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The Lure of Baseball in the Dominican Republic

The Lure of Baseball in the Dominican Republic

Posted by PanamericanWorld on November 08, 2015

On the way to Tamboril, Dominican Republic, a famous cigar-making suburb east of Santiago, our rented Hyundai Grand i10 dropped into every dirt pothole with a disturbing thunk. Frankly, we’d been terrible at sightseeing. Our maps and apps consistently let us down, our walking routes took us past hospitals and funeral homes and we never once made it to the beach. We were about to give up and drive to the airport early when my niece Aurora, 25, looked out the rear window and asked, “Isn’t that a baseball field?”

And that was the way it went in the Dominican Republic: Baseball found us.

Four days earlier, the week before Christmas, we had traveled there not for the 82-degree temperatures, cathedrals built by popes and bishops, merengue music, paella Valenciana and street-side ice cream parlors that seem to appear exactly when you need them — although those were nice. We were there to stave off seasonal depression. “As soon as the chill rains come,” A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball’s former commissioner, once wrote, “It stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.” I located the world’s best winter baseball — the Liga de Beisbol Dominicano — and dragged Aurora and my brother, Mark, to this island of banana plants and death-defying motorcyclists.

Baseball players in the Dominican Republic are like musicians — or, more recently, sprinters — in nearby Jamaica: so much talent for such a tiny island. Juan Marichal, David Ortiz, Robinson Canó, Sammy Sosa and Albert Pujols are from here. As of opening day 2015, Dominicans made up 83 of baseball’s 868 players. “If you reverse time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to actually pay for a bus,” Pedro Martinez, the Hall of Fame pitcher, once told reporters.

Baseball arrived on the island by sea in the 1860s, via Cubans fleeing the Ten Years’ War, according to “The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic” by Rob L. Ruck. By the 1930s, it had grown into a big-money sport where owners mined the country for talented youths whose parents often worked at sugar refineries. In 1937 a team, run in part by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, hired Negro League stars from the United States, including Satchel Paige. Mr. Trujillo built the first modern stadium, complete with lights, in the mid-’50s. That was when star Dominican players first graduated to the majors, beginning with the utility infielder Ozzie Virgil.

Manny Ramirez, a former Águilas player. Credit Roberto Muñoz for The New York Times

I decided to adopt a team in the Dominican’s winter league, which begins every October, then peaks with a round robin playoff in January. (Winner goes to the Caribbean Series, in February, to compete against Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.) I wanted a winner, and Santiago’s 79-year-old Águilas Cibaeñas, or Eagles of Cibao, had the high-profile names to go with gaudy statistics. Their cleanup hitter was Manny Ramirez, the former Red Sox postseason hero. The sure-handed Jonathan Villar of the Houston Astros played shortstop; Frank Batista, now a Chicago Cubs pitching prospect, was their ace. They played at the Estadio Cibao, the island’s biggest stadium, an 18,000-capacity, old-school ballpark.

I speak no Spanish, so my plan was to bond with local fans over baseball passion; we’d share the universal language of E.R.A. and R.B.I. But on the plane to Santo Domingo, for the Águilas’ away game against Los Leones del Escogido, or Lions of the Chosen One, a friendly Dominican engineering student at the University of Illinois did not react well. She scoffed at the idea of an American striding into Dominican stadiums without even a “cómo estás.” She translated my plan to her countrymen. “Try not to speak English,” one advised.

Mark, Aurora and I had a few hours to kill on game day, so we took off on foot from our hotel, El Embajador, built in 1956 as an opulent island getaway, which once drew American stars, from Rock Hudson to William Holden, to its Art Deco lobby. As we walked down Avenida Bolívar in the thick humidity, we noticed men seated outside banks and businesses on folding chairs with rifles displayed on their laps.

Dodging guides-for-hire, we reached Zona Colonial, a district of narrow cobblestone streets full of museums and restaurants. At the center, the Parque Colón, a wide square containing a statue of Christopher Columbus, we watched children kick soccer balls and tourists consult guidebooks to confirm that a large sandstone building was actually the Basílica Catedral Metropolitan Santa María de la Encarnación, built by the Vatican in 1540 to co-opt the religion of the native people.

Finally, it was game time. Estadio Quisqueya, built with Mr. Trujillo’s support in 1955, has the small, warm feel of a minor league stadium, and at times we felt as if we were watching the Lansing Lugnuts. The pumped-up music between innings was relentless, from Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” to the booming merengue that backed male and female dancers in tight shorts. Vendors in chicken helmets sold chicken fingers; vendors in hot-dog hats sold hot dogs. Our Águilas put up a fight: Mr. Ramirez, showing a flash of the imperious “Manny being Manny” mode, glared at the umpire before lancing an R.B.I. double to right. But Escogido won, 5-4, knocking the visitors out of first-place contention.

The next day, we rented our Hyundai and drove about 93 miles north along DR-1, a narrow highway where motorcyclists zip between cars and pedestrians drag bicycles and bundles into the road. At one point, two huge trucks encroached into my lane on both sides, and as Mark and Aurora screamed, I accelerated to avoid being crushed.

It was dark when we drove past a patch of trees to Estadio Cibao, in the middle of a concrete barrio not known for its Saturday-night safety. The stadium was the only light in the area, with its giant yellow “A” over the entrance. As we lined up to buy tickets from a woman in a green metal cage, scalpers bunched around us, refusing to leave even when we shook our heads. “Don’t you trust me?” one kept asking.

Far more than Estadio Quisqueya, Estadio Cibao resembles a major league ballpark: flags everywhere, TV broadcasters speaking to cameras out front, wall-size baseball cards depicting the star hitters Miguel Tejada and Zoilo Almonte. Perhaps because the Águilas were out of contention for first place (Mr. Ramirez wasn’t even in the starting lineup) the stadium was only half-full. But the crowd made up for it with volume.

Marcelo Bermúdez, right, of MB Academy, and a player. Credit Roberto Muñoz for The New York Times

Near our seats along the first-base line (1,000 pesos apiece, or about $21 at 43 pesos to the dollar), college-age youths filled a section in their bright-yellow Águilas gear, pounding on snare drums, a marching band without the marching. Children threw candy to the players, who snagged it with their gloves and nodded their thanks. The elaborate center-field scoreboard wasn’t working, perhaps owing to a huge stadium fire the previous month, and it was only by keeping score in a small notebook that I was able to follow the game. I silently befriended an older gentleman in our row by flashing fingers to confirm runs and outs.

With first place out of reach, the Águilas put on a power show against the Estrellas Orientales, scoring 10 runs on 16 hits, including a home run by the Kansas City Royals catching prospect Francisco Peña. The biggest drama came in the seventh inning, when the stadium lights abruptly shut off. For half an hour, security men in camouflage with guns surrounded the field, while players stretched in the outfield and dancers danced on the dugout. Then the lights returned and the Águilas won, 10-3.

On Sunday evening, the last game of the regular season, Estadio Cibao was more crowded but less rowdy, wide-eyed children in baseball caps in lieu of percussive students. I sat with a man who grew up in the Dominican Republic but now works as a plumber in the Bronx. He had returned to visit family. In illustrating the country’s rich baseball history, he demonstrated Juan Marichal’s high leg kick; I told him the English term for a runner getting trapped between bases is a “pickle,” which made him laugh. Later, a man with a wife and young daughter asked to borrow my pen, which he tossed to the visiting Gigantes’ dugout 20 rows below us. His young son had been sitting in the dugout for the entire game, and the players needed my pen so they could sign autographs on the boy’s birthday.

The Águilas won the game, 5-3, solidifying second place, and our three-game Dominican series came to an end. We hadn’t exactly been good luck. A month after we left, the Águilas collapsed in the playoffs, firing their manager, Andy Barkett, and replacing him with the popular former major leaguer Miguel Tejada. I’d bet on the wrong team.

After one of the games, we ordered room service and queued up a 2008 movie download called “Sugar,” about a young, hard-throwing Dominican pitcher who grows up in poverty and uses baseball in an attempt to achieve the American dream. But his dream disintegrates one bad day in Iowa, when he injures his leg, develops a bad attitude and takes off to try to build furniture in New York. The movie suggests a different interpretation of Dominican baseball culture, one of exploitation, where children who fail to follow the Pedro Martinez path from the mango tree to the majors wind up with nothing.

Over the decades, unregulated talent factories known as academies have multiplied throughout the island to make money off giant baseball contracts. Critics such as Arturo Marcano, a Venezuelan-born lawyer and ESPN Deportes columnist, have accused the academies of hauling kids away from their families, keeping them out of school and occasionally manipulating them out of bonus money or into steroid use. Today, every American professional baseball team operates its own Dominican academy, and Mr. Marcano acknowledges they’re “getting a little bit better.” The newer problem is unregulated local middlemen who, he argues, “want to accelerate the growing process.”

The baseball field Aurora discovered from the back seat of our rental car belongs to the MB Academy, run by Micalo Bermúdez, a shoe exporter sidestepping into the business of manufacturing players. As we watched from our woodsy spot beyond the outfield fence, Mr. Bermúdez’s son, Marcelo, 21, a Florida college student who played high school ball, spotted the rare visitors and sent over a coach to invite us to watch the practice.

Marcelo Bermúdez explained how the academy system works, as we watched teenage prospects in the academy’s uniforms field grounders and fire them to first base. Once a player turns 13, an academy can sign him to a contract. If that player winds up with a major league deal, the academy takes roughly 30 percent. MB Academy has signed 10 prospects this way, including Onil Peña, a catcher who received $385,000 from the Seattle Mariners two years ago, when he was 16.

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