Friday, January 25, 2008

The Republic of Baseball

The people from the estates never had anything to do. You go there when the cropping season is over and you see the old men playing dominos and younger people playing baseball. Once the season is over, what you gonna do, sit on your butt? NO! You play ball, that's what you gonna do.

~ Pedro González, former MLB player from San Pedro de Macorís in The Tropic of Baseball

As you are reading this I am probably in the Dominican Republic or at least in route. I am going there for one reason: baseball. Actually, I am going there to learn and photograph those who are involved in the game. Why baseball? I like the game, and I love hanging out with the players. I didn’t fully realize this until I became a journalist in college. In fact, the first good piece of journalism I wrote was on former North Carolina baseball standout Chris Maples. I’ve always related best with baseball players and boxers. They seem authentic and comfortable in their own skin. They also seem to lack the huge egos that players in other major sports have. Maybe it is their respective sport that keeps egos in check. After all, there is nothing more humbling than striking out or being knocked out.

So why am I going to the Dominican Republic? This island nation, about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined with a population of New York City, sends more players to the Major Leagues than any other country outside the United States. Maybe this wouldn’t be true if Fidel Castro let his players leave Cuba. So why didn’t I choose Cuba? They have a similar affinity for the game. Well, I’ve already been to Cuba, but that’s not the reason. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Caribbean World Series, and the Dominican Republic is hosting this baseball tournament. The professional winter league champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela compete for this coveted title and bragging rights. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico will not compete this year because their professional league was cancelled. It is very sad because the Puerto Rican Winter League had a 69-year history with hall-of-fame players, such as Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. It was cancelled because of low attendance and a lack of funds in the past decade. Part of this is because basketball has become much more popular in Puerto Rico as kids are now touching the rim instead of touching home plate. On the bright side, the Dominican Republic might assemble an extra team to compete in the tournament in place of the Puerto Rican team.

Whatever happens, I am going to have a blast. The week before the Caribbean World Series, which will be held in Santiago (the nation’s second-largest city), I am visiting San Pedro de Macorís, also known as the “city of shortstops.” This port city is more famous for producing MLB players than sugar (and it has produced a lot of sugar), with more professional baseball players per capita than anywhere in the world. George Bell, Julio Franco, Alfonso Soriano, and Sammy Sosa grew up in San Pedro de Macorís. The video above will shed more light on this baseball mecca.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Holy Smokes!

I have been busy trying to figure out all the functions on my new DSLR camera (the best present I've ever received, thank you mom and dad), as well as fixing computer problems. I've been so busy I didn't hear about the volcano eruption in Colombia last night. It was only when I opened an email my brother had sent with a link to the news story. The eruption took place last night in Pasto, a city of a half-million people near the Ecuador border. The Galeras volcano stands over 14,000 feet and caused the Pasto mayor to announce an evacuation, though no one was seriously hurt. Even if you're as busy as me, you still should watch footage of the eruption below:

Friday, January 4, 2008

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

It is a funny thing about life. One day you couldn’t be happier. The next day you couldn’t be more upset. This was my circumstance on the last day of 2007 and the first day of 2008. It is because of a huge fiasco that I only today arrived in Bogotá, two days behind schedule. On the bright side, I’m tired yet still breathing.

So here’s what happened. I took a train from downtown Portland to the airport, which was a pretty ride with Mount Hood in the distance. The odd thing is that the TriMet, Portland’s mass transit, charges $2.05 for one adult train fare. Why the extra five cents? Anyhow, I didn’t have change so it was a struggle getting my dollars to fit into the machine while balancing my luggage. Meanwhile it’s cold outside and I’m tired and have a hangover headache.

Whatever, that’s life. I arrived at the airport more than three hours before my 3:15 p.m. flight. The line was slow and long, but nothing unusual for New Year’s Day. Now the drama begins. The United Airlines attendant said she had no record of my reservation. I told her that was silly, and showed her my reservation number (record locator) and confirmation number that I had gotten from, the website where I originally bought the tickets. She said because I had not bought them from United and it wasn’t showing up on her screen there was nothing she could do for me. I was pissed and shocked at the same time. I had wanted to confirm my reservation at the airline reservation machine they had at the hotel. However, it only works 24 hours before the flight, and I didn’t have time to do it then because I was at the wedding. I asked the concierge to call United and confirm my flight but he kept telling me that everyone uses the reservation machine. He wasn’t a help, but I figured, oh well, I’ll just arrive early to the airport and not get in an argument with him. Now what to do? The airline attendant said there was nothing she could do. I was in a bind. My cell phone only worked in Colombia, and I didn’t have much money. I didn’t know anyone in Portland. Everyone at the wedding was leaving to go home. I pleaded for the attendant to help me and explained my predicament to her. She then called, who said United should let me on the plane because I had my confirmation number, etc. The airline attendant said I needed my actual ticket because she had no record of it. The problem was I had ordered the ticket to be delivered to my house but forgot it because I thought it was an electronic ticket. I had ordered it so far in advance that I forgot it was mailed to my house. I asked the attendant to use a phone. She didn’t have one, but the other attendant let me use his cell phone. Nice guy. I called my mom, but there was no answer so I left a message for her to call me back. In the meantime, I waited. She called me back and said she had the tickets. The problem was that I had no way of receiving them by fax or mail in time for the flight. Anyhow, she called and then called me. The bottom line was that I had to buy another ticket. Then once I got to Los Angeles I could explain my predicament to Avianca and hopefully they would help me out. So now I had to wait in another line to buy a new ticket. The problem was that the attendants were SO slow. After two hours of waiting I had almost made it to the front of the line. By that time, the line had circled back and forth several times and ran nearly the length of the airport. As the line got longer, more attendants started leaving until there were only two attendants, one of which was for VIP passengers. It was an outrage. Everyone was complaining how they were going to miss their flight. They had gotten to the airport three hours or more in advance and now were in danger of missing their flight. I got to the front of the line at about 2:30 p.m. I bought a new ticket for $260. I’m still bitter about that. Then I ran as fast as I could to the security check. Unfortunately, they singled me out for additional inspection. Go figure. Murphy’s law. Anyhow, I made it through finally, exhausted, out of breath and a bit sweaty from running. The waiting room seats near the gate were all full so I plopped myself on the floor. A minute later two young men jumped on me. It was Andris and Juice from the wedding. They had the same flight as me since they live in Los Angeles. (I was only getting my connection there). They had been drinking in the airport.

I waited an hour to get my checked bags in the LAX airport terminal, swearing I would never fly United ever again. I wrote down Juice’s cell number just in case I had any more problems. I began sprinting and weaving in between people on the sidewalk outside. I had to catch a bus to the other side of the terminal. I finally did. The bus dropped me off some ways away from the Avianca terminal so I had to run as fast as I could, again, while balancing two huge bags, a large backpack, and a computer bag. When I arrived at Avianca, there was only one other passenger. The airline attendant gave me the same runaround that the United lady had given me. She said I would have to talk to United because they were the reason I was late. Though if I had had my ticket, she would have let me on since I still had a half hour until my 8 p.m. flight left. She said that United should pay for my hotel and a new flight to Bogotá. I took the bus back to the United terminal and waited in line. The attendant said that the ticket was issued for Avianca and that I had to talk to them, and that they couldn’t do anything for me. Oh, the frustration! She did let me use a phone and I called Juice. No answer. I waited a half hour and then called back. No answer. Fuck! I called Raitis and apologized for calling him on his honeymoon, and then briefly explained my situation. He then gave me Andris’s number. I called Andris and luckily he answered and said he would pick me up. He picked me up and I slept at his house on the pullout couch.

The next day I called my mom and had her FedEx me the original tickets. The following morning I received them and Avianca let me board the overnight flight to Bogotá. Hence I am in Bogotá now, a little bit delirious and happy I made it, having learned my lesson. Always buy an electronic ticket and insist on confirming the flight in advance. (I think I tried to buy an electronic ticket but in this case, it wasn’t an available option). Also, never fly United.