Baseball, Dominican-Style

A Tripleheader With Juan Marichal
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 7 2008 6:53 AM

Baseball, Dominican-Style

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Juan Marichal is the first baseball player from the Dominican Republic to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which makes him the country's baseball patron saint. He lives in Santo Domingo in a sprawling house surrounded by trees and high stucco walls. Like many of the capital city's prominent residences, Marichal's place is guarded by a man in camouflage fatigues who sits in a plastic lawn chair with a machine gun across his lap. One afternoon we were ushered inside the front gate, waved past the watchful eyes of the guard, and shown into Marichal's den. Marichal, who is never late, appeared promptly at 4 p.m., shook our hands, and motioned for us to arrange ourselves on three generously proportioned leather sofas.

Marichal is 70 years old and has salt-and-pepper hair and a smile as wide as a National League strike zone. He told us his life story in three acts. It is a well-rehearsed story, probably delivered many times to different people, but it might be the best encapsulation of how a Dominican baseball player can really make it big.

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Laguna Verde: Marichal grew up in Laguna Verde, a small town in the remote regions near the Haitian border. The locals were mostly farmers, growing rice and bananas and yucca. When Marichal was 16 years old, dictator Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic, and American-owned United Fruit Co. was Laguna Verde's primary employer.

Marichal was pitching for a team sponsored by the Granada Fruit Co., a subsidiary of United Fruit. He was a side-armed pitcher with a fastball that moved in toward the batter and a curveball that started in the middle of the plate and then broke to the outside. One Sunday afternoon, Marichal was set to pitch against the Dominican air force, a team that was the bauble of Ramfis Trujillo, the dictator's son. Marichal won the game 2-1. It was such a masterful outing that the next morning, a uniformed lieutenant approached Marichal and handed him a telegram that demanded, by order of Trujillo, that he enlist in the air force. Marichal was floored. He retreated to his mother's house in a panic. His mother read the telegram and started pacing nervously. At 4 o'clock that afternoon, with mom still pacing, the air force lieutenant reappeared with a second telegram. "Son, you can't say no to these people," Marichal's mother said. Marichal enlisted in the Dominican air force. He figured that he could play baseball and learn to fly fighter planes, which he'd always dreamed of doing.

Ramfis Trujillo was what you could safely call megalomaniacal, but he took a keen interest in his young conscript's baseball career. Whenever Marichal was scheduled to pitch, Trujillo would come to the base—an arrival heralded by the sounding of a thunderous horn—and take his seat behind home plate. From the mound, Marichal would find himself staring at Trujillo more than his catcher. "He was one of the two handsomest men I ever saw in my life," Marichal says. "The other was Elvis Presley." As a member of the Dominican air force, Marichal got the uniform and the mandatory crew cut. But when he inquired about flying planes, his commanders told him to never mind all that. He should stick to pitching.

Michigan City: Marichal's first stop in American minor league baseball was a brief tenure with a team called the Michigan City White Caps. Marichal got to Michigan City, Ind., by riding in the back of a Greyhound bus from Florida, where the San Francisco Giants held their training camp. Before he left the Dominican Republic, no one had told Marichal about American segregation laws, and he doesn't think he would have understood the concept if they had tried. By this point, Latin Americans had been trickling into the major leagues for more than 50 years, long preceding Jackie Robinson. Many, like Marichal, were neither white nor black, so they fell into a murky third category—"nonwhite," which was effectively black. In a small, segregated town like Michigan City, Marichal saw his white teammates only on the field and in the clubhouse. After the game, Marichal would retire with the black players to boarding houses around town. Marichal didn't speak much English, so when he went to one of the town's black-owned restaurants, he would examine other diners' plates until he saw something he liked, and he would point at it.

As Marichal's pitching garnered him a bit of celebrity around town, one restaurant began to offer him a free fried chicken for every game he won. During the 1957 season, his first in the United States, Marichal wound up winning 21 games and another two in the playoffs, for a grand total of 23 chickens.

San Francisco: Marichal's arrival in San Francisco, in 1960, was the capstone of the Giants' great Caribbean recruiting spree. The team had signed Dominican brothers Felipe and Matty Alou and Puerto Rican Orlando "Baby Bull" Cepeda. But, for all their internationalism, the Giants retained a manager named Alvin Dark, a cuss from Comanche, Okla., who was nicknamed "The Swamp Fox." As Marichal recalls, Dark once told the team's Latin players that they were never to utter a word in Spanish, not even with each other.

Between 1963 and 1966, Marichal won 93 games and struck out 916 batters, which put him on the rarefied plane of great National League pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Marichal was an aggressive bench jockey, riding teammates and opponents, and he tended to wear an unnverving smile on the mound. "The thing I hate about that s.o.b.," one player told Time magazine, "is that it all seems so easy for him. It's one thing to go hitless against a pitcher like Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale or Jim Maloney; at least you can look out there and see the cords standing out on his neck. ... Marichal—he just stands there laughing at you."

A typically Marichalian outing was the game on July 2, 1963, that he pitched against Warren Spahn. The two Hall of Fame pitchers were standing at different ends of the rubber—at 26, Marichal had a live arm and a devastating curveball, while Spahn, 42, was running on fumes. On this day, the pitchers found themselves in a game of one-upmanship: Neither gave up a run through nine innings. At the top of the 10th, Marichal went up to his manager and said, "Mr. Dark, the weather's nice, I feel strong, please let me stay a few more innings." Dark said that would be OK, and Marichal threw five more shutout innings. At the end of the 14th inning, Dark tried to bench Marichal, but Marichal pointed at Spahn—who was also still in the game and also hadn't given up any runs—and said, "That man is 42 years old. I'm only 26. Until that man leaves the mound, nobody's going to take me out of this game!"

Dark was perturbed by Marichal's cheek, but he let Marichal go out and pitch the top of the 15th inning. Marichal got three quick outs. Then Spahn went out and pitched the bottom of the 15th, and he also got three quick outs. At the top of the 16th, Marichal could see that Dark was no longer amenable to his suggestion; a Giants relief pitcher was already trotting out of the bullpen. Before the reliever could reach the infield, Marichal grabbed his glove, raced onto the mound, and started throwing warm-up pitches. Marichal got three more outs in the top of the 16th inning.

All this really happened. What comes next is how Marichal tells the story, and, given his extravagantly charmed life, it's quite likely that it might have happened.

Marichal says he met Willie Mays on the way into the dugout and told him, "Willie, I don't want to pitch anymore!" Mays said he would take care of it. Mays hit a home run and won the game.

Sitting in his den now, Marichal has a way of letting his trademark grin serve as the punctuation mark for each anecdote. He took us around the room and pointed at pictures. On all four walls were photos of Marichal with Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali, and numerous others, including his five striking daughters and one handsome son. A uniformed maid entered the room and served us coffee and tall goblets of ice water.

Marichal cautioned us not to drink our coffee while standing up. "In the Dominican Republic, that's bad luck," he said. He had a certain authority on the subject of good fortune.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

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