Jose Rijo Unplugged
Last week, the Washington Nationals fired Jose Rijofor his alleged role in the baseball team's signing of a Dominican prospect who lied about his name and age. Rijo, a former Major League pitcher who owns a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, served as an assistant to Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who along with Rijo has been investigated by the FBI on allegations of skimming athletes' signing bonuses. (Bowden resigned his position over the weekend.) Last May, Bryan Curtis traveled to the D.R. toexamine the country's baseball infrastructure, visiting Rijo's baseball academy and hanging out with the pitcher at his cigar bar. Those two dispatches are reprinted below.
The kid who was driving the scooter took his eyes off the heavily potholed road and said, "Bryan, how do you say in your language— muerto?" I was perched on the seat behind him, my hands clutching at his ribs as we weaved between cars, blew through traffic lights, and kicked up dust from the dirt road. I had been thinking muerto a lot over the last 10 minutes, but how did this guy know that?
I was riding with a motoconcho, one of the brigade of helmetless scooter drivers who provide a kind of unlicensed limousine service in the Dominican Republic. Since few Dominicans own cars, hitching a ride with a motoconcho, which typically costs a few pesos, is both a necessity and something of an art form. Men, women, and preteen schoolchildren in their blue-and-khaki uniforms line up along the side of the roads, waiting for a scooter to buzz by. You could be in Santo Domingo sprawl or deep in the countryside. If you wait long enough, you will see a motoconcho.
My team had come (by car) from Santo Domingo to the city of San Cristóbal in search of a baseball academy called Loma del Sueño—the Mountain of Dreams. San Cristóbal is one of the Dominican Republic's most fertile baseball towns, and as we cruised the sandy main drag, we saw the visage of Raúl Mondesí, the former major league slugger, on a billboard endorsing one of the candidates in the country's May 2008 presidential elections. Our directions ended in the center of town, so we pulled up next to a motoconcho who was relaxing under a shade tree. Oye! The motoconcho seemed to know the way to Loma del Sueño, but he kept the directions vague: "Derecho" was all he would say—straight ahead. He was angling to show us the way himself, for a small fee. So in an attempt to get my money's worth, I exited the car and cautiously assembled myself on the back of the scooter. My translator, Alberto Pozo, who would trail the motoconcho in our car, told me that if I felt uncomfortable, I should attempt to exit the bike in a graceful fashion.
Riding with the motoconcho is not unlike taking a turn on those mechanical bulls they have at high-end country-western bars. You must lean into the turns and lift your derriere off the seat about a half-second in advance of every pothole. We finally found a smooth road near an old cemetery. "Muerto," the driver repeated, grinning and pointing at the tombstones. I smiled weakly. We took a left, and we found ourselves under a canopy of lush foliage. Then we were going uphill. The scooter shuddered during the climb, and the motoconcho kept up a long, half-decipherable patter about the high price of gas and the poor condition of the bike. (New York taxi drivers have never done a better job setting up a tip.) Then the road flattened out, we sped across a bridge, and on the top of the mountain, with all the majesty of a hard-to-reach Buddhist monastery, was Loma del Sueño. The Mountain of Dreams.
If the Phillies' academy was a summer-camp-style barracks, then Loma del Sueño looked like a tourist resort. As we passed through the gated entrance, we could see that baseball diamonds had been carved directly onto the mountaintop. The fields were back-dropped on all sides by a valley of bright green trees that stretched into the horizon. To venture a metaphor I have never seen on the sports page, it was a bit like playing baseball on Machu Picchu. Loma del Sueño is the brainchild of José Rijo, who won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1990 World Series and also happens to be Juan Marichal's former son-in-law. As he suffered through a string of arm injuries that would ultimately end his playing career in 2002, Rijo decided to return to his native country and create a piece of the baseball infrastructure. Rijo's brother had suggested the mountaintop. The ball fields, housing complex, and executive offices now serve as baseball academies for the Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres, and Detroit Tigers. A playoff game between the Nationals' academy and the visiting Los Angeles Angels had already gotten under way by the time we arrived, and we found Rijo, a rotund, serene presence, relaxing in the shade of an umbrella on the first-base line, a cigar sticking out of his mouth.
Loma del Sueño was very much a local affair. A crowd of maybe 100 had made its way up the mountain, probably via motoconcho or on foot, and was chattering excitedly along the chain-link fences that surrounded the main field. There was a spontaneous energy you rarely experience amid all the canned stadium rock at a major league ballpark. Here, one twentysomething fan made his way through the crowd with a snake draped over his shoulders. Small boys of assorted sizes, some lovingly attended to and others blissfully free of parental supervision, scampered around. Two young women came dressed and accessorized as if for a night at one of San Cristóbal's finer discothèques. A banged-up 10-gallon water cooler was hauled out to make sure everyone stayed hydrated under the 88-degree sun. When the hometown Nationals took the field, they were serenaded by a three-piece pep band—complete with horn section—that had set up shop near Rijo. The Nationals team broke out in a spasmodic dance and then ran to their positions.
The young players headquartered at Loma del Sueño were experiencing the kind of luxury accommodations normally available only to turistas. They lived in a five-story pink stucco palace, which Rijo, who was concentrating on the game, dispatched us to in his golf cart. The student players' rooms were not unlike those you'd find at any Dominican beach hotel, with wrought-iron headboards and coordinating dressers. Each had a private balcony that overlooked the valley below. "Some kids are very poor here," Rijo told me later. "They don't know how to handle themselves. They do so much damage to the air conditioners, the TVs." An assistant took us up to peek into Rijo's own penthouse apartment, which he had called Suite 27, after his uniform number. It was decorated with African and aboriginal art, flat-screen TVs, embroidered silk pillows, white linen sofas, and top-shelf liquor like Grey Goose vodka and Johnnie Walker Gold whiskey. I could imagine that in the mind of a young, ambitious southpaw, it was a dreamlike vision of the spoils of baseball success.
When we returned to the ball field, Rijo got us chairs and ordered his staff to bring pitchers of passion-fruit juice with ice, along with platters of crackers, cheese cubes, and cantaloupe. He was still engrossed in the game, but he took a moment to make a few remarks over the din of the band. "They've got the Field of Dreams, I've got the Mountain of Dreams," Rijo said. "If you build it, they will come."
Rijo lives at Loma del Sueño pretty much full-time. He pitches batting practice and helps maintain the fields. He preaches about discipline, bringing in police officers to warn the players about the crime and drugs they're sure to encounter in the United States. "The other day, they announced a hurricane," he said. "I told the kids to go home. They said, 'No, no. If we stay here, we know we're going to eat for sure.' So I told them to stay here."
Rijo also pointed out something I hadn't thought much about: The academies are such a booming industry in the Dominican Republic that they produce a number of jobs for locals. "This town is so poor, it needs so much help, I figured this was the best way for me to give back something," Rijo said. Loma del Sueño requires a small army of scouts and groundskeepers and cooks and motoconchos and maids, who enter the ballplayers' rooms with the weariness of a mother entering her 16-year-old son's.It is one thing to think about Major League Baseball sending its agents to the Third World to pluck out young shortstops and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. It's another to think of Dominican baseball, at its core, as a local industry.
That is what surprised me most about our tour of Dominican baseball, this forceful assertion of Dominican-ness. Whereas once the baseball industry may have had the whiff of neocolonialism, it seems to have assumed a homegrown air. A Dominican buscón brings the young ballplayer to the attention of the academy. A major league team pays a signing bonus to the player's family (with the buscón taking his cut). During his three years at the academy, the player trains with Dominican coaches, is tended to by a Dominican staff, and, in the case of Loma del Sueño, is mentored by a Dominican baseball star who has already made the journey to the big leagues. An academy director like Rjio is ultimately working at the pleasure of the American baseball clubs, of course. But it's Dominicans who run the place, rather than American outsiders—there's no reason for the teams to do much more than sign the checks.
As we got up to leave, Rijo turned to me. "Do you smoke cigars?" he asked. "Well, I have a cigar bar in Santo Domingo. I'll be there from 8 until midnight tonight. You should come by."
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.