Monday, February 11, 2008

San Pedro de Macorís

I returned to Bogotá yesterday a bit tired and speaking with a Dominican accent. The Dominican Republic is likely to make a significant impression for any first-time visitor. The accent I picked up isn’t something worth bragging about since many Dominicans chop off the endings on their words and don’t articulate well. This was to be expected as I first witnessed it riding in a guagua (Spanish word for “bus” in the Caribbean) from the Santo Domingo airport to San Pedro de Macorís. A group of women was yapping away in the back of the bus as merengue played from the speakers. If traveling by taxi, bus, or car, music will always be playing and often so high that you have to talk loud to be heard. Then again, it is a very loud country, from the blaring subwoofers in passing cars to normal conversation. I swear most of the people are hard of hearing. However, most people know baseball. That was why I had come to San Pedro de Macorís.

“Here in San Pedro, there are hundreds of teams,” said Pedro González, former Major League Baseball player from San Pedro de Macorís in The Tropic of Baseball. “Every boy grows up with a bat and a ball – it’s the first present a male baby gets in his crib – and every one that wants the chance to play gets it.”

The quotation above is no exaggeration. I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and Cuba and I can confidently say that San Pedro de Macorís is the mecca of baseball. Granted, I haven’t been to Japan recently and never to Venezuela, but it’s hard to believe that there can be any place on earth with a higher concentration of good baseball players. In a city of less than 200,000 inhabitants, it has produced big leaguers such as George Bell, Alfonso Soriano, and Sammy Sosa. Other than at a big league stadium, I never saw so many people wearing Major League baseball team caps – Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees caps could be seen on every street corner. It is hot and sunny year-round so a cap is as necessary as the five-gallon jugs of water that are sold throughout the country.

Besides the weather, it was a significant cultural change from Bogotá. When the guagua dropped me off in San Pedro, a pack of motorcyclists swarmed around me on the curb. Before I knew it, I was riding on the back of a motorcycle, wearing my backpack and shoulder bag. The driver put my large bag, full of clothes, on the handlebars. San Pedro reminded me a lot of Santiago, Cuba, which is the motorcycle capital of the largest Caribbean island. When I arrived at the Río Vista apartments, located on the malecon across from a park for children, about a half dozen girls started shouting at me. They were in the complex’s concrete pool with one guy, who asked me which one I liked. From my experience in the Dominican Republic this was normal. Both men and women were a lot more aggressive and outgoing than in Bogotá or the United States, or Cuba for that matter. It was a Saturday night and they wanted to party. Well, at least they didn’t have to walk far.

The malecon, or seaside promenade, is the place where locals park their flashy cars and drink beer and socialize. As it approached dusk, I met a 6-year-old boy who was playing wiffle ball with his older friend on the scraggly beach as his father watched. I took photos of him swinging his big red bat and then chatted with them as the sun was setting over a group of palm trees on the horizon. I talked about baseball with the father and the son had no problem following along. This experience, like many others on my two-week trip, seemed surreal.

The next day I rode a guagua a few kilometers outside the city to a major league tryout that included scouts from the Mets and Tigers. These types of tryouts occur every day of the year all around the city. I would have never found it on my own. When I got on the bus, I asked a teenage kid wearing a baseball uniform where he was going. He said to a tryout. The ball field was surrounded by sugarcane fields. Local men living under tin roofs and dirt floors gathered near firstbase to watch the tryout. The supervisor was from Puerto Rico, and he had brought a pitcher and catcher from his country to tryout. In Puerto Rico, a baseball prospect can not sign with a Major League team as a free agent. In the Dominican Republic he can sign as a free agent. So the Puerto Ricans who don’t get drafted often come to the San Pedro area to try and sign with a big league club. The players definitely had the grace and ability that is commonplace in this area. If they did sign, their next stop could likely be in “Baseball City” in Boca Chica.

While staying in San Pedro and watching the young local baseball players, I spent my final three days at “Baseball City.” (This name, like several other English words, is known by virtually everyone.) “Baseball City” is the location for several Major League academies in Boca Chica, a small city about twenty minutes from San Pedro. Every Major League Baseball (MLB) team has an academy in the Dominican Republic. As far as I know, Baseball City has the most MLB academies in one location. Young prospects who have signed with a MLB team live and train in these academies off and on throughout the year.

When the bus dropped me off at Baseball City I stood there looking at a power plant next to the main highway from Santo Domingo to San Pedro. Next to it was a dirt road. Nothing else. No people. No buildings. Just normal plants and trees you see on the side of the road. Was I at the right place? Hidden a kilometer down this road was Baseball City. I first stopped by the Minnesota Twins complex but the boss told me he had to call the owner to get permission for me to take photos. While he made the call, I visited the Chicago Cubs academy. The managers and players gave me a warm welcome, so I spent virtually the next three days with them at their two ball fields, eating in their cafeteria, attending their daily English classes, and hanging out in their dorms. It was a simple recipe: eat, play ball, and hang out. There were 64 players. All had signed with the Cubs. Félix Pie, the Cubs centerfielder who grew up just down the road, participated in all the drills and workouts while giving the young prospects guidance. Practice lasted every day until 1 p.m. Then they had English classes before dinner. The classes were directly tailored toward baseball and phrases that will help them make the transition to life in America. Baseball terminology and social niceties were emphasized and repeated on the handout the teacher gave the players, who wore T-shirts and flip-flops. In a few weeks some of these players would be heading to Arizona for spring training. Others would stay at home and try and make their big league dreams happen during camp the following winter. For the latter group, I look forward to hanging out with them again next year.


Anonymous said...

I love baseball wow your topic is nice and helped me try to figure out how much baseball mind's down there

jb said...

Enjoyed playing at baseball city, enjoyed your blog and agree entirely.-Jack Bernacchi

Anonymous said...

I know one of the girls on the picture lol

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