Baseball, Dominican-Style

The Great Rivals
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 6 2008 7:43 AM

Baseball, Dominican-Style

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If the goal of every young ballplayer in the Dominican Republic is one day to make the major leagues, the secondary goal is to spend the winter in the thrall of one's countrymen. Just as the U.S. World Series ends in October, the Dominican Winter League begins. It is a kind of postseason victory lap, a chance for the player to reconnect with his native country. It is in the winter league that one finds the familiar tropes of Dominican baseball: the highly knowledgeable, and therefore raucous, fans; merengue music wafting from the bleachers; and intranational rivalries that put our minor domestic disputes, like Yankees vs. Red Sox, to shame.

The main Dominican rivalry these days is between the Licey Tigers—whom we'll think of as the "Yankees" in our gringo shorthand—and the Águilas Cibaeñas—whom we'll think of as the "Red Sox." When we arrived in the D.R., the two teams had won every Dominican league championship since 1995—Licey last in 2005-06, Águilas most recently in 2006-07. Both had a total of 19 championships. Each club suspected the other was inferior on the diamond and otherwise.

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A few notes about the Dominican Winter League: We're not talking about amateurs here. If you are a Dominican wishing to join the winter league, you first have to play your way to the United States and then spend at least two years in the American minor leagues. At that point, your name can appear on a draft-eligible list for the six Dominican teams. (The others are Escogido, Estrellas, Gigantes, and La Romana.) Being drafted by a Dominican club instantly transforms you into a beloved local fixture, and players can be enticed to return to their Dominican club until they reach what in baseball counts as extreme old age. Luis Polonia, who is 44 and whose major league career ended back in 2000, still plays some designated hitter for his Dominican team, Águilas. The Águilas general manager, Winston Llenas, told me that he believes Polonia practiced with Babe Ruth, but he still signs him every year.

Licey (pronounced LEE-say) plays in the Estadio Quisqueya, a park that has the look of a giant concrete conch shell. Of the D.R.'s two great rivals, Licey is the older and (as its partisans constantly remind you) grander of the ballclubs. We were shown into the office of the owner, Jose Manuel "Pepe" Bustos, who went to the immensely unnecessary trouble of assembling the entire Licey front office for my interrogation. Clearly unprepared for my arrival, they sat rigidly in their seats and faced me as though I were a government tax auditor.

The Licey brain trust consists of Bustos; Jose Bustos Jr., his son and the team's general manager; and Miguel Guerra, the team's accountant. What, I asked, separated Licey from the other winter league clubs?

"We treat the players in a way they like to be treated," Jose Bustos said, "because we don't have the money to pay them what they get paid in the major leagues." (A Dominican Winter League salary amounts to a small honorarium, especially for players like Vladimir Guerrero.)

"We're just one big family," Guerra added.

"We call [the players] every week," Bustos Jr. said. "They need something, they call us. Their wives feel good when they're here."

This might sound like so much sports happy talk, but, in fact, Guerrero, the Los Angeles Angels slugger, played for Licey in the winter of 2004—even though he'd just won the majors' Most Valuable Player award. There's another reason for the friendly atmosphere: Major league players often come here and find their natural positions occupied, and they have to be talked into a switch. Carlos Peña, a first baseman who hit 46 home runs and 121 RBI in 2007 for Tampa Bay, couldn't find a position with Licey the previous winter and spent a lot of time on the Tigers bench.

I told the Licey brain trust that I would be visiting the Águilas clubhouse the next day, and they looked at me with astonishment. The whole interview seemed to go rapidly downhill. Answers became clipped, and pauses gained pregnancy. Pozo, my translator, later explained that my statement was an unfortunate faux pas and had rendered me suspect in their eyes. For I was no longer a foreign journalist come to honor the glories of Licey, the greatest team in Dominican history; I was, annoyingly, insisting on talking to "both sides." Adios.

Águilas (AH-gee-las)is headquartered in the D.R.'s second-largest city, Santiago, whose natural insecurity is reflected in the civic motto: "Santiago is Santiago." My team started the two-hour drive north from Santo Domingo under threatening clouds. Santo Domingo's gantlet of bodegas and cell-phone stores gave way to a winding highway lined with hills of thick, verdant forest. It is hard to do justice to the vastness, the greenness of the view—let alone the looming feeling of rural poverty, Dominican-style. Every couple of miles, we'd zoom by a clutch of lean-tos with corrugated scrap-metal roofs, built on the sides of the hills. The huts were staggered horizontally, like terraces jutting off the side of an apartment building. If you squinted, you could see a few faces and loose chickens; skinny babies in dingy, loose-fitting hand-me-downs; animal carcasses for sale. The only sign of modernity is the condition of the highway—surprisingly smooth—and the Brugal Rum-sponsored road signs that announce every town.

Pozo zipped past what little traffic we encountered with the deft hand of someone who had been driving, he estimated, since he was 9. We traveled fast—70, 80 miles per hour—but the traffic slowed as we made our way into Santiago. The Águilas team offices are in a little bandbox of an estadio with palm trees pointing upward near the foul poles. We were greeted by Winston Llenas, the general manager and a fine ballplayer in his own right—he played six seasons with the California Angels in the 1970s. ("I did some damage," he assured me.) Whereas the Liceños had comported themselves as polite technocrats, Winston was expansive, bordering on clownish—a Dominican Charlie O. Finley. Broad-shouldered, with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair and a prominent nose, he commanded me to sit in front of his enormous desk and shouted, "The buck stops here," as he pounded it with mock fury.

As Llenas seemed to have a sense of humor, I took a calculated risk and mentioned visiting the rivals down south. "Licey—since you mentioned the Licey club—it's also a club with a lot of tradition," Llenas said tactfully. "It's the oldest club in the Dominican Republic, actually. They're celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. Of course, we're going to ruin their celebration."

If Águilas had an advantage, Llenas explained, it was its rabid fan base. Cibaeñas like to think that they make up for what they lack in Santo Domingo-style cosmopolitanism with energy and passion—which, at the ballpark, means they are louder and more demanding. Even Licey die-hards can be made to admit that Águilas has the superior crowd. "It's crazy, man," Llenas said when I asked about the scene in the stands. "It's fun. It's noisy. It's music, it's yelling … it's loud … it's unbelievable."

"You can expect anything to happen in the stands," said Santana Martinez, an Águilas play-by-play announcer, who had joined us.

"It's [like] going to the Bronx Zoo or something," Llenas replied.

"Fortunately, you don't have too many fights."

"No, no fights."

There is little rest for the caretaker of a Dominican Winter League roster. For a time, the major leagues were happy to have players, Dominican- or American-born, spend their winter in the Caribbean. (Everyone from Bob Gibson to Orel Hershiser did a winter tour in the D.R.) These days, the American ballclubs prefer to keep prized prospects in "instructional" leagues back in the States. Even the established Dominican stars, like Miguel Tejada and Melky Cabrera, are often barred from playing a full season in the D.R. due to the "extreme fatigue" (the majors' regrettable phrase) brought on by too many regular-season pitches or at-bats. Thus, a Dominican Winter League team must shuffle players in and out, often with top stars dropping out at the last moment. "Plan A?" Llenas said. "Forget Plan A!"

Before the 2007-08 season, Águilas had never managed to surpass Licey in total championships, giving the team a Red Sox-like inferiority complex that occasionally bordered on paranoia. "I don't want to tell you all of our secrets," Llenas said. Even so, Llenas let on that he planned to give up home-run hitting to win with pitching and defense. On opening day, the Águilas pitcher would be Jose Lima, a rotund Santiago native who is familiarly known as "Lima Time" and pitched parts of 13 seasons in the majors. (Indeed, a few months after I left, Águilas would win the league title, while Licey settled for second.)

Llenas took us down the hall, up the stairs, through an Águilas-mascot-festooned conference room, and into the VIP box, from which we could glimpse Estadio Cibao in a moment of rare, off-season repose. Just then the clouds made good on their promise, and rain came pouring down in sheets.

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

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