Diamonds in the rough
As baseball season opens this weekend, one-fourth of America's pro players come from one Caribbean nation, the Dominican Republic.
SAN PEDRO DE MACORÍS, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
This is where the day begins, on a rocky beach by the Caribbean Sea, as the sun rises above the water and the wind whips into the small shops that line the seawall.
The boys are like drones, silent, their heads lowered as they sprint toward the west. With each burst of speed, they pump their fists furiously and kick up brown sand. Some are barefoot; others wear tube socks to protect their feet from broken glass.
The smallest in the group is Angel Nova. He is 15, but looks 13. He comes here every morning at 6 a.m., dressed in the same soiled yellow shorts and wearing the same black ski cap, which he pulls down almost to his eyes. His dream is to become a professional baseball player, and for that reason he will run sprints this morning until he nearly drops from exhaustion.
He probably shouldn't be here. Not if you ask the scouts, who can tell you how long the odds are for an undersized middle infielder. Not if you ask his parents, who can barely afford the equip- ment, food, and support it takes to raise an aspiring athlete. But it's not so easy to tell these things to a kid.
Like everyone else he knows, Angel is poor. And like all his friends, Angel thinks baseball is his ticket off the island. "I'm getting better every day," he says, cocking his head to the side and flashing a weak smile. He is woefully shy. "Now I take baseball very seriously, like a job."
After his workout, Angel will go home for some rest. Then he will go to school for a few hours. In the late afternoon he will go to the shabby diamond near where he lives. There he will field grounders off the dirt until the sun goes down.
For now, though, it is time to run to get faster, he says. And with that, he is off for another sprint, trying to catch the other boys, who are inevitably two steps ahead.
This is the land of baseball, where it seems as if every able-bodied boy and man is a player. There are players on the street, players behind the front desk of the hotel, players dancing the merengue in the cafes late at night. Mention the word béisbol, and people here smile.
As baseball becomes more and more of a global sport, the Dominican Republic, a poor country of 8.5 million, continues to be the greatest supplier of talent to the United States. What once was a trickle beginning in the 1950s with players like Juan Marichal and Felipe Alou has become a downpour. And the numbers are only growing.
Currently, 89 Dominicans have major-league contracts and 1,561 are signed for the US minor leagues. Add it all up, and nearly 1 in every 4 professional players under contract is Dominican.
The Dominican Republic claims Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox, who, when healthy, is arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs among the greatest sluggers in the history of the game is one of theirs. So is Vladimir Guerrero, a young outfielder for the Montreal Expos who has as much talent as anyone.
"Athleticism, hunger, drive, and determination these are the four characteristics that Dominican players have more than anywhere else in the world," says Rafael Perez, the Major League Baseball representative in the capital, Santo Domingo.
"If you are a kid, and you play baseball, and you start showing some talent, you're going to be picked up by a scout and signed to a professional squad. It's a way out."
With so much talent on such a small island, major-league teams invest millions of dollars in the Dominican Republic each year, in the hope of finding the next gem who can turn a franchise around. In all there are 30 baseball academies run by US teams, plus one owned by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan. Baseball is among the country's top five industries, with Major League Baseball sinking $40 million to $50 million into the economy each year not including players' contracts.
If the Dominican Republic is the promised land where baseball talent grows wild, San Pedro de Macorís is its mecca.
An impoverished, bustling city of about 300,000 on the southeast of the island, where sugarcane dictates an unforgiving lifestyle, San Pedro can rightfully claim the title of greatest producer of baseball players in the world. To see how prodigious this city has been in the past couple of decades, one need only walk by the houses of George Bell, Alfredo Griffin, Juan Samuel, and Joaquin Andujar, right near Sammy Sosa Plaza. Or, stroll down La Calle Peloteros, the "Street of Players," where the mansions of major leaguers Manny Alexander, Armando Benitez, Alfonso Soriano, José Mercedes, and José Offerman line the street.
Yet the names you might recognize are exceptions. The real stories are found where the roads turn from gravel to dirt, past the shoulder-high sugarcane, among the tin shacks where people live. People here play baseball as if their lives depended on it. They play every season, every day, with broken equipment and torn uniforms. Some are illiterate; some are hungry.
What they have in common is a belief that they just might make it out, like the guy who buys a lottery ticket every morning hoping to become a millionaire. One look at their faces, and you can see that the game isn't about fun. It's about hope. And no matter how slight it may be at least they have some.
On this day in late February, the players look up from under their caps when a stocky man appears with a small notebook tucked into the front of his shorts. He wears a hat and a T-shirt with the emblem of his employer: the Atlanta Braves. He has a stopwatch around his neck, a gold chain around his wrist, and a new pair of Nike running shoes on his feet. His name is Tomas Vasquez, but everyone calls him "Pepsi" because his skin is dark and rich just like the soda.
Pepsi is a scout, and every day he plies the back lots and dirt roads, looking to find the next product that can be groomed, packaged, and shipped to America. "I'm looking for someone who can make it to the big leagues," he says of his quixotic search.
Today Pepsi has come to see a young pitcher named Miguel Ramón. Miguel is one of a couple hundred players who frequent the baseball field which looks more like a garbage dump known as El Play de la Cloaca.
In return for being able to play here and receive minimal instruction, Miguel will be expected to kick back about 25 percent of his contract, if he is fortunate enough to sign. The money goes to the buscones, or bird dogs, who run the field and act as middlemen between the streets and the professional academies.
At their worst, the buscones have been known to trick players out of some pretty good money. In some cases, they have taken players away from their homes and hidden them to prevent them from signing with a rival. At their best, they have given players guidance and resources that would otherwise not be available. In some cases, the buscones have had to teach players how to write their names so they can sign their first contract.
Because Miguel is 6 ft., 2 in., and can throw an 88 m.p.h. fastball at the age of 16, there is a substantial amount of interest in him. The buscones have begun to give him small tokens of their appreciation, such as protein drink mix and spare change to keep his pockets full. One of the buscones, Mariano Carmona, taught him how to eat breakfast milk, bread, vitamins, and fruit every morning after he wakes up.
On the mound, Miguel is throwing fire. He mows down the first two batters he faces with fastballs and an occasional curve to keep them off balance. Everything looks easy, until a batter with a Chipper Jones jersey and a bit of mettle steps up to the plate. Miguel starts him off with two strikes, and breaks out into a smile. But the batter hangs in there, fighting off pitches and drawing balls until the count is full. Finally, Miguel hangs a lazy curve over the middle of the plate, and "Chipper Jones" whacks it into the gap between left and center fields.
Pepsi sees everything from the corners of his eyes. He shakes his head. "To make it, he needs to work harder. He needs to get his fastball up to 90 [m.p.h.]." But, he adds, "Miguel has a good future. Next year he will get to an academy."
Until that time comes, Miguel will be left with little more than his lofty dreams. Someday, he says, he hopes to earn some real money for his family, to get them out of the tiny concrete house where he lives with his mother, two brothers, and sister. The bed is too small and his feet dangle off the end when he tries to sleep. For light, a naked bulb hangs from the ceiling. "If I make it to the big leagues," he explains, "I will come back here and build a big house. Just like Sammy Sosa."
Imagine the odds. A hundred kids play on a sandlot field in San Pedro de Macorís, and a couple of them make it to an academy. A hundred kids play at the academy, and a couple make it to the minors. A hundred kids play in the minors, and a couple make it to the majors. Then, imagine the odds of becoming the next Sammy Sosa.
Joaquin Andujar has seen it all. When he was 15 years old, there were no academies in the Dominican Republic and not much in the way of professional instruction. Nonetheless, he could throw a baseball 95 m.p.h. And when you can throw that hard at such a young age, the men from America have a way of finding you.
When Andujar signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds for $1,500, money was not the issue. Back then, you didn't play the game to get rich, he says. You played to be the next Bob Gibson.
The Reds eventually shipped Andujar to America and life there wasn't so easy. He didn't speak any English. It was hard to get used to the food. It was cold. Despite the hardship, he landed in the majors with the Houston Astros in 1976. He was 23. He went on to pitch 13 years in the big leagues, twice becoming a 20-game winner and four times an All-Star. He retired a rich man after the 1988 season, and now is back in San Pedro de Macorís, where he oversees a municipal baseball field.
A lot has changed since his day, Andujar says. Now the competition is fiercer. The numbers are more daunting. Andujar estimates that there were about 1,000 serious ballplayers in the eastern Dominican Republic when he was growing up. Today there are about 20,000, he says.
"If I read in the paper that Sammy Sosa just signed for $100 million, I want to play baseball," he says. "I tell them, 'You never know.' "
The best of the best can get juicy contracts. Joel Guzman, a shortstop, recently signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for more than $2 million. Willie Pena, a hard-hitting outfielder who has been compared to Vladimir Guerrero, got $4.7 million from the New York Yankees and is considered one of the best prospects in their farm system. Players of such high caliber are sent straight to the US for special grooming, usually in Class A ball.
More commonly, however, promising young Dominicans are sent to the local academies, where they earn a modest salary and have a three-year time limit to make it to America or be sent home. They may even get to play alongside the scores of established big leaguers who play in the Dominican winter league.
But careers often end quickly and without explanation. Players are washed up at 21 or 22, and thrown into a world without much use for a strong young man who can put a wooden bat to a leather ball.
"Life changes when you sign your first contract," says Amaury Fernandez, who earned a $4,000 deal with the Houston Astros in 1992 but whose career was cut short by an ankle injury. "People stop you on the street, and they are nice to you.
"When you don't play anymore, everything is different," he continues. "The days are longer, and you don't have any money. It's hard to support a family."
Hector Guerrero can hit. He's a lefty with power to all fields. His arms are thick, and his wrists are quick. When he turns on a ball, when he drives his legs through the batter's box and toward the pitcher's mound, his swing is so vicious that it almost hurts to watch.
Can he hit 15 home runs in a season?
"More," says his batting coach, Antonio Bautista.
"Something like that," Bautista says. "It's hard to say."
But there's a problem. The kid can't stop acting stupid. He's driving the coaches crazy. He leaves a bat here, loses a glove there. Practice starts, and he's nowhere to be found. Over by the batting cage, he's walking around in a daze, gripping his bat ... is he talking to it?
Hector had better straighten himself out soon, because in two days he's off to Florida for spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers. By no means is he a lock, but the word around the academy is that he won't be coming back to the Dominican Republic anytime soon. He could play as high as triple-A this season, and in a few years he might get a shot at The Show.
In other words, the kid has game.
For now, however, he's enjoying his last few days at the academy, which the Dodgers have appropriately named Las Palmas. The place, in the town of Guerra, halfway between San Pedro de Macorís and Santo Domingo, is crawling with palm trees. There are four baseball diamonds, dormitories, a weight room, a cafeteria, offices, a staff of 51, satellite dishes, and a loudspeaker that rings out so loudly, one might think it carries the voice of the legendary Tommy Lasorda himself.
A guard stands by the front gate with a shotgun.
"This is the way to play ball," says Rafael Rijo, the outfield coach, "away from all the distractions, away from the streets and all the people."
At the moment, there are some 35 players here. Other times, there are as many as 100. Most come when they are close to the minimum signing age, 17, and have contracts ranging in value from a couple thousand dollars to a couple hundred thousand dollars. Hector, a 20-year-old outfielder, signed three years ago for $22,500.
Hector had been pegged as a baseball player ever since he was little. His father was the driver for George Bell, the star slugger of the Toronto Blue Jays.
"George Bell told my father, 'The little guy moves quick,' " Hector recalls, flashing a smile that's reminiscent of Dion Sanders. "When I was little, he told my father to teach me to play baseball. He said maybe I could make it to the major leagues."
He's already come closer than most. Last year, after a productive spring training with the Dodgers, he was sent to the rookie league, where in one stretch he hit three home runs and was named player of the week. But he was sidelined by neck spasms and wound up back here on the island.
This year, he says, his neck is back to full strength. He's feeling better than ever. His coaches are keeping their fingers crossed. "He needs to get a little lower in his stance and get better balance," says Bautista, the hitting coach. "He needs to hit the cutoff man better. He needs to keep learning. He needs to keep his head on straight.... He has a real chance."
Once you've made it to The Show, once you've signed your multimillion-dollar contract, this is what you do: Buy a big plot of land in your hometown, and start building. You build the tallest house on the block, fill it with equipment and art, put a few luxury cars in the garage and you give it to your parents.
That's what José Antonio Offerman did. Offerman is an infielder for the Boston Red Sox, and despite some disappointing years of late he's cashing in for more than $6 million a year.
When he was 1 year old, his father gave him a plastic bat to carry around the house. When he was 12, José joined his first serious team. At the age of 14, his father, also José, realized he had a real talent on his hands.
"At 14, I started paying more attention to him," the father says. "I was sure that he could make it."
Jose the father took matters into his own hands. He threw his son endless batting practice and knocked ground balls at him into the dirt so they would bounce up hard off the rocks. He coached and prodded and loved him as only a father can. He let him play with the other kid in the neighborhood, the one named Sammy who could hit and run.
When it was time for José to sign, at 17, his mother, Norie, handled the contract negotiations with the Dodgers. She was tough, wanting to hold out for more money. Eventually, though, she settled for $7,000. It seemed like a lot of money at the time.
Now the Offermans talk in millions. They live in a house big enough for a training-camp roster. Their TV set could be measured in feet, not inches.
Babies crawl around the floor, chased by mothers and fathers who claim a relation to the big-league ballplayer. There's a silver statue of an eagle in the sitting room that is odd and extravagant.
The elder José leans back in a reclining leather chair and takes it all in as if it were a movie. He still wears the same kind of clothes he wore when he wasn't so rich, down to the old slippers that dangle from his feet.
"A lot of players today are just doing it for the money like it's a business," he says. "But they are not the ones who make it."
"It takes heart to make it," he says, bringing his fist to his chest.
But really it takes more than just heart as a few days watching in the dirt fields will prove.
Heart is easy to find here. It's a given. It's cheap like sugarcane and mangos. To make it also takes talent powerful arms, swift feet, the ability to throw a ball more than 90 m.p.h. or to hit it more than 400 feet.
And finally, it takes a break. Without a break, nothing here is possible.
How good is baseball in the Dominican Republic? So good, it turns out, that young players from the United States are leaving home to play there.
American professionals have been flying south to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic for a long time. But what's strange is the phenomenon of kids dropping out of American high schools so they can play amateur baseball in a country that most local players are trying to leave.
"I thought I would have a better chance of getting signed here," explains Osvaldo Creque Jr., who came to San Pedro de Macorís a year ago after forgoing his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, New York. He now lives with Dominican relatives.
The problem is, Osvaldo hasn't been signed and he's not even playing on an official team. He spends his days playing pick-up baseball at a public field frequented by scouts. He gets a bit of instruction, but not enough that the "coach" who is more of an agent-in-waiting even knows his name.
"This is a big mess," Osvaldo, a 19-year-old catcher, says. "If I don't get signed, it was a waste of time."
"Compared with New York, life is hard here," he adds. "A lot of these kids you see haven't eaten lunch...."
At another field, it was easy to distinguish a Brooklyn, N.Y., transplant by his accent. The player, also 19, who asked that his name not be published, said he was getting more practice in the Caribbean climate than he could in the US.
When asked if he thought he'd be signed, he was fairly optimistic. But his coach saw less promise.
"Too old," the coach said bluntly, "and not enough natural ability."
Baseball came to the Caribbean via Cuba about 1866, and trickled its way to the Dominican Republic a couple years later. It was first taught to the Cubans by American sailors in the sugar trade. The Cubans, some of them wealthy sugar-plantation owners, fled to the Dominican Republic when their country was engulfed by civil war in 1868.
As the Cubans settled in their new country, they set up sugar plantations in the south, near San Pedro de Macorís, and supplied baseball equipment to their workers as a diversion from a hard life cutting cane. The game gradually replaced soccer as the most popular sport.
In the early 1900s, the country's four teams (which exist today) were formed.
Baseball's importance in Dominican life was strengthened by the American occupation of the island from 1916 to 1924. The Americans organized leagues in the hope of instilling their culture on the island. The Dominicans, however, took great joy in beating the US soldiers at their own game.
By the mid 1930s, after Rafael Trujillo had come to power, the Dominicans were absorbed in their professional league. In the legendary season of 1937, in an effort to help his sagging popularity, Trujillo took control of the two teams from Santo Domingo, merged them into an all-star team, and named them after himself: The Ciudad Trujillo Dragones.
But the competition, from defending champs San Pedro de Macorís, was stiff. Scouts from San Pedro had gone to the US and signed three of the best Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell.
When they arrived in the Dominican Republic, however, Trujillo did what any good dictator would do: He stole them from San Pedro and suited them up for his own team, which went on to win the championship that year.
Although the Dominican league and for that matter the entire country was bankrupted by the 1937 season, passion for baseball has remained very high.