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 MacorĂ­s 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.

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