If you have a yen to talk insider baseball and are in the hemisphere's most rabid baseball country, the aficionada to spend time with is Sister Lenore Gibb.
A member of the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, one of Catholicism's most progressive orders with 126 women teaching, nursing, rescuing and agitating in three countries, Gibb has a canny knowledge of the game, traceable to her enduring ties to Dominican beisbol players.
As a 23-year-old nun in the first fervor of missionary life, she came to Consuelo -- a town of 40,000 in the province of San Pedro de Macoris -- in 1959. In the classrooms of the Divine Providence elementary school, it was either a touch of the Lord's providence itself or luck that she would be a teacher of future baseball stars.
Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa first romped gloveless and often shoeless on the hardpan ballfields of Consuelo, as did Julio Franco, first baseman for the Atlanta Braves. Previous hometown major leaguers include Jesus "Pepe" Frias, Rico Carty, Alfredo Griffin and Juan Samuel.
If baseball statisticians had a place in the books for the school that has had the most major and minor league ballplayers -- peloteros -- as children in the classroom, Divine Providence school would be the undisputed record holder. In any case, Gibb is in a league of her own.
If you need to catch up on the latest stats -- batting averages, earned run averages, slumps -- or are behind on recent trades, the nun is a walking Sporting News. As a teacher, she encourages her children to be as gracious off the field as they are competitive on. As a mentor, she reminds them that, if they did make it to the big leagues, they should never forget the poverty from which they rose.
And poverty it was. Sosa, born into the destitution that marks Consuelo as one of the most impoverished towns in Latin America's second-poorest country, had to leave school at age 8 to grub pesos by shining shoes. Griffin was a 17-year-old sixth-grader when he signed his first pro contract.
When a biography of Carty was published last year, the outfielder, who hit .299 in 15 seasons in the majors, sent his old teacher a copy with this inscription: "To Sister Lenore -- Take care of yourself. Thank you for your efforts and teachings to our children. Thank you, thank you."
According to Alfredo Medina, author of two books on Dominican baseball and the only professional writer in Consuelo, Ozzie Virgil of the San Francisco Giants -- father of Ozzie Virgil of the Philadelphia Phillies -- was the first to make it to the majors, in 1956. Some 320 Dominicans would follow, with more than 70 on big league rosters now and several hundred in the minors. Medina believes that per capita no other nation has produced more major and minor leaguers, and no other area more than San Pedro de Macoris.
Gibb joined the Grey Sisters in 1953 after hitting and throwing right as a schoolgirl softball player in Windsor, Ontario. Two weeks ago, she observed her 50th anniversary of joining her religious order with a Golden Jubilee celebration at the Grey Sisters motherhouse near Ottawa. At 67, she is slender, long-striding and tall -- the build of the leftfielder she once was, though she would play catcher when needed.
On a recent afternoon at the Divine Providence convent, on the quad of the school just around the corner from Consuelo's largest ballfield, the nun recalled the September day four decades ago when she and two other Grey sisters arrived in the community. They had been invited at the request of a priest who saw education of the poor as an essential ministry.
"It was difficult at first," Gibb said. "The local people didn't understand what we were here for. We were white. We were women. We were foreigners. We wore long religious habits. But the children were athletic, and so was I. It was almost natural that we started playing baseball together, volleyball and basketball, too. Another sister was musical. That was her way of connecting."
Consuelo, "consolation" in English, is 50 miles east of Santo Domingo on the south-central coast. A smoke-belching sugar mill, once owned by a U.S. company but now run by Dominicans, dominates the town where unemployment is more than 90 percent. Surrounding Consuelo are thousands of acres of cane fields, worked seasonally by low-paid and injury-plagued cutters.
What began in 1959 with one woman's use of baseball to lower barriers has expanded into another story altogether, one that has as much to do with service, spirituality and scrappiness as with a game. That year, 30 unruly students and one teacher were in the elementary school, which shared space with a barbershop. For the school year just ended, more than 10,000 students attended four large schools in town and 13 satellite schools spread throughout the sugarcane fields in communities called bateyes.
The increase in student population is a result of the sister's going into Consuelo's neighborhoods to preach the gospel of education, then backing up the talk by blistering her hands shaking assorted money trees: the Dominican government, her bishop, the Grey Sisters, donors, family and friends.
Despite her success in the classroom, and later as a district school superintendent, Gibb said she came to realize that more was needed than quality schools. Thirty-five percent of Consuelo's high school graduates enter college, mostly in Santo Domingo, but only a few have the money to finish and get a degree.
What happens then? Throughout Consuelo are some answers: programs funded by scholarships Gibb created for those who can't make it on their own.
One building houses job training workshops that teach baking, sewing, plumbing, electrical wiring, hairdressing and tourism and hotel work. A health center and home for the elderly are in operation. And a large, half-finished structure, after $240,000 is raised, will be a center for the performing arts.
For Gibb and the two other Grey nuns who serve here, these programs are small signs that economic development is possible, no matter how crushing the poverty. All the Consuelans who staff the programs are paid salaries.
"People here want to work," Gibb said. "If First World countries could help developing countries create jobs, whether it be industry or service work, and not just give or lend money, it would help stabilize the economy."
As easily and as proudly as Gibb mentions the famous baseball players who came through her classrooms, she speaks also of the other "big leaguers" she has taught: doctors and other health care workers, lawyers, politicians, teachers and other professionals.
"If we produced another Sammy Sosa, sure we'd be happy," she said. "But I believe what's more important is the person who is well balanced in all parts of life." Such people are members of the community "who take seriously the responsibility of a family, who reverence and respect life" and who try to reform an economic system that "keeps the poor poor."
One Consuelan who fulfills that hope is Pepe Frias, who is a long-standing ally of Gibb and who played nine years in the major leagues. An infielder from 1973 to 1981 for the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers, Frias is one of the few successful baseball players who returned home to San Pedro and to Consuelo. Politicians showed their gratitude by naming the street where he lives with his wife and two children Pepe Frias Boulevard.
As much as Frias benefited from baseball, he knows, as does Gibb, that only a few Dominicans make it to a big league roster. The country is packed with former baseball players -- once lured by scouts and agents into the billion-dollar U.S. baseball industry -- who made it to the minor leagues but not the majors. They returned home with no education or job skills to escape the poverty into which they have sunk back.
On a beautiful day last month, Frias accompanied Gibb to an elementary school named in her honor about a mile outside of town. A kempt baseball field is there, overseen by Frias and Luke Mullins, a Washingtonian and former Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania.
While Frias went to the field, where 6- and 7-year-olds swarmed around him as if a sun god had come among them, Gibb went into the school to visit the teachers and schoolchildren. Future big leaguers were there, too: maybe an outfielder, maybe a teacher or a pitcher or a social worker.
A colorful mural on one of the walls on the Divine Providence campus depicts the life of Saint Marguerite d'Youville, founder of the Grey Sisters, and the early days of the order in Canada. The inscription reads, "A past to celebrate, a future to reveal."
Gibb has invited the muralist to paint another on the opposite wall, this one to tell the Consuelo story and the inscription to read: "The whole world is filled with God's love. All are chosen to reveal His love, here and now."
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, teaches courses on nonviolence at local universities and high schools.