Spring Travel Issue
A League of Their Own
"His mambo's so good, it deserves to be in the World Series," a hoarse young woman yelled toward Jose Lima, the rangy pitcher just then on the mound for her Escogido Lions. He's a Houston Astro when he's not fronting a mambo band, and -- more vitally for the thousands of screaming, air-horn-honking, whistle-blowing, banner-waving fans surrounding us -- when he's not playing ball in the Dominican Republic for one of the country's most storied teams.
We were sitting in box seats of the 17,000-seat Quisqueya Stadium in downtown Santo Domingo. It was the Dominican League playoffs, and the game was intense. The home-team Lions, led by Lima, were battling their arch-rivals, the Eagles from Santiago, in the north central part of the country. The winner would move one step closer to the Caribbean World Series.
If you went to an American Triple A minor league game anytime before the 1990s, you've seen a park like Quisqueya Stadium, a classic concrete stadium, dated, but freshly painted in red, white and blue. The concourse was dark (think Fenway Park), and nearly deserted during the game. Three small concession stands served the entire crowd, because fans come here to watch every pitch, not to eat.
In the stands the noise was pounding, raucous. Imagine Cole Field House evenly divided between Maryland and Carolina fans. Add air horns and plentiful cheap rum. Now multiply by two. At least. The din had started an hour before the game and would continue for 20 minutes after the last out.
Lima, the peroxided wild man, had begun the game by jumping over the base lines (he's superstitious) and talking through the Dominican national anthem. His every mistake during the game was greeted by opposing fans taunting him: "Li-ma. Li-ma. Li-ma."
"Ponchelo!" his female fan screamed to him. Strike him out.
Lima struck out five batters and left the game in the sixth inning, tossing his shirt into the stands. The Lions went on to win, 6-2. As the crowd wove its way out, a huge thunderstorm unloaded, trapping at the stadium entrance a fan with a drum who had been banging all through the game in the right field bleachers. He kept pounding, extending the crazed happiness in the drenching rain.
We had come to the Dominican Republic for serious baseball. Introduced by the sugar cane industry in the late 19th century, baseball has become a mania. "The kids here dream to play baseball," says Pablo Peguero, a former minor league catcher who manages the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dominican training camp. Fans are passionate. During the Caribbean World Series, a taxi driver told us, "people throw stoves out the window."
It's hard to overestimate the Dominican influence on baseball in the United States. At the beginning of last season, 71 of the 839 major league players -- more than 8 percent -- came from this country of 8 million people. The historical roster of Dominicans includes Juan Marichal, Matty and Felipe Alou, Tony Pena and so many more. A single town, San Pedro de Macoris, houses nearly a dozen major league baseball academies, which have produced such players as Julio Franco, Pedro Martinez, George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Sammy Sosa. And the off-season in American baseball brings big leaguers back here to play for their former teams.
In four days in the Dominican Republic, we found baseball at every turn, in rural fields, alleys and city parks. We visited three major league baseball camps, saw three round robin playoff games, made a pilgrimage to Sosa's former stadium at San Pedro de Macoris and ran into 40 aspiring Red Sox players at lunch. Following the action was a world apart from the all-inclusive resort experience that many Americans find in the Dominican Republic. In a country where the T-shirt slogan "Baseball Is Life" is taken literally, attending a game is not some casual outing to occupy a tourist between lunch and dinner.
Never mind that modern amenities may be lacking and that the security guards carry rifles. The Dominican Republic is one incredible place to watch a ballgame. It starts when the ticket sellers ask which side you're on, just like at a wedding. Once through the turnstiles, you walk by a locked room filled with fans who tried to get into the game illegally. Next, you pass rows of bottled rum for sale.
Between innings, cheerleaders in Lycra bodysuits do fabulous merengue moves on top of the dugouts, to blasting tunes. It's impossible not to watch. We did manage dutifully to record every play of every game on the backs of advertising flyers handed to us on our way in, but we never saw a program or scorecard.