A Baseball Pilgrimage to the Dominican Republic

by Greg in


Editor's Note: This week I will be in the Dominican Republic with former Major League catcher and MLB Network Commentator Dave Valle. Fifteen years ago Mr. Valle and his wife, Vicky, founded Esperanza, a nonprofit organization in the Dominican and Haiti whose mission it is "to free children and their families from poverty through initiatives that generate income, education and health, restoring self-worth and dignity to those who have lost hope."  Follow CodBall this week as we learn more about Esperanza's work, and take in some baseball.

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Fans of the Cape Cod Baseball League, and any summer collegiate league for that matter, appreciate baseball at a level that prepares and showcases young players on their way to the Big Leagues.

So I'm on an overnight flight Monday to the Dominican Republic.

If we're watching U.S. players only then we're missing 40 percent of the talent. That's the percentage of players in organized baseball in this country that were born outside this country. Estimates I've read put the percentage of foreign-born players on Major League rosters at about 30 percent.

My passion for the game has taken me to developmental leagues in a dozen states, but I've never watched baseball outside the United States. This week my son and I travel to the DR, a small Caribbean country that has produced more than 470 Major Leaguers. And get this, one in six of them come from just one town -- San Pedro de Macoris. La capital de short stops.

I can remember a few years ago when I would visit minor league ballparks, The baseball men I hung around with would point down to the bullpen or out on the practice field and refer to their players as "Dominicans." I would later learn when I checked rosters that "Dominican" was the term for a Latino player because it was just assumed the player was from the DR even if he was Mexican, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican or Cuban. Dominicans have carved out a special place in the game: Julio Franco, George Bell, Pedro Guerrero, Manny Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Cano and Sammy Sosa.

Yes, Sosa was a steroids user and yes there have been allegations of widespread steroid use and fake birthdates and buscones  (the unethical scouts that essentially enslave young players, rush them in to the pros and keep large percentage of the signing bonuses). A few years ago MLB set up an office in the Dominican Republic to keep a closer eye on the player development pipeline.

For me, I have always enjoyed the silky smooth play of Dominican shortstops and the fiery competitiveness of Dominican pitchers. And so it was with some excitement that I stumbled across Mark Kurlansky's crisp and fact-filled history of the Dominican Republic -- The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris.

Kurlansky's art is to take a single topic -- Cod fish, salt or baseball -- and then tell an expansive history through a narrow topic. Eastern Stars takes us from the sugar plantations of the 19th century to the Trujillo dictatorship of the 1950s and into the heyday of baseball development in the 1990s.

The short thesis of this book is simple: why break your back on less than $3 dollars a day cutting sugar cane when you can sign with a pro scout for hundreds of thousands if not millions to play baseball?

The allure of the Dominican is a two-way street, a sort of newfound co-dependency between American fans and Dominican players:

A careful study of the evidence suggests that Major League Baseball is looking abroad for talent because it is faced with declining interest in e U.S. When asking what has happened to African American baseball players, it should not be ignored that nearly eighty percent of players in the NBA are black, as are two-thirds of the playersi n the NFL. MLB has made a considerable effort to attract African Americans, but without much result.

Kurlansky shows himself to be at once an excellent historian, writer and baseball fan. He reaches deep into the socio-economic realities of this poor country that happens to be a rich vein of baseball talent.

The Eastern Stars of the book's title is the name of the Dominican League baseball team in San Pedro de Macoris. As we head to the DR this week, the Dominican Winter League is in full swing. The Eastern Stars have just fired their manager following a rash of losses. The Stars had dominated early play this season. They are a half-game back trailing Escogido the capital of Santo Domingo and the Toros from nearby La Romana.

The winner of the Dominican League will compete against winners from the other Caribbean Leagues -- Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico early next year.

I won't be around for the Caribbean League championship, but I do hope this week to see some of the promising new Dominican players. Baseball America these past few issues have profiled the Top 10 Prospects in each division of the MLB.

I hope to see top Dominican prospects like Adrian Salcedo and Miguel Sano of the Twins as well as Stolmy Pimentel of the Boston Red Sox, Eduardo Nunez and Hector Noesi of the Yankees, and Alex Colome of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Assuming WiFi works at the hotel I should be able to send periodic reports this week. I hope you'll join the discussion.