Hosting Dominican baseball players feed visitors with their favorites from home

With just over a month left in the regular season, the Nationals have a solid starting rotation with the best ERA in the National League. Assuming the playoffs started tomorrow, the Post Sports Live crew debates which Nationals pitcher should start Game 1. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

When Rafael Soriano arrived in the visitors’ clubhouse at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati for the first game of a late-July series between the Reds and the Washington Nationals, four plastic to-go containers in two plastic bags were waiting on the chair in front of his locker. Inside the containers was enough Dominican-style rice and beans, braised chicken and fried chicken to feed a small family. Cincinnati veteran infielder Ramon Santiago, like Soriano a native of the Dominican Republic, sent over the feast. The following day, Reds starter Johnny Cueto was responsible for supplying Dominican food for the visitors’ clubhouse.

This pay-it-forward tradition happens across baseball every day. Dominican players make up the largest contingent of foreign-born players in the major leagues — about 11 percent of active players on opening day — and, with baseball’s grueling schedule and travel, those players miss food from home. Do you know how hard it is to find a Dominican restaurant in Cincinnati or Minneapolis?

So Dominican players — even those who don’t know each other well — take care of each other through their own version of the food network. The Dominicans on the home team are responsible for sending food to their countrymen on the visiting team. Albert Pujols (Los Angeles Angels), David Ortiz (Boston) and Nelson Cruz (Baltimore) always bring food for visiting Dominican players. Soriano’s wife or a family friend will make an extra helping of Dominican food so that he can do the same. Robinson Cano (Seattle), Francisco Liriano (Pittsburgh), Carlos Gomez (Milwaukee), Jose Reyes (Toronto) and Adrian Beltre (Texas) take part, too.

“I love my Dominican food,” Cruz said in Spanish. “And the day I don’t eat my rice and Dominican food, I don’t feel good. I know other Dominicans feel that way, too. Knowing how they suffer away from home, I try to make their day and visit more comfortable by bringing them food, too.”

The roots of the food-sharing tradition are unclear, but many players credit Vladimir Guerrero, a nine-time all-star and 2004 American League MVP. Guerrero, who broke into the majors at 21 with the Montreal Expos in 1996, was known as reclusive but generous.

Guerrero’s mother lived with him throughout his stellar 16-year career at stops in Montreal, Anaheim, Texas and Baltimore, and she always cooked for him. Guerrero was known to show up in the Orioles clubhouse, where he played his final season in 2011, with bags full of Dominican food to share with teammates and visiting players.

“I always heard that Vladimir Guerrero did that in Anaheim, and when I had the chance to go to Anaheim I realized he really did,” Baltimore Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez said. “Whenever you got to the stadium, there was always a pot full of rice and beans.”

Like Guerrero, Dominican players in the majors rely on family for their home cooking. Families are of utmost importance in Latin American culture, and like Jimenez, Cueto’s mother lives with him during the season. Miami Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna and Gomez rely on their mothers and wives during the season for support and food. Cruz’s wife, mother or cousin handles the cooking at his house.

Inspired by Guerrero, Cruz, 34 and in his 10th major league season, began bringing food for teammates and other Dominicans when he was in the minor leagues, but at first he shared only with players he knew. “Now, even if I don’t know them and they’re Dominican, I’ll send some food,” Cruz said, and he does it without fail.

“Wherever Nelson goes, he’s got to have that food or he’ll send for it,” Jimenez said. “That man has to have that food.”

When players are without their families, finding Dominican food is difficult. The food available for players at the stadium is usually American fare and, according to Cueto, “the food that’s in the clubhouse isn’t always for us.” Added Soriano, the Nationals’ closer: “I know what it’s like: You get hungry and you just miss your rice, beans and chicken.”

“A great thing about us [is] that we’re here on the East Coast — like playing New York, Boston or [in] Florida — wherever you go you can find rice, beans and beef,” said Jimenez, who has played for the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians. “On other teams, it’s not as easy to find it.”

Before Soriano got his helping of Dominican food in Cincinnati, Santiago had to find it first. Normally, his cousin or wife cooks and he brings their food to the stadium. But that weekend, both were out of town and Santiago looked for Dominican restaurants in Cincinnati. He found one about 40 minutes away from where he lives, placed an order and picked it up on the way to the stadium.

“And with Dominicans, it can’t just be for one person,” Santiago said. “You got to take three, four or five meals for the other Dominicans and Latinos, too.”

Soriano, the lone Dominican on the Nationals roster, was grateful for the comfort food during a long road trip. “Delicious,” Soriano said then.

Among the best providers of Dominican food in baseball, players say Beltre, Soriano and Pujols rank highly. Santiago knows Soriano from their time together in the Seattle Mariners system from 2004 to 2005, and he said Soriano and his mom are both great cooks.

When the Orioles were in Washington, Soriano sent Jimenez and Cruz meals of rabo de toro (oxtail stew), bacalao guisado (cod stew), and moro (Dominican-style rice and beans) made by a visiting family friend. “It was big league food,” Cruz said. The food Beltre shares is known to be just as tasty.

“When I was in Texas and with Detroit, he always sent some really good food,” Santiago said. “I didn’t even eat outside of the stadium or at a restaurant so that I could eat at the stadium.”

The network of Dominican food is informal. Sometimes players send each other text messages as a heads up not to eat before getting to the stadium because they will have some waiting for them. But the majority of the time, it’s unspoken and understood. Players show up, and a clubhouse attendant has already dropped food off at their locker.

“It’s like if you come to my house, I’ve got to be a good host and take care of you,” Gomez said. “When I go there and visit where there are Dominicans, they take care of us and send us food from our country. It’s a tradition among us to take care of each other when we’re in a country that’s not ours.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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