Book Review: 'The Eastern Stars' by Mark Kurlansky — Baseball And Sugar In A Small Town Journalist Mark Kurlansky is drawn to singular subjects — cod, salt and oysters, to name a few. In The Eastern Stars, he takes a look at the history of baseball and sugar in the small town of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
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The Story Of Baseball And Sugar In A Small Town

Jose Reyes is a star baseball player from the Dominican Republic who was recruited by a New York Mets scout when he was 16. Getty Images hide caption

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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

What do Rico Carty, Alfredo Griffin, Pedro Guerrero, George Bell, Julio Franco, Juan Samuel, Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano have in common? They all come from the small sugar mill town of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, which, according to Mark Kurlansky in his new book, The Eastern Stars, "has given the sport of baseball the most major-league players of any small town in the world."

Coincidence? Hardly. In this intriguing social history, Kurlansky presents several reasons why, by 2008, 1 in 6 of the 471 Dominicans who had made it to the major leagues was a Macorisano. He writes, "To baseball fans who ask, 'Why San Pedro de Macorís?' the answer is not the water but the sugar."

Phenomenally prolific, Kurlansky is drawn to seemingly limited subjects -- cod, salt, oysters and even a single, seminal year, 1968 -- that provide a key to much larger social issues and historical struggles for survival. He's found a journalistic sweet spot in the convergence of the sugar industry and professional baseball in a country with one of the worst economies in the Americas -- in National League terms, somewhat akin to signing a pitcher who can also hit.

To understand the prevalence of baseball in San Pedro, Kurlansky delves into the violent history of the Dominican Republic, a chronicle of foreign occupation and exploitation -- by Spaniards, French, Haitians, British and Americans, and by a series of dictators.

Before San Pedro was a baseball town, it was a sugar town. In the late 19th century, Americans and Puerto Ricans came to run the sugar mills, importing workers from Haiti, Cuba and across the Caribbean. These workers brought with them various versions of ball, bat and running games that eventually mutated into baseball -- a perfect diversion during the long idle months between sugar harvests. Eventually, three Dominican towns organized four teams, including the poetically named Las Estrellas del Oriente from San Pedro -- the Eastern Stars -- which Kurlansky compares to his beloved Boston Red Sox (in the 20th century) for their frustrating habit of "collapsing just before victory."

Caribbean sugar production peaked in the early 1920s, when Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, under American military control, together accounted for almost a third of all the sugar sold in the world market. With its embargo on Cuba in 1962, the United States shifted attention to the Dominican Republic to fill both its sugar bowls and its baseball diamonds.

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

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Courtesy of the author

Kurlansky sweetens his occasionally repetitive book with stories about players who make it, including Alfonso Soriano, with his unmatched 2006 40-40-40 season (more than 40 each of stolen bases, doubles, and home runs), and gerontological-record maker Julio Franco (who retired at 49). There's a valuable appendix describing the first 79 major leaguers from San Pedro, though, unfortunately, no photographs.

Even more compelling than the success stories are Kurlansky's sympathetic portraits of some of the 97 percent of signed players who are released without explanation before they ever get to play in a major league ballpark -- like the hero of last year's excellent feature film, Sugar, about a young Macorisano pitcher who comes to question his lifelong ambition. These are men who bet their entire future on baseball, eschewing education for one of the few available routes out of poverty open to them.

Kurlansky's portrait of the network of scouts, agents and intensive baseball academies that funnel talented players into major league franchises makes it clear that baseball is a high-stakes industry in San Pedro. But, beyond skills, what do scouts say is the greatest predictor of success? Attitude -- a love of the game.

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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