Baseball, Dominican-Style

Baseball, Dominican-Style.
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 5 2008 1:56 PM

Baseball, Dominican-Style

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Late last summer, when the steroid scandals got to be too much for me, I went to the Dominican Republic. My ostensible purpose was baseball tourism, but this was not one of those trips on which you sun yourself in the bleachers and think happy thoughts about your father; or pester your favorite shortstop for an autograph; or see baseball the way "it's meant to be played," as if such a method existed. No, a trip to the Dominican Republic offered a chance to catch a glimpse of the sociopolitical landscape suggested by David Ortiz's home-run swing, Pedro Martinez's fastball, and Vladimir Guerrero's hypnotically twirling bat. It was a chance to see how a Third World country supports a First World sports league.

If you've been scoring at home, you know that the Dominican Republic—the D.R.—has become the chief foreign source of major league talent, placing nearly 500 players at last count. The players are scouted, trained, and educated at the so-called Dominican baseball academies, outposts owned and operated by major league teams. We wanted to see what those academies were like and how baseball dreams were playing out.

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My team: Megan Hustad, my stateside companion, and Alberto Pozo, a Puerto Rican who has set up shop in Santo Domingo, the capital. Pozo was an apprentice TV producer, local fixer, and a fierce Yankees partisan, though you wouldn't have known it from the Red Sox cap that was always on his head. ("I lost a bet," he explained.) The three of us had started in the Zona Colonial, the crumbling, centuries-old center of Santo Domingo, with Pozo at the wheel of my rental car. After weaving through the traffic jams that clog the newer, shinier parts of town, we had emerged in the slums on the city's north side. A few feet from the car, there were lean-tos full of chickens, goats, and a teeming array of food vendors; ramshackle auto repair shops; and unlicensed "sports books," where the poorest of the poor bet on everything from Major League Baseball to cockfights. Everything and everybody seemed to be kicking up dust. Whenever the car slowed to a stop, it was approached by hawkers on bikes selling knockoff sunglasses, guayaba ice pops, or fresh fruit.

After a few wrong turns on unpaved roads, we reached the Philadelphia Phillies' academy around late morning. The academy's buildings sat next to a hillside in a remote stretch of farmland and owed something to Spanish mission architecture. According to the academy's administrator, Elvis Fernandez, the Phillies chose this spot because it is several tape-measure home runs away from girls, shopping malls, and other vices that might tempt a prized 16-year-old prospect. The only thing to do here is play baseball, which the Phillies recruits do morning and night, with an Eastern bloc-style regimentation. Some days will feature a full practice in the morning, a game against another team's academy in the afternoon, followed by post-game hitting and fielding drills before the players return to their bunks for the night.

My team arrived in the middle of a game between the Phillies and the academy squad of the Los Angeles Angels. Habituated as I was to the scowling, thick-legged men of the majors, it is hard to convey just how striking these young Dominicans were: tall with dark, sun-walloped skin; lean muscles; and a youthful spring in their steps. Even their postures seemed optimistic. I was standing along the first-base line watching the Phillies' starter, a kid named Carpio, who had a live fastball and a tendency to get wild. Carpio got bailed out by a few slick defensive plays in the early innings, but by the fourth, his eyes were fixated on the pitcher's rubber, and he looked like he'd rather be somewhere else.

With Carpio in a jam, we ventured from the field to the academy's main building, where the players slept, ate, and studied. The first room Fernandez showed us was a classroom. As he explained it, the academies' educational programs are mostly limited to a smattering of religious study, American law (it doesn't matter that you met her at a 21-and-over club—she could be lying about her age), and the teaching of baseballic terminology like "hit and run" and "cut-off man." ("Those are the first words we teach them," Fernandez said.) The basics established, the academy moves on to the interrogations the Dominican player is bound to encounter from coaches: What's your name? What position do you play? How old are you? (A loaded question, given the long history of fudging Dominican birth certificates.)

"We teach them that American time is not Dominican time," Fernandez told me. Another lesson: The sexual mores of the D.R.—such as aggressively staring down an attractive woman on the street—will not fly in the States.

The Phillies run the academy like a military school, and no one minded saying so. The team enforces a strict 8 p.m. curfew and a 10 p.m. bedtime. The players, who have received signing bonuses ranging from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars, are not allowed to keep cars; if they want to visit the nearest shopping mall, they must take the rickety local bus. They "eat, sleep, and play baseball," Fernandez said, the reliable sports cliché having real meaning for once. For many of the players, the Phillies academy is the first place they've encountered a well-balanced meal; like hungry teenage boys everywhere, they inevitably want more.

The players' sleeping quarters were fittingly monastic. They slept eight to a room in bunk beds, and I noticed a few of the boys had pulled their mattresses onto the floor because of the sweltering heat. The rooms had the sad monotone of summer-camp barracks and buzzed with tropical insects. We saw some small televisions propped up on plastic chairs but no other signs of affluence.

It is the kind of place that reeks of long odds. One scout estimated that for every 100 prospects signed and enrolled in the Phillies academy, only three or four will make the major leagues. And given Dominican baseball fever—"Every father wants his son to be a ballplayer," I was told again and again—it is safe to assume that for those 100 signees, there are many thousands more outside the academy looking in.

With nothing left to see in the dorms, we marched through a dimly lit and spectacularly cluttered locker room and then stepped back outside into the glaring Caribbean sun. We could still hear metal bats striking the ball in the distance, and the occasional muffled cheer. A flock of tiny black birds swooped overhead, darting over and under the laundry lines. Fernandez couldn't identify them. "They're always here," he shrugged.

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.