March 29, 2001

Baseball: King sport in Dominican Republic

                  BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Fourteen-year-old Jhonmert
                  Suero Cedeno connects with every pitch, hitting long line drives that smack
                  against the outfield wall emblazoned with the motto: "Sports for all, and All
                  for sports."

                  With slogans and baseball diamonds, the Dominican government hopes to propel
                  the careers of young ballplayers like Suero. In this impoverished country, single-minded
                  dedication to sports has paid off for many -- like the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa
                  -- who are now baseball millionaires.

                  "There's a lot of things we don't produce in this corner of the Caribbean," said
                  Enrique Emilio Cordova, a local baseball historian. "We don't produce much
                  grain. We don't have much industry. But every year we have a harvest of
                  excellent ballplayers."

                  Baseball's opening day focus this year is on Puerto Rico, which is host for a game Sunday
                  between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, but the Dominican Republic will get a little
                  of the spotlight.

                  The game will feature the debut of the Rodriguez duo on the Rangers: all-star
                  catcher Ivan Rodriguez from Puerto Rico and Dominican-American shortstop
                  Alex Rodriguez, whose 10-year, $252 million contract makes him baseball's
                  highest-paid player ever.

                  In all, there were 1,500 Dominicans playing in the U.S. minor leagues and
                  more than 75 in the major leagues last season, more than any other foreign
                  nationality, said Rafael Perez, manager of Major League Baseball's new office in
                  the Dominican Republic, its first foreign office.

                  Baseball is not only the national pastime in the Dominican Republic, it's a crucial
                  economic activity, an important bragging point and a strong component
                  of Dominican nationalism.

                  Millions of dollars flow into poor towns all over the country as thank yous from
                  players who have made it in the United States.

                  Ever since dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo organized the country's first national
                  baseball tournament to promote his re-election in 1937, politicians have been
                  expected to bow to the people's passion for baseball and to nurture the country's
                  baseball talent.

                  "The government is strongly linked to the sport of baseball," said Cesar Cedeno,
                  the Cabinet-level secretary of sports. "What our baseball stars do to uphold and
                  promote the country's image, if we had to pay for that, the price would be

                  Among the first things President Hipolito Mejia did after his inauguration last year
                  was to name the country's major league stars, such as Vladimir Guerrero and
                  Pedro Martinez, as honorary ambassadors to the United States.

                  In a country where more than 1 million of the 8 million people have fled poverty
                  to live in the Unites States, stars like Alex Rodriguez -- born to Dominican
                  parents in the United States -- help keep their identity strong in the diaspora by
                  proudly proclaiming they are "Dominicanos."

                  The government puts up stadiums, finances local fields and even pays the
                  salaries of youth team coaches.

                  "Baseball is now a tradition here, a way of life," said Juan Marichal, the first Dominican
                  to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1983. "And our success has made us all proud."

                  Neighborhood baseball diamonds serve as a cradle of talent for youthful stars like
                  Suero, who at 5-foot-11 towers over other teen-age players here and already has
                  drawn the eyes of U.S. scouts.

                  "I see my future clearly," Suero says during a pause in his batting practice in
                  Boca Chica, a gritty town on the southern coast where barefoot ballplayers
                  practice in alleys with sticks and deflated tennis balls.

                  "I'm going to be a line-drive hitter and start off on the Seattle Mariners like
                  A-Rod," he says, referring to Alex Rodriguez.

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.