Saturday, February 21, 2009

A-Rod*


I took this photo of Alex Rodriguez, better known as A-Rod, on his first day practicing with the Dominican team playing in the World Baseball Classic. For some reason, A-Rod was adjusting his cup throughout fielding drills and I snapped this picture when he turned toward the fans along the thirdbase line. I think it represents how he feels about the media hounding him about steroids. Ironically, I took this photo on February 3, just days before his steroid allegations became public knowledge. Regardless of his steroid use, Rodriguez is still one of the best players in baseball history, and he will be remembered that way because he admitted his mistake and apologized.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Pursuit of Baseball

I had not planned on visiting Santiago, but here I was a year later visiting my friend Denny Almonte. We had gone to the same high school and he now was living in the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city in the mountainous north region. I had wanted to finish my Dominican trip in San Pedro de Macorís. However, I made a last-minute decision to visit Denny because I figured he could use the company. I had stayed at his place a year ago when I was covering the Caribbean World Series.

Cuban prospects look out to a baseball field before a morning practice in Santiago, Dominican Republic. From left to right: Angel Argüelles, Alexei Gil, and Felix Perez.

I had not planned on doing laundry. I figured a few days with no underwear wouldn’t hurt. Denny knew a good place to do laundry in a small plaza close to his home.

I had not planned on eating in fancy restaurants, but now that I was living with Denny it was unavoidable. A laundry mat worker recommended a restaurant for breakfast at the far end of the plaza.

Felix Perez, 20, a centerfielder who played professionally in the Island of Youth in Cuba, takes morning batting practice as agents, his fellow Cuban players, and locals watch in Santiago, D.R.

I had not planned on meeting any Cuban players, but I couldn’t resist the urge to talk to the tall young men at the restaurant eating breakfast in baseball uniforms. I walked up to the tallest player, who was wearing a Cubs hat and on his way out the restaurant. He told me his name was Angel Argüelles, and that he had grown up in Habana and pitched for the Metropolitanos. He said there were seven other Cuban players who had defected that were living in Santiago. They were going to tryouts so that hopefully they could be signed once they gained Dominican citizenship. Argüelles and some of the other players had been living in a hotel next to the restaurant while rest were living in an apartment. There was a group of men who lived in Santiago and knew prominent Major League agents. These men paid for the hotel, clothes, food, and good lifestyle that these prospects now enjoyed. When the players sign contracts, however, it will likely be worth the wait. It is kind of crazy when you think that the players have all been living in Santiago for six months or longer. It is even crazier to think about the lifestyle change for these young Cubans. I shook hands with another player, Felix Perez, and the benefactors. The players seemed excited I had a camera. When Perez asked Denny who I work for, Denny quickly replied, “For whoever he wants.” We began talking about Cuba and I showed them some of my photos on the computers inside the restaurant. We agreed to meet the following day so that I could photograph them.

A baseball field outside of Santiago, D.R., owned by Tony Peña.

I had not planned on following an old Toyota Camry down a muddy road in the middle of cow country. The benefactors had obviously spent all their money on fancy watches and hotel rooms for the players. Then again, it was probably done on purpose. They wanted to maintain a low profile. Denny’s dashboard was beeping because his gas needle was on empty. Outside it was drizzling and two quail ran around a big puddle in the road. There wasn’t a person anywhere, just a couple of farm houses. Sure enough there was a baseball field on the right side of the road, supposedly owned by legendary catcher Tony Peña. There was a batting cage, too. It was a “field of dreams” in its own way. However, it was too muddy to practice.

I am posing with two Cuban baseball prospects. Felix Perez is wearing a Chicago White Sox uniform that he says "was a surprise" gift from an agent or scout. Ironically, the Chicago Cubs are very interested in signing him. I forgot the name of the player wearing the New York Yankees uniform. Both players grew up in the Isla de Juventud, or Island of Youth.

We turned around and followed the Camry back toward Santiago. Luckily, we didn’t run out of gas by the time we arrived at a better looking baseball field. As three of the players looked onto the field for a morning practice I took a photo that I believe was my best of the entire trip. (You can see it at the top of this blog). A group of local boys helped toss balls for batting practice and outfield drills. It was a good support system for these Cuban players.

Before going out during my last night in Santiago(from left to right): Alexei Gil, Denny Almonte, Tony Peña Jr., and me.

That night Denny and I returned to the plaza and saw some of the players sitting at the restaurant patio. We joined them and I gave them copies of the photos I taken and burned onto a CD. Denny and I had planned on going to the gym to workout. We ended up staying for drinks with the players which turned into smoking Cuban cigars and going out for the night. The stories these players had were remarkable and too long to write about here. Maybe it was the alcohol or the Cohibas, but they talked open and freely in a way I had never seen at a public place in Cuba. When they said they how much they wanted to go to the United States, I could see it in their eyes; their anticipation was palpable. Funny, because the next day I was leaving for the U.S. yet I wished I had more time in the Dominican Republic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A-Rod Arrives

It was a normal Monday morning at the Cubs Academy in Boca Chica. Nothing unusual. I was photographing two batboys washing uniforms, when I saw a motorcycle pull into the parking lot. It was Freddy Bernard, a Dominican baseball photographer who everyone calls “Fotoman.” I had been working on a story on him as well as on the Cubs Academy. I had expected to meet him before lunchtime, but his motorcycle kept breaking down en route from Santo Domingo. “Let’s go,” he said. “We have to hurry.”


I helped push his motorcycle and then hopped on as we sped down a long dirt road filled with potholes. It would have been much worse in a car. About two miles away we arrived at another group of big league academies, in this case the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians. Next to them a giant complex for poor children was being built under the sponsorship of Mariano Rivera. I found it kind of odd considering that Rivera grew up in Panama, not the Dominican Republic. Anyhow, we jogged toward one of Colorado’s fields, and saw a big crowd huddled around David Ortiz and Albert Pujols. Many of the Dominican prospects posed with the two big league stars. They had arrived to begin practice with the Dominican team that would play in the World Baseball Classic. After the initial commotion, practice began in right field. The players did light agility and strength drills for an hour or so. The sun was out and the players seemed relaxed. Ortiz ran up to me as I was taking his picture and said, “What’s up, Gringo!”


The next day I woke up tired from a week of hustling between San Pedro de Macorís and Boca Chica. I told myself I’d just take a few photos in San Pedro and relax the rest of the day. I did just that, only I happened to see a man reading a newspaper at a convenience shop. I asked him if I could see it for a second, and I skimmed through the sports section, which was most of the newspaper. The front page said that Alex Rodriguez, known as “A-Rod,” was arriving today. I have to go to Colorado’s academy, I thought, as I hustled to the bus terminal.


An hour later I was at the academy. So was A-Rod. The team was in the same spot, performing easy warm-up and agility drills. There were just a handful of photographers the day before. Now there were at least two dozen journalists pacing around the fences, trying to get a good angle for a photo or video. Apparently a lot of fans had seen the same headline as me and knew how to get here. They filled the bleachers behind home plate during batting practice and followed A-Rod wherever he went like a flock of sheep. He seemed to ignore the fans yelling his name. Though he did turn and smile when a fan told him he needed some money. Unlike the other players, A-Rod had a special group of bodyguards with walky-talkies. Yesterday it felt like a bunch of ball players. Today it felt like celebrity news. In fact, a news conference was held after practice underneath a tent. Most of the questions were addressed to A-Rod or Pujols. The entire press conference was in Spanish. A-Rod explained that it was his mother’s dream for him to play for the Dominican Republic. He said he had been blessed with the option of playing for both the United States and the D.R. (In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, A-Rod played for a United States team that didn’t make it past the second round. A-Rod has dual citizenship because he was born in the U.S. and his parents are Dominican.) The players left in large SUVs with tinted windows. Although I got some good shots, I felt more relaxed at the Cubs Academy, where the players were watching a movie and attending English class in flip-flops and shorts.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My House is Your House

The door was open so I just let myself into their office. They were sitting around a big table discussing the schedule for the day. When I entered, the meeting stopped and I said hello to the boss, Juan Cabreja. He had remembered me from last year and asked, “What can I do for you?”


“I have something I want to show you,” I said as I reached into my backpack. I placed photos I had taken from a year ago in front of him. He began looking through them and passing the photos to his colleagues sitting next to him. They knew the names of each player in the photos, and told me where they were now living. Most of them were still here. A few were living in the United States. I had remembered the time of day and where each photo was taken, but names and so forth had escaped me. The interesting thing to me was that the majority of particularly photogenic players had made it higher in the team’s minor league system. Maybe the same characteristics that drew me to snap their photos also drew the coaches to promote them higher up the baseball ladder. Even more interesting, perhaps, was how I had just stopped their meeting. This would have never happened in Chicago, this I was sure of. After they had finished looking at the photos, I told Cabreja that I wanted to do a multimedia story on the Cubs Academy.

“Feel free to do whatever you want,” he said with a smile. “My house is your house.”

This is what I love about the Dominican Republic. They treat baseball like religion but seem to always have fun doing it. There is a certain dichotomy that is harder to find in the United States. After kneeling down to say a team prayer, someone volunteers to tell a dirty joke to the rest of the team. Everyone seems like they are in a good mood. This is the Chicago Cubs Academy, one of about a dozen major league baseball academies located in the Dominican resort town of Boca Chica, but difficult to find if you’re not in the know. Each academy has about 60 to 70 Dominican prospects who have signed with a major league team. They are usually paid about $20,000 to $100,000 to sign. Any player that signs for more than six figures is sent directly to United States for training. There are a few Cuban and Venezuelan players as well who are invited to tryout before being signed.


When I had visited the Cubs Academy a year ago, I met Oneri Fleita, the Cubs VP of Player Personnel. Fleita was tall, friendly, and bilingual; he fit in. When I emailed him last July requesting an interview with Alfonso Soriano, Fleita put me in touch with Jason Carr, who was in charge of media relations. Carr responded to my email, “Due to the high demand for his time, we can’t guarantee a one-on-one with Soriano. With regards to photos, we’d be happy to send you action shots of Alfonso taken this season.” I’m a journalist, not a Soriano fan, I thought to myself at the time. I’ll just have to find him in the D.R.


My wish was granted moments after I had interrupted Cabreja and the other coaches. I walked into the team’s weight room, where Soriano was lifting with teammate Aramis Ramírez. No one else was in the gym. I introduced myself, and took photos of them doing agility drills in the outfield before fielding drills and batting practice with the rest of the Cubs prospects. They seemed like nice guys who were happy to be playing in their own country. When I asked Ramírez how he liked living in Chicago, he said, “I don’t live in Chicago, I just play there.” I couldn’t blame him for spending his winters playing baseball in 85-degree weather.


A couple days later I was walking alone down the dirt road that lead toward the Cubs Academy when a white SUV with tinted windows stopped next to me. The door opened. It was Soriano. “Get in,” he said.