How Baseball Changed Life In A Dominican Town

Mark Kurlansky

Journalist Mark Kurlansky has worked as a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald. His books Cod and Salt were New York Times best-sellers. Courtesy of the author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the author

When you think of baseball, you might think of Cooperstown, N.Y. But it's San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic, that's known as "the town where shortstops come from."

As of 2008, 79 boys and men from San Pedro had gone to the play in the major leagues — including the likes of Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano and Julio Franco.

Writer Mark Kurlansky examines the phenomenon in his new book, The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris. He says it was often a difficult transition for Dominican players, who started coming to the United States to play ball in 1958.

"They didn't recognize any of the food. It wasn't the kind of food they were used to. Julio Franco was sent to Montana and he didn't know to get a coat. He had never worn a coat. He's in the Rocky Mountains in the snow with no coat," Kurlansky tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "Jose Cano, Robinson Cano's father, who was a pitcher, told me about how he learned to really like Whoppers. He couldn't speak much English, so he'd just go in and order Whoppers. And he could never remember if Whoppers were Burger King or McDonald's. He'd always go into the wrong one and get dirty looks."

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris
By Mark Kurlansky
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead Books
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

And then, there was the racism.

"It was very difficult for them to understand because, first of all, a lot of them were ... light-skinned and didn't consider themselves to be black," Kurlansky says. "So they'd go to minor league teams in the South, even in the early '60s, and they didn't think Jim Crow applied to them and got into a lot of difficulties — not only with racists, but with the African-American players, who kind of resented this stand of 'I'm not really black.' You know, they thought they should have shown more solidarity with the black players, rather than insisting they were distinct from it."

But Kurlansky says the current notion that Dominican players are replacing African-American players "really is not true."

"If anything, it's the other way around. They're hiring Dominicans because they can't get enough blacks," he says. "I've talked to a number of ex-major leaguers who've worked on recruiting programs in inner cities — you know, these programs are dying; they can't get people interested. People want to play football and basketball, where you can get to the big game and the big money a lot quicker than you can in baseball."

Read A Review Of 'The Eastern Stars'

Although it may take longer to get to, there is definitely big money in baseball. The average salary for a major league player is $3 million a year, Kurlansky says. And the signing bonuses just keep getting bigger.

"It used to be a few thousand dollars, and now they're a few hundred thousand dollars. In 2008, Oakland signed a pitcher for $4.25 million — 16-year-old pitcher; wasn't even a left-hander," Kurlansky says. "His family is OK now, no matter what happens. Obviously, Oakland has high hopes for his career, but even if he just is a complete bust, he's OK and his family's OK.

"But even, you know, these guys who sign for $200,000 — you know, if you get $200,000, you've changed the life of everyone in your family. I mean, these people are living on hundreds of dollars a year. When you start talking about hundreds of thousands, that's huge."

Excerpt: 'The Eastern Stars'

The Eastern Stars
The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris
By Mark Kurlansky
Hardcover, 273 pages
Riverhead Books
List price: $25.95

Dany Santana often went to Astin Field to watch a lean fifteen-year-old pitcher with a hard fastball and a nice breaking ball. Good breaking balls were unusual for young San Pedro pitchers. In his first two years with Tampa Bay, Santana signed twenty-eight players but distinguished himself with pitchers including Cristofar Andujar, Joaquin's son, and Alexander Colome, also from San Pedro — a closer who at the age of sixteen was already throwing a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.

When his young pitcher went to the mound, Santana took up position behind the backstop with a stopwatch. This was unusual. Scouts usually stood in that spot with a handheld radar gun the size of a hair dryer to check the speed of the fastball. But Tampa Bay scouts were influenced by Eddy Toledo, the veteran scout who signed twenty-seven major leaguers, mostly for the Mets, before switching to Tampa Bay in 2006. Eddy never used a radar gun and frequently said, "I have two eyes: one is to watch arm movement, the other is a radar." Many organizations emphasize the speed of pitches — especially in the Dominican Republic, where many pitching prospects have only a fastball and a changeup. But Tampa Bay scouts under Toledo were more concerned with the fluidity and speed of the pitcher's movement than the actual speed of the ball after release. A pitcher with a fast movement was difficult to steal bases on, and they believed that good arm movement was a harbinger of good future development.

This youngster had a very good movement. It was also apparent without a radar gun that his fastball had considerable velocity.

Then Santana spied a young outfielder he didn't know.

"How old are you?" he asked the boy.

The boy began to glow. He was fifteen years old and a major-league scout was talking to him.

"Are you from San Pedro?"

He was. This was good because, being a Macorisano himself, Santana believed San Pedro players were a quality brand. Furthermore, the boy was from Santa Fe. Santana liked that because a lot of good players had come out of Santa Fe. So he patted the boy on the shoulder and sent him back to the outfield, the player's stride showing new bounce and his black skin heating to a shade of mahogany.

This was how Santana liked to work: identify talent at fifteen, watch him develop for a year and a half, sign him at sixteen and a half. It would be safer to sign prospects at twenty, but then the organization would not be able to play a hand in their development. Besides, by law all boys who are over sixteen become available for signing on July 2, and that is the day most of the good prospects are bought up by one organization or another.

If a prospect is of age and not signed on July 2, he could be signed at any time of year, so when a scout found talent in a player who was over sixteen, he signed him quickly. That past winter Santana had seen a boy in a field in Barrio Mexico, not far from Tetelo Vargas Stadium. Santana said he "reminded me of Tony Fernandez, the way he used his glove." He asked him to run and the boy hunkered down and performed a fast sprint. Then he asked him to show him how he swung the bat. The boy went into a batting stance and did a few swings for him. Santana signed him immediately with a $26,000 bonus, an average bonus at the time.

The age limit had been established in 1984. Before that, it sometimes seemed that scouts were snatching children from their homes. Epy Guerrero boasted of signing thirteen-year-olds. Not that this was a good way to treat children, but on the other hand, it took a scout of rare skill to recognize a player's potential at the age of thirteen. In 1986 it was recounted in The Washington Post that a terrified family reported their son missing and the Dominican commissioner of baseball located him hidden away by a scout in the training camp of a major-league team.

It is part of the tradition of Dominican kleptocracy, this idea that Major League Baseball could come here as did the Spanish, as did the sugar companies and do whatever they wanted to do. It is an image that neither the Dominican government nor Major League Baseball wants.

And so, periodically, regulations are made. The age-sixteen-and-a-half rule helped lessen the unfair treatment of teenagers. A better minimum age would have been eighteen so that prospects finished high school education before leaving. But most baseball players, except big hitters, have their best years when they are in their twenties. This is when they have the most speed running bases, the most agility for fielding, and the best arms for throwing and especially pitching. Most players take about four years to develop for the majors. Few Dominican players had finished high school when they went off to their professional baseball careers, but for that matter fewer than one in three Dominicans had a high school education anyway. When a sixteen-year-old boy signed with a major league organization, he had little education and no other skills: succeeding in baseball became his only chance. An occasional Rafael Vasquez did it in much less time, but then he washed out in one season. A few, like Jose Reyes, did it in only three years and went on to be stars. But when Major League Baseball signed a prospect, they calculated that it would take four years to get him into a major-league game. Some players, like Alfredo Griffin, find their rhythm that first year. Others take a year or two more to start realizing their full potential.

So signing a player at sixteen meant that he would probably hit his athletic stride at about the age of twenty-two. Physically they might be ready to reach full potential at age twenty if they could be signed at age fourteen, but sixteen was still workable. Another factor in the equation was the widespread and unproven belief, both by Dominican and American baseball people, that Dominican boys took longer to mature.

These teenagers who gambled everything on Major League Baseball signed a contract, got a signing bonus, and appeared to be on their way. But statistically their complete success remained very unlikely. A few hundred Dominicans are signed in a year, and probably only about three percent, maybe a dozen players, will ever play in a major-league stadium. And there is very little money in baseball between the signing bonus and the first major-league season.

First they are taken to the club's training ground in the Dominican Republic: the academy. From there they play a series of exhibition games known as Dominican Summer League. This is a last look before sending them to the United States. If they do well and are not released, they are then shipped to the States, usually to a remote, rural place, because that is where minor-league baseball is played. Sometimes they are brought to spring training first, but then they go to the Rookie League. Then, if they advance, they go to a Class A team. Sometimes, before getting there, players go to a subdivision, Class A Short Season. If they do well, they are moved up to Class A. From there they advance to Double A, unless they are released first. From there, things get even tougher. The last level, Triple A, is not far behind major league — except for the size of the stadium, the salaries, the perks. Triple A is full of major-league players. It is where major leaguers are sent to work out their problems or to get in some practice games while recovering from injuries. Some but not all major leaguers get back to the big leagues. A few new recruits get called up from Triple A to the major-league team. Some of those fail under pressure and are sent back down, but at least those few get to say they were in the major leagues. Most don't even get to Triple A.

Reprinted from The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís by Mark Kurlansky by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2010 by Mark Kurlansky

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