty alleys. It is said that life in the Dominican Republic follows four principles: God, country, liberty and baseball. Not necessarily in that order. Pelota, another word for “baseball,” challenges that pecking order every month of the year.

Long after Major League Baseball cedes its summer dominance to brown leaves and chilled air, the crack of ball meeting ash echoes across the verdant fields of this Caribbean country. Some say baseball is in the blood of Dominicans, who may start playing at the age of three.

José Ramírez recalls his youth. “This is a juice box,” he says, holding up a small, waxy carton. “After we drank all the juice, we would fold it tightly and use it as a ball to play.” A piece of wood the width of a broom handle was secured as a bat. Born in the southern region of Baní, Ramírez made his major league debut in 2013, at the age of 20, and has been a Cleveland Indian ever since. His rise has been meteoric. The brawny 5'9" third baseman has been an All-Star twice and has hit more home runs and driven in more runs each season than he did the one before. When he returns to his hometown, he is trailed through his old streets by children, an inspiration for Dominicans seeking fame and fortune.

Dominican baseball is a tale of high hopes. Teenage prospects are signed to one of 30 “academies,” one for each major league team, and hone their talents longing to catch the eye of scouts. Baseball has been called a game of failure; even the immortal players fail to get a hit seven out of every 10 at bats. Here it’s a different degree of failure: just two percent of all players signed to an academy will reach the majors.

This country of just 10 million residents is second only to America in creating professional ballplayers. All told, 738 players from the Dominican Republic have played Major League Baseball, second to the United States, and 10 percent of the roster when the 2018 season began—84 players—was Dominican. One city alone, San Pedro de Macorís, known as “the Cradle of Shortstops,” has produced 76 major league players. Success stories abound, and stars with Dominican heritage have been playing in the majors for more than 50 years, from Juan Marichal to Pedro Martínez, Vladimir Guerrero to Albert Pujols, Adrián Beltre and so many more.

Baseball was first played in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in June 1891, when Cuban brothers Ignacio and Ubaldo Aloma organized two teams. In 1956, Osvaldo Virgil (known better as “Ozzie”), a native of Monte Cristi and a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, became the first Dominican player to sport a major league uniform when he debuted for the New York Giants at the age of 24. The journeyman third baseman would play for five teams in an undistinguished nine-year career.

All we wanted to do was play ball. We made our own bats with branches that we cut from the guasima tree and dried in the sun. For gloves, we would take a piece of canvas, the kind of stuff they used to cover trucks, and fold it around a piece of cardboard and then sew up the sides.

The next native of note so outshone the rest that he is still revered as “The Dominican Dandy.” Growing up on a farm in Laguna Verde, then a city of about 450 people, Juan Marichal recalls: “All we wanted to do was play ball. We made our own bats with branches that we cut from the guasima tree and dried in the sun. For gloves, we would take a piece of canvas, the kind of stuff they used to cover trucks, and fold it around a piece of cardboard and then sew up the sides. And for balls, we would get some golf balls from the golf course at Manzanillo and wrap nylon stocking or tape around them, and then take them to the shoemaker who would sew a leather cover around them.”

Known for his high leg kick and a wide palette of pitches and speeds, Marichal tossed a one-hitter in his debut with San Francisco against Philadelphia on July 19, 1960. The Giants rewarded him with a generous contract for $12,000 the next year. Over a decade rich in pitching, Marichal won 191 games, more than any hurler in the 1960s.

Several years later a singular event occurred. On September 15, 1963, San Francisco’s Felipe Alou, who hailed from Bajos de Haina, was playing right field with future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey in left and Willie Mays in center. When the Giants scored five runs to take an 8-3 lead, manager Alvin Dark substituted Felipe’s younger brother Jesus for McCovey. After the Giants scored four more to mount a 12-3 lead, Dark replaced Mays in center with Felipe’s other younger brother Matty. “It was history,” Mays said. The image staggers the mind still: three brothers who once slept side by side in a 15-by-15-foot shack now stood side by side in a major league outfield for the defending National League champions.

The baseball success stories from the Dominican Republic run the gamut from legendary to average, with many more to come.