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Posted on Sun, Jul. 21, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Special Report: Mining for Dominican Diamonds
The game of their lives
'Beisbol' gives the Dominican people pride and joy

Inquirer Staff Writer

First of four parts

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - A few minutes before game time, Juan Francisco Pacheco hands his 10 pesos to the lady at the iron gate in front of Estadio de la Normal and goes directly to the best seat in the house.

Actually, Pacheco seldom sits down. He stands behind the backstop, his fingers hooked to the chain-link fence, his eyes intently fixed on the action on the field.

It doesn't matter that this is just a semipro game between two teams filled with players too old and too slow to warrant a look from even the most desperate local scouts - or buscones, as they are called here.

It doesn't matter that the uniforms barely match or that the playing surface is badly in need of grass seed, water and a rake.

It's baseball, and in this country, baseball is an obsession. That is why the Dominican Republic has become a major source of talent for the major leagues.

At the start of this season, there were 74 Dominicans - the most players from any foreign country - in the majors and more than 1,500 in the minors.

To tap this talent pool, 29 of the 30 major-league teams - including the Phillies, who opened a new facility in May - have academies and rookie-level teams dedicated to developing young players in the Dominican Republic.

At the Phillies' state-of-the-art academy north of Santo Domingo, in Guanuma, as many as 40 players, ages 16 to 21, will spend nine months a year honing their baseball skills, learning English and dreaming of the big leagues.


Behind the backstop at Estadio de la Normal, you can see the Dominican passion for the game in Juan Francisco Pacheco's eyes and hear it in his voice.

In the first inning, Pacheco, who appears to be in his early 20s, walks over to the first-base dugout and, with fist pumping, cheers on the players from the Villa Duarte team. Then he returns to his perch behind the backstop and, with fire in his eyes, begins heckling the third baseman for the team sponsored by Universitad Dominicana.

"What's he saying?" someone unsure of the language asks a Spanish-speaking companion.

There is a pause. The Spanish-speaking man looks uncomfortable. He fumbles for the right words.

"How can I say this?" he finally responds. "He's telling the third baseman that he has a strong affection for donkeys."

Pacheco hasn't come to the game just to sound off on the love life of the enemy third baseman. He is engrossed in the action, following every pitch from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt, his head bending with the break of the baseball. He is so riveted to the game that he loudly tells the public-address man to "shut up and go home" when the announcer decides to do a little play-by-play in the second inning.

"I'm trying to watch the game!" Pacheco shouts.

(The young fan might be more tolerant of the PA man if he was not standing directly under the speaker, but who are we to tell him that?)

Pacheco's attentiveness is shared by about 150 other people in the stands - as well as a half-dozen youngsters perched on the outfield wall - of the run-down 58-year-old stadium that was once considered the jewel of Dominican ballparks.

Some of the fans are old. Some are young. Some have wagers on the game. Some sip beer from bottles wrapped in paper bags. Some have baseball gloves on their hands, eager looks in their eyes, and big dreams in their hearts.

There is a hand-operated scoreboard in right field. There is no video replay screen and no mascot. Ah, but there is entertainment - and not just provided by the antics of young Señor Pacheco. Between innings and after strikeouts, four young men play the drums. Boom, ba, ba, boom, boom!

If you want to sample a slice of the love the Dominican people have for baseball, Estadio de la Normal is a good place to be.

And it costs only 10 pesos - or about 70 cents - to be there.

"Beisbol, beisbol, beisbol," says Santiago Alonzo Ruiz, an umpire and official for some of the leagues in the capital district. "We play basketball and other things, but baseball is king. Outside of the United States, we have the most major-leaguers in the game. It's one of the things that makes us proud of who we are."

Among the major-leaguers from the Dominican Republic are such established stars as Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs and Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox, as well as such rising young stars as Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos, Alfonso Soriano of the New York Yankees, and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Dominicans have won MVP awards, Cy Young awards, rookie-of-the-year awards, manager-of-the-year awards and batting titles.

Sosa, a former shoeshine boy from San Pedro de Macoris, is the first player ever to put together three seasons of 60 or more home runs. He undoubtedly will join Juan Marichal, a former pitcher from the Dominican Republic, in the Hall of Fame someday.

Given the passion that Dominicans have for baseball and the legions of youngsters playing the game in hopes of getting to the United States and becoming rich and famous, the number of Dominicans in the major leagues will continue to grow.

The roots of the Dominicans' love of baseball can be traced to the United States. In the 1860s, American sailors working in the sugar industry taught the game to the Cubans. Later in that century, the Cubans brought the game to the Dominican Republic when they fled war in their homeland. The U.S. Marines helped the Dominicans refine their skills during the U.S. occupation that lasted from 1916 to 1924.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dominicans were treated to some great baseball as such stars from the old Negro leagues as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were brought to the nation by former dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Trujillo loved baseball and hated to lose. Legend has it that when his team went on a losing streak, he locked the players in jail because he thought they had been hitting the town a little too hard.

In 1956, Ozzie Virgil, father of the former Phillies catcher of the same name, became the first Dominican to make it to the major leagues. The Alou brothers - Felipe, Matty and Jesus - soon followed, as did Marichal, Manny Mota and Rico Carty.

"Those guys were our heroes," says Sammy Mejias, the former major-league outfielder who now manages the Phillies' team in the Dominican Summer League and heads up instruction at the Phillies' developmental academy.

"We listened to them on the radio and read about them in the newspaper. We wanted to be just like them. They helped make us a baseball country."

"Baseball is our game," says Juery Diaz, a 21-year-old catcher at the Phillies' academy. "It's the best thing we do."

Baseball is simpler here than in the United States, where sandlot games have gone the way of the milkman, replaced by leagues with schedules, uniforms, umpires and trophies.

In the Dominican Republic, children are constantly playing some form of baseball, loving every minute of it, and dreaming of reaching the major leagues. Adults are constantly watching the game or reading about the exploits of compatriots who have made it to the majors.

One recent morning, the Colonial District in Santo Domingo was mostly quiet because it was an election day. The only noise to be heard came from a lively game of home-run derby played amid 450-year-old buildings by six boys with an old aluminum bat and a red rubber ball.

Not all sandlot games are so advanced. In Villa Mella, on a busy, trash-strewn roadside, a dozen boys, some with no shirts and no shoes, are oblivious to a raucous political rally passing by in the street. They are engrossed in a game of vitilla (bee-teeyah), a modified version of stickball in which a broomstick is used for a bat and the cap from a jug of bottled water is used for a ball.

"Ponchalo, ponchalo!" yells one of the boys as the pitcher, throwing sidearm, scales the bottle cap toward the hitter. ("Strike him out, strike him out!")

No bottle caps, no problem. Youngsters simply hit pebbles or rocks. Martinez, the great Red Sox pitcher, has told stories about prying the heads off his sisters' dolls and hitting them. In the Dominican, a ball is anything that can be pitched and a bat anything that can be swung.

Sosa grew up playing vitilla on the streets. He is featured playing it with children in a local television commercial. The game requires tremendous hand-eye coordination, and it helped launch Carty, Matty Alou and Julio Franco, all Dominicans who have won batting titles in the major leagues.

From a big stadium in Santo Domingo to a roadside in Villa Mella to a beat-up old field next to a penitentiary in La Victoria, baseball passion is everywhere in this country.

You can see it in La Victoria as Alselmo Charas, a local scout, wraps up a workout for some teenage players hoping to gain the attention of major-league scouts.

On this day, Phillies scouts Radhames Manon and Narciso "El Socio" Sanchez have stopped for a peek, to see if anyone is worthy of a look at the Phillies' academy.

"Wait around," Charas tells Manon and El Socio (The Associate). "I have some 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds coming in next. They're pretty good."

As if on cue, a small pickup truck slung low to the ground slowly rolls down the street between the penitentiary and the old baseball field. It is filled with smiling, laughing 8-, 9- and 10-year-old baseball players. There are 40, maybe 50, wedged in the overloaded truck.

Charas, Manon and El Socio share a laugh as the seemingly endless wave of happy little baseball players jumps out.

"See," says El Socio, chuckling, "the players in the Dominican never end."

Contact Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or Tomorrow: The Phillies' new training academy.