Monday, February 11, 2008

The Caribbean World Series

Though my time in San Pedro de Macorís had turned out better than I had hoped, the main reason I had traveled to the Dominican Republic was to see the Caribbean World Series. Like in San Pedro, I had no specific plans or expectations. A scout I had met at the Cubs academy had given me tickets to all 12 games of the Caribbean Series, which would have sold for $360 on the street. Things seemed to be going my way and every day seemed better than the previous one with welcomed surprises.

I took a bus from San Pedro to Santo Domingo, the capital, and then another one to Santiago, the nation’s second-largest city and host of the Caribbean Series. The first night I paid more than I would have liked at Hotel Colonial, but I had heard that almost the entire city was booked for the baseball tournament. I had made a reservation with a hostel down the street for the rest of the week. I arrived a day earlier than planned because I wanted to scope out the city and see if I could somehow get a press pass. At worst, I still had my tickets.

The next morning, on the eve of the Caribbean Series, I walked to Estadio Cibao, which was on the outskirts of the city. ESPN was setting up its satellite and facilities outside the stadium. A few workers were painting the facade near the front entrance. About 250 workers had spent the previous four months renovating the stadium. In typical Dominican fashion, they were putting on the finishing touches on it all the way until the first pitch. Dominicans as a whole are not punctual.

After walking around the stadium I saw an old man sitting on the wall near the parking lot. He was drinking a big bottle of Brahma beer and was wearing an Águilas baseball cap. The Águilas Cibaeñas are the professional winter baseball league team in Santiago. Anyhow, he had a great face, the type that a photographer notices. I asked him if I could take his picture. He chuckled as I took a few shots while his friends busted his chops. I sat down next to him and we had a long conversation. His name was Fabio Valenzuela, age 73, and he had been the Águilas conditioning coach for 40 years. He had lived near the stadium his entire life. After a while he asked me if I had my own press pass. I told him I did. Because I work independently, I don’t have one, but I made a personalized press pass in Bogotá the day before I left. I wasn’t sure if I would use it or not. Valenzuela said he would help me get a tournament press pass. He walked to the press entrance and talked to the security guard, who wasn’t letting any reporters inside. He told me to wait and started getting animated with the security. Then a stout, gray-haired man walked inside. He began talking to this man. The gray-haired man motioned me to follow him and Valenzuela gave me a big smile. I was in.

The gray-haired man was the longtime Águilas radio and television broadcaster. He had a great deep voice that most broadcasters would envy. He introduced himself and escorted me up to the trophy room. Trophies filled the walls on the left and right side of the room, and plaques of renowned managers and people in the Aguilas organization hung on the walls. Outside the room he introduced me to the Caribbean World Series president. Then we walked to one of the luxury boxes and watched the workers and grounds crew on the field. It was an impressive stadium. I really couldn’t believe this was happening to me. All the other reporters were still outside. They weren’t making press passes at the time so he asked me if I had seen the city. I told him not yet because I just had arrived the previous night. He then chauffeured me around the city in his car as he explained some of the history and culture while pointing out the sights. I had my own personalized tour! He even took me up to the top of Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración. Because this towering monument is on top of a hill in the center of the city, it provides a great aerial view of Santiago, a city of 700,000 surrounded by mountains.

I thought we’d head back to the ballpark. Not yet. He invited me for lunch. He was raising the bar for Dominican hospitality. Before lunch we drank shots of a cream-colored liqueur that had a good anisette flavor. On the wall were pictures of his family and plaques he had won for broadcasting. One photo showed him broadcasting as a teenager. He said he had been doing it for 60 years. Again, my whole morning seemed surreal. Because I told him my last name was Italian, he put in a DVD of André Rieu playing in a concert in his hometown of Maastricht, Netherlands. I’m not sure about the correlation he had made between being Italian and liking André Rieu. It was a bit weird. But as the old saying goes, when in Rome... His wife cooked us pasta and shrimp and rice and beans and chicken. It was a feast. His son and daughter had joined us. I felt like family. After lunch we returned to Estadio Cibao, where I got a press pass. If I hadn’t talked to Valenzuela, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the pass. This story is a microcosm of life in the Dominican Republic ... it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

I was about to meet the man who knew everyone, or at least it seemed that way. Denny Almonte grew up in the same city as me – Danbury, Conn. – and he and his family were good friends with my father. Denny, a few years older than I, had been living in Santiago for the past four years and was saying hello to someone he knew everywhere he went. After getting the press pass I met him outside the stadium. I don’t remember meeting him in Danbury, but his family is among the biggest in my hometown so it’s tough to know for sure. An outgoing and funny guy, we instantly got along well. Before I could say anything, he said I could stay with him for the rest of my trip. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. He lives in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a nice balcony. We had a great time the rest of the week and we settled into a routine. I woke up and showered and prepared my photography equipment. For lunch we went to a different restaurant he recommended. I was living well. I also was working hard. After lunch he dropped me off at the ballpark.

There was a game at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day, but after talking to the players and coaches in the locker room, I usually didn’t leave until 1 a.m. Denny let me use his second phone and picked me up at the ball park each evening. Then we’d grab a few beers and some food downtown. That was our routine. Because I had a press pass, I gave him my tickets to the tournament.

The Caribbean World Series is a six-day round-robin tournament that normally features the champion from the professional winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. This year, however, the Tigres de Licey of Santo Domingo replaced Puerto Rico, who didn’t bring a team because its professional league was canceled due to financial problems. Santiago’s Águilas Cibaeñas had beaten Licey for the Dominican Winter League title. Less than two weeks later Licey avenged its losses, beating the Águilas twice for its record 10th Caribbean World Series title. I wrote an article and a history piece on the Caribbean Series for the Chicago Sports Review.

My week was so good in Santiago that the only negative thing I can mention is the low attendance throughout the tournament. Many local fans could not afford tickets. Because the greedy scalpers had bought so many tickets and often weren’t willing to lower their prices, the 18,077-seat Estadio Cibao was less full than in past Caribbean Series. Nevertheless, I had a blast and learned a lot while photographing near the first base line and home plate, among other places. It was like a baseball photography seminar. I picked up a lot of new tricks by watching how the more experienced photographers were working. By the sixth day I was taking photos that I didn’t know how to take at the start of the tournament.

All the fun I had wore me out. I couldn’t rest just yet. My departing flight was in the Santo Domingo airport, a good three hours from Santiago. Because I had bought my ticket from CheapTickets, my flight had been changed. Instead of leaving at 9:15 a.m., I was leaving at 7:30 a.m. If I took a bus in the morning, I’d miss my flight. So I took the last bus leaving Santiago at 8:30 p.m. I actually almost missed the bus. I was waiting for a chicken sandwich that took forever to be made at a fast food place across from the bus station. I saw the bus pull in. A minute later I turned my head and it was gone. I figured it’d wait for a few minutes. As soon as I had my sandwich I ran with Denny to his car. He drove like he was John Belushi in The Blue Brothers movie. All that rush so I could wait in an airport all night until I had to check in for my flight. I felt tired going home. It was a good tired.


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