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Pride and Passion: Baseball in the Dominican Republic

by John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball

Except among old fogies, it is commonplace wisdom that baseball and its players improve with each generation.

Drawing from ever wider pools of talent, our game has seen an advance in the average level of skill that is undeniable, even if it may be hard to pinpoint without the use of advanced statistics. Here is not the place for that, so consider this old-timer's contention that fielding plays were visible every day last year that were not made at any time in the 1950s. Today's game is better because its players are better, and much of the reason for that will be found in the Dominican Republic.

The numbers are simply astonishing, telling a story all by themselves. Since 1956, when Ozzie Virgil broke in with the New York Giants, 542 Dominicans have played Major League Baseball; of these, 125 played last year (California, with a population four times as large, supplied not twice the players).

Roughly a quarter of the 7,000 Minor League players in the U.S. are Dominican, too -- so this trend shows no sign of slowing.

In only 56 years, this half-island nation, sharing the former Hispaniola with Haiti, which has yet to send one player to the big leagues -- has delivered more of its young men to MLB than any other nation or territory ever has. Venezuela is a distant second, with 270, followed by Canada (236), Puerto Rico (210), Cuba (169), and Mexico (112). Only seven states in the union can top the DR's success.

Baseball is everywhere in the DR now, as it was in the U.S. in 1956, when Virgil cracked the Giants' roster. Other sports are played, but baseball is the national pastime and passion. "It's more than a game," Dominican Winter League general manager Winston Llenas once remarked. "It's a national fever. It's almost our way of life."

There are six clubs in the Dominican Winter League: Tigres del Licey and Leones de Escogido, both in Santo Domingo; Estrellas Orientales in San Pedro de Macorís; Aguilas del Cibao in Santiago; Gigantes del Cibao in San Francisco de Macorís; and Azucareros del Este in La Romana. Each represents not merely a different constituency, but also a different culture.

The most intense rivalry is Licey-Aguilas. Licey, the winningest franchise, is also the nation's oldest, dating to 1907. Aguilas was established in 1936. Their competition for respect and bragging rights makes the old wars between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants seem as polite as cricket matches.

Cubans, who had been the first in the region to play the game, back in the 1860s, brought it to the Dominican Republic in the 1890s as they did to other parts of Latin America. An American occupation in 1916-24 spurred interest in the game, as Licey became so dominant that an All-Star rival had to be crafted from the other clubs (Leones de Escogido, or "the chosen Lions"). The fervent baseball interest and boundless ego of dictator Rafael Trujillo culminated in 1937 with the recruitment of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell to his Ciudad Trujillo club, making it for a brief moment perhaps the best baseball club anywhere. Unfortunately, the aftermath of their hasty retreat to home ground was a 14-year gap in Dominican professional baseball, leaving native-born baseball stars such as Tetelo Vargas and Horacio Martinez to find their employment elsewhere.

The banana region along the northwest border with Haiti had produced the first contingent of Dominican professionals. There the Grenada Company, a United Fruit subsidiary, began two teams for its workers and their sons in the 1940s. Pitcher Juan Marichal, the nation's only Hall of Famer to date -- there will be more -- took this route to the big leagues in 1960, as did the ageless wonder, 41-year-old rookie Dimodes Olivo.

In the southeast, during the six-month tiempo muerto, or dead season, when nothing could be done about the sugarcane and workers found themselves with time on their hands, ball play entered the picture -- at first cricket and then baseball. In the milltowns of the San Pedro de Macorís municipality, the descendants of the original cricket-playing migrants from the British West Indies demonstrated a special aptitude for playing baseball.

San Pedro, despite its small size, became the world's great baseball incubator, having to date sent 83 of its sons to MLB. The capital city of Santo Domingo, ten times the size of San Pedro, has provided only 40 more. Amado Samuel and Manny Jiminez were the first from San Pedro to hit the Majors, both in 1962.

After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 the International League moved the Havana Sugar Kings club to Jersey City. Baseball in Cuba was left to continue independently and, even though it went on to dominate international competition, stopped producing new Major Leaguers. The DR was poised to fill the void. After sending only Ozzie Virgil and Felipe Alou to MLB in the 1950s, it has sent more with each succeeding decade.

Today every Major League club maintains a full-time base of operations in the DR, including a 32-team Dominican Summer League (DSL) with 35 players on each roster, as well as an infrastructure of baseball academies. These instruments of progress and promise -- the social, educational, and financial elevators from poverty -- embrace the hopes and dreams of countless young men in the DR, even if, as they know, only a handful will step onto a Major League field.

In 1964, Felipe Alou had called for a "Latin-American Ballplayers' Bill of Rights." Like Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente, he understood the unique problems faced by Latin ballplayers in the United States: the language barrier, xenophobia, racism, the fear of "not making it" and being returned to poverty at home. Both the U.S. and the DR have come a long way since then, and Dominican players today are heroes to fans of both countries, regardless of national or ethnic origin.

Progress comes with problems. As a promised land of fame and fortune, MLB has enriched the Dominican Republic, but it has not entirely supplanted the Dominican Winter League, still a dreamed destination for native sons and a proving ground for young North American players.

But to think only of MLB influence on the DR is to miss the exciting reciprocal: the Dominican influence on MLB. Since 1956 there has been a steady stream of first-rank players, so many that by naming some, one must unfairly neglect others: Felipe Alou; Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Jose Rijo, Vladimir Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Cesar Cedeno, Rico Carty, Adrian Beltre, Joaquin Andujar, David Ortiz … we could go on. Just for the fun of argument, we'll offer up an all-time Dominican team.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC ALL-TIME TEAM

1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Tony Fernandez
3B: Adrian Beltre
OF: Sammy Sosa
OF: Manny Ramirez
OF: Vladimir Guerrero
C: Tony Pena
DH: David Ortiz
UT: Julio Franco
P: Juan Marichal
P: Pedro Martinez
P: Bartolo Colon
RP: Armando Benitez
MGR: Felipe Alou

The Dominican influence on MLB extends beyond the quality of its players to an invigorating style of play -- a new infusion of speed and power and grace and joy -- that has changed the face of the game as well as the way it is played. This new alloy of cultures points the way to baseball becoming truly the international pastime -- the game that defines national heritage and aspirations around the globe, even when local cultures seem radically different.

Viva Béisbol!