A League of Their Own
In the Dominican Republic, rum, drums and the mambo go out to the old ballgame
By Margaret Engel and Bruce Adams
"His mambo's so good, it deserves to be in the World Series," a hoarse
young woman yelled toward Jose Lima, the rangy pitcher just then on the
mound for her
Escogido Lions. He's a Houston Astro when he's not fronting a mambo band, and -- more vitally for the thousands of screaming, air-horn-honking, whistle-blowing,
banner-waving fans surrounding us -- when he's not playing ball in the Dominican Republic for one of the country's most storied teams.
We were sitting in box seats of the 17,000-seat Quisqueya Stadium in
downtown Santo Domingo. It was the Dominican League playoffs, and the game
The home-team Lions, led by Lima, were battling their arch-rivals, the Eagles from Santiago, in the north central part of the country. The winner would move one
step closer to the Caribbean World Series.
If you went to an American Triple A minor league game anytime before
the 1990s, you've seen a park like Quisqueya Stadium, a classic concrete
stadium, dated, but
freshly painted in red, white and blue. The concourse was dark (think Fenway Park), and nearly deserted during the game. Three small concession stands served the
entire crowd, because fans come here to watch every pitch, not to eat.
In the stands the noise was pounding, raucous. Imagine Cole Field House
evenly divided between Maryland and Carolina fans. Add air horns and plentiful
rum. Now multiply by two. At least. The din had started an hour before the game and would continue for 20 minutes after the last out.
Lima, the peroxided wild man, had begun the game by jumping over the
base lines (he's superstitious) and talking through the Dominican national
anthem. His every
mistake during the game was greeted by opposing fans taunting him: "Li-ma. Li-ma. Li-ma."
"Ponchelo!" his female fan screamed to him. Strike him out.
Lima struck out five batters and left the game in the sixth inning,
tossing his shirt into the stands. The Lions went on to win, 6-2. As the
crowd wove its way out, a
huge thunderstorm unloaded, trapping at the stadium entrance a fan with a drum who had been banging all through the game in the right field bleachers. He kept
pounding, extending the crazed happiness in the drenching rain.
We had come to the Dominican Republic for serious baseball. Introduced
by the sugar cane industry in the late 19th century, baseball has become
a mania. "The kids
here dream to play baseball," says Pablo Peguero, a former minor league catcher who manages the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dominican training camp. Fans are
passionate. During the Caribbean World Series, a taxi driver told us, "people throw stoves out the window."
It's hard to overestimate the Dominican influence on baseball in the
United States. At the beginning of last season, 71 of the 839 major league
players -- more than 8
percent -- came from this country of 8 million people. The historical roster of Dominicans includes Juan Marichal, Matty and Felipe Alou, Tony Pena and so many
more. A single town, San Pedro de Macoris, houses nearly a dozen major league baseball academies, which have produced such players as Julio Franco, Pedro
Martinez, George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Sammy Sosa. And the off-season in American baseball brings big leaguers back here to play for their former teams.
In four days in the Dominican Republic, we found baseball at every turn,
in rural fields, alleys and city parks. We visited three major league baseball
three round robin playoff games, made a pilgrimage to Sosa's former stadium at San Pedro de Macoris and ran into 40 aspiring Red Sox players at lunch. Following
the action was a world apart from the all-inclusive resort experience that many Americans find in the Dominican Republic. In a country where the T-shirt slogan
"Baseball Is Life" is taken literally, attending a game is not some casual outing to occupy a tourist between lunch and dinner.
Never mind that modern amenities may be lacking and that the security
guards carry rifles. The Dominican Republic is one incredible place to
watch a ballgame. It
starts when the ticket sellers ask which side you're on, just like at a wedding. Once through the turnstiles, you walk by a locked room filled with fans who tried to get
into the game illegally. Next, you pass rows of bottled rum for sale.
Between innings, cheerleaders in Lycra bodysuits do fabulous merengue
moves on top of the dugouts, to blasting tunes. It's impossible not to
watch. We did manage
dutifully to record every play of every game on the backs of advertising flyers handed to us on our way in, but we never saw a program or scorecard.
We couldn't have escaped the game even if we had wanted to. The deities
of Dominican baseball were smiling on us, bringing us one lucky encounter
In Santo Domingo we stayed in a hotel favored by scouts and players, located 10 blocks from the stadium. In the hotel elevator, the guy standing next to us turned
out to be Wendell Magee, the current Detroit Tigers player who'd hit two home runs for the Escogido Lions earlier in the day. In no time, we got our makeshift
scorecard signed by the game's hero. Baseball nirvana.
And the salsa clubs would be opening soon.
Our goal was to visit as many of the country's baseball shrines as we
could squeeze in. After taking a look at all the dented cars, vehicle-devouring
horse-drawn carts, motor scooters and bicycles on overloaded city streets, we did what many outsiders do and hired a taxi driver by the day. He seemed thrilled
with the full day's work, and we could concentrate on the lush landscape and the roadside stands selling fish, tropical fruit and fighting cocks.
Our first excursion was a wild 45-minute ride from Santo Domingo northeast
to the Dodgers' facility, Campo Las Palmas, the driver veering around potholes
children soliciting money. At first he missed the entrance, but as we streaked past, we glimpsed a pair of the white baseball lights with red seams similar to the ones
we had loved at Dodgertown, the spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla. The security guard was trimly dressed in a Dodgers outfit.
In a country where litter control isn't a major priority, the Dodgers
camp was an immaculate and elegantly landscaped 250-acre complex. Manny
Mota Field, named
for the pinch-hitting great and Santo Domingo native, is ringed gloriously by tall palm and acacia trees. As we watched young Dodger recruits go through their
stretching exercises, a maintenance worker was carefully brushing dirt from the warning track off the grass. The red tile floors in the clubhouse looked clean enough
to eat off. The smell of garlic-tinged chicken wafted from the Tommy Lasorda Dining Room.
Young prospects -- most but not all Dominicans -- are brought here to
train intensively, get decent meals and medical care, and see if they are
of professional caliber.
Since its opening, in 1987, the camp has helped move the likes of Jose Offerman, Raul Mondesi and Pedro Martinez into the major leagues. Between 35 and 90
players train here under the eye of Peguero, the camp manager, who caught in the Dodgers' minor league system for years. He also manages the San Pedro de
Macoris Eastern Stars.
Tourists are welcome here, though it's a good idea to call ahead --
sometimes as many as 500 outsiders show up to watch practice games. As
we walked with
Peguero over the fields, we marveled over the inventions of camp founder Ralph Avila, who is now retired. We kept hearing loud clumping noises coming from the
first floor of a dormitory. The culprit was a blue metal ball cleaner, an Avila machine that mixed dirty baseballs with rubber erasers, to cleansing effect. Off to the side
of a practice field, pitchers threw into another Avila aid, a simple cat's cradle of string that marked off the strike zone. We had just missed Orioles rookie pitcher Juan
Guzman, who had come by his old camp to work out the day before, and whose huge spikes were gleaming, thanks to camp employees who clean all the players'
Our pilgrimage to San Pedro de Macoris began at Tetelo Vargas Stadium,
home of Peguero's Caribbean champion Eastern Stars. This is where Sammy
before leaving for the United States. Inside the dim concourse, young boys were taking batting practice. Children pretended to make heroic catches against the
outfield wall, while in the infield, roosters and chickens pecked at the grass.
From there we planned to visit some of the other baseball academies,
but neither we nor our driver had a firm fix on where they were. Not to
worry. In this country,
you just sit and wait, and the baseball gods take care of you.
We reluctantly chose a large hotel complex for lunch because we couldn't
agree on any of the roadside restaurants. As our daughter lounged by the
hotel pool, we
heard cleats. We looked and saw 40 young players in Red Sox uniforms, coming in for lunch after their morning workout. It turned out that this complex, the Hotel
Macorix, is used from November through June by the Red Sox and Houston Astros academies and the Eastern Stars.
At the front desk, we bumped into Eddy Thomas of the Ministry of Sport,
who was arranging an old-timers game. Born and raised in a Dominican mill
had reached Triple A ball in Columbus, Ohio, before returning to his homeland. He took us outside to show us the trunk of his car. It held an Orioles bag filled with
bats, glove, uniform and spikes, which he keeps there in case he runs into a game -- which is a near-certainty around here.
Thomas had just hit three doubles in an old-timers game the day before.
This from a man who is 63 years old. "Rico Carty still plays with us,"
Thomas said, pointing
outside the hotel to San Pedro's Malecon, the waterfront boulevard where the 61-year-old Carty, who played 15 seasons in the major leagues, now holds court
nearly every night.
Realizing that he had fellow baseball maniacs on his hands, Thomas escorted
us to his home town of Santa Fe, about 30 minutes north of San Pedro de
where the dilapidated park is now used for practice by Astros prospects as well as locals. We passed the mill smokestack painted with the words "Santa Fe," now
bent in half and rusting. As we drove up in midafternoon, 20 local teenagers were practicing, with the hope of gaining a place in one of the big league camps. They
were working out under the eye of a "chicken hawk," an older player who works as an agent for undiscovered talent. Their intensity picked up a few notches when
they realized Eddy Thomas was watching, and they kept up the pace even when Thomas started hitting golf balls.
The next morning our taxi driver picked us up at our Santo Domingo hotel, and we headed out for El Tamarindo, half an hour east. This is a
town of shacks, populated by Dominicans uprooted by urban renewal projects.
Many residents wear plastic bags over their shoes to keep out the mud from
unpaved streets. Here Manny Mota has created a baseball center for hundreds of neighborhood children. It was opening day, and children in team T-shirts filled
Mota's hillside park. Under the thatched roof of a huge cabana, 42 boys sat holding hands and singing the national anthem. Mota's wife, Margarita, was supervising
lunch in the kitchen. (Even when the Motas return to Los Angeles for eight months of the year, three cooks continue to provide free daily hot meals.) In the outfield,
two kids mopped up rainwater with hunks of foam rubber as merengue music floated up from the town below.
After handing out new gloves to each player, Mota, now 63, started umpiring
a game of 11-to-13-year-olds. The backstop was in place, but there was
no screen, so
Mota sent the kids into the bushes to chase foul balls. He stopped umpiring to help a struggling lefty take a proper stance and make a stronger swing. Bang. The
youngster drilled the ball into left-center field. Thirty minutes later, Mota stopped again at a game of younger kids. Just half a minute of instruction and -- bang,
another line-drive base hit. "Two for two," he yelled, with a big smile.
The next day, we drove east toward the coast. We spent the morning at
Altos de Chavon, a re-creation of a 16th-century Spanish village that is
a cobblestone artists
colony. We checked out the huge stone amphitheater where concerts are held; Frank Sinatra inaugurated it in 1982.
By nightfall, we were in the city ballpark at La Romana, watching the
Escogido Lions play the La Romana Sugar Cane Cutters. Commercialism hadn't
took us two innings to find a team hat to buy. A vendor lugged through the stands a silver cookstove that must have weighed 50 pounds. He used a machete to cut
open a pastel de platano, a spicy beef and plantain mixture. Merengue and salsa music blared throughout the game, and a photographer from the tabloid Hoy took
our picture. The next day, we found two of our happy faces in the newspaper, under the headline "En el Play" (At the Stadium). The perfect souvenir to bring back
As we headed back to Miami on the return flight, we figured our Dominican
luck had expired. But just when we were about to exit the plane, we spotted
diamond-studded World Series ring. "Are you a Yankee?" we asked. "Yes." "Which one?" "Soriano," he replied. "How many rings?" we asked. "Two," answered
reserve infielder Alfonso Soriano, another native of San Pedro de Macoris to make it to the big leagues -- and, in the off-season, to make it back home again, too.
Where to Stay: In Santo Domingo, many players and scouts stay at the
Plaza Hotel on Tirandentes Avenue, a business hotel with a pool (809-541-6226;
$68 including taxes). U.S. players for the Eastern Stars often stay at the luxury Embajador Hotel; its upper floors have ocean views (809-221-2131; double $89
including taxes). In San Pedro de Macoris, the Hotel Macorix is an expansive Howard Johnson's on a waterfront boulevard (809-529-2100; double $60 including
breakfast and taxes).
Getting Around: Taxis rent for $40 to $80 per day; you may want to ask
if the car is air-conditioned. There are also air-conditioned buses that
run between the major
cities, and funkier publicos vans, which stop for anyone standing by the road.
Merengue: Even Santo Domingo's mayor, Johnny Ventura, is a merengue
singer. One popular disco, Guacara Taina, is in a cave (809-533-0671).
For a merengue
experience without the throbbing volume, try El Conuco, a Dominican restaurant whose dance floor is small but whose waiters make spirited instructors
Baseball Academies: Twenty-five major league teams have programs in
the Dominican Republic. The most extensive is the Dodgers' facility, Campo
(809-526-5249); players are in training weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Manny Mota's Campo de Suenos (Field of
Dreams) has irregularly scheduled youth games; for information, see www.mannymotafoundation.org.
Baseball Games: The Dominican League teams play in Santo Domingo, Santiago
de los Caballeros, La Romana, San Pedro de Macoris and San Francisco de
Macoris. Winter ball runs from the end of October through the Caribbean World Series in early February; the summer league goes from June through August. For
schedules, see www.dr1.com/daily/baseball.shtml, or contact the Dominican League (809-563-5085). For more information, try www.beisboldominicano.com; it's
in Spanish but easy to figure out. Walk-up tickets are easy to acquire for all but the most contested games. -- M.E. and B.A.