By Eddie Smith
January 17, 2012
While the rest of the world recovered from Christmas festivities, I made my way to Sea-Tac Airport early on the morning of December 26th to begin the trip of a lifetime. I was about to embark on a ten day journey to the Dominican Republic – the best hotbed for baseball talent in the world.
It had been a little more than two years since my first trip to coach a camp in this Caribbean land and time had its way of gently erasing the memories of the way that baseball is so entrenched in the lives of every Dominican. A few minutes after landing at the Santo Domingo Airport, however, and everywhere you look is a blaring reminder of the love and passion for baseball that is the very foundation of this country.
On the side of nearly every street you see kids – most of whom finish any formal education by the time they are seven years old – playing baseball with anything they can find. Sticks serve as bats, balls range from rocks to bottle caps, and gloves are a rare luxury in these street games. On the rock laced field, there is not a moment of daylight wasted as teams shuffle from one game to the next practice. For little league practices, they even divide the field into four small fields allowing four teams to practice at the same time. The game of baseball is truly a way of life for the Dominican people.
Our camp was based in the small beach town of Boca Chica – about 30 miles east of Santo Domingo. Boca Chica is home of Baseball Heaven, the site of seven Major League organization’s Dominican baseball academies that are essentially an all-inclusive resort for Dominican players who have signed professional contracts to train for 11 months of the year. The academies began about 20 years ago and their success can be seen by the 88 current Major Leaguers from the Dominican Republic. This makes up about 15% of Major League rosters from a country with the population the size of Michigan.
Because of this success, every Major League team now has an academy on the island in hopes of developing the next Jose Reyes or Johan Santana. The academies are a deep contrast to their surroundings as there are pristine living quarters, dining halls, weight rooms and playing fields to help these 16 to 18 year olds potentially realize their Big League dreams.
While Boca Chica is home to so many of these great facilities, our Dominican Baseball Camp was anything but luxurious. Instead it was an opportunity for the campers to develop as baseball players while spending the week immersed in the rich Dominican culture.
This was highlighted by several workouts on the worn out Dominican fields with worn down infrastructure that is overlooked only because of the passion by which the Dominican players play the game inside. These fields are used so often that batters boxes and sliding areas resemble craters while the “all-dirt” infields are littered with rocks making bad hops the expectation. Lighting in the hotel worked about half the time and in one of the more heroic efforts of the trip, our group leader replaced a dead battery on the team “bus” with the battery in his Nissan Sentra rental so the bus could take campers to the airport at 4:30 a.m. to catch their outbound flight!
Despite a lack of many modern luxuries and a lifestyle where most people are uncertain where their next meal may come from, the Dominican Republic was recently rated the world’s 2nd happiest country. Blessed with a perfect climate and a lifestyle that has very little urgency, smiling is not just a way to express happiness, it is a way of life.
This was infectious as our players embraced the culture. Each day local Dominican players ate and played with our group and even with a language barrier, the players quickly bonded through the game of baseball.
In the most memorable day of the trip, we woke up early on New Year’s Day to drive a few hours to the campo, Spanish for country. After driving for what seemed like days on a dirt road filled with potholes, our bus pulled up to a clearing in the sugar cane fields and arrived at a Dominican version of the Field of Dreams. Tucked away in a small village that did not have electricity or indoor plumbing, this ball field has quickly become one of my favorites as it is the perfect picture of how the great game of baseball can be played with enthusiasm and love by people who barely have anything else.
After the players put their cleats on, their regular organized team stretch was replaced with helping the locals remove the fresh cut hay from left and center field. It took about a half hour to remove the cut hay, but once it was gone, the 4” tall greenish grass might as well have been the outfield of Fenway Park and it was time to play ball! We enjoyed a traditional Dominican day of playing baseball which meant a morning game followed by about a two hour comedor, the Dominican term for a lunch break between doubleheaders. In a traditional Dominican game day, the home village prepares a lunch for the traveling team between games of a double header. Being the guests, we were treated to a wonderful meal of chicken and rice after a big win in the first game.
Throughout the day, the crowd was enthusiastic, as was the case in every game and workout we had. The Dominican people love the game so much that they are eager to get out and watch any game they could. In one game there was at least 300 people in attendance watching. While this particular day was a smaller crowd, it did have character as some of the “guests” included a group of chickens that ran all over the outfield and a pig that didn’t seem too concerned about the threat of being struck by a foul ball as he continued to walk right next to home plate before being shooed away by the umpire only to return again a few batters later. At one point the game was stopped as a herd of bulls decided to make their way into right field. At the end of the day, it was an unforgettable experience.
Another highlight of the trip was a night in Santo Domingo to watch a game in the Dominican Winter League. This league is made up of six teams and is over 100 years old. While the average Dominican can name every Dominican player in the Major Leagues and the team they play for, when it comes to cheering for a team, the Dominicans are diehard fans for the Dominican League teams they grew up rooting for.
The game we attended was part of the four team round robin playoffs for this season and featured a matchup between Licey and the Aguilas. For Dominican Winter League Baseball this was the Yankees- Red Sox matchup. In typical Dominican fashion, the stadium was only about half full for first pitch. By the 4th inning there was barely an empty seat in the house which created an atmosphere that was truly unique.
The only way to describe the stadium would be Bourbon Street, Texas High School Football and a World Cup Game all mixed into a baseball game. Every pitch was cheered for by one fan base or the other with a chorus of screams and cheers drowned out by the constant sound of blow horns that nearly every person brought with them for the game.
Led by Miguel Tejada, the Aguilas emerged as the winners that night but the game itself was only part of the entertainment. Nearly every pitch the teams had mascots out in front of the dugout jumping around and reacting to that pitch. Between one of the innings in a break from the cheerleaders who were always on top of the dugouts dancing, Robinson Cano was welcomed by the public address announcer.
The fans went crazy as they showed Cano on the video board smiling from his seat in a luxury suite. The people in the top rows of the stadium below Cano’s suite were so excited to hear that he was at the game that many of them turned around and started pounding on the window of his suite in praise. In a land where baseball is king, players who have made it to the Major Leagues are like Greek Gods that every Dominican kid dreams of becoming.
On the last day of the trip, all of the campers had already gone home. Since this was my second trip to Boca Chica and a week into the trip, it had quickly become a very familiar place for me and many of the locals had gone out of their way to welcome me. This reached a new level when they invited me to play in their game at the local field.
Not having played in an organized game of baseball for six years I really did not know what to expect. I arrived at 9:00 a.m. for our “10:00 a.m.” game knowing that starting the game by 10:30 a.m. would be a miracle! After warming up and throwing, the game slowly started to take shape. I was assigned to the “old team” – a collection of players from all sorts of backgrounds.
One was now a local church pastor in Boca Chica after having spent a few years with the Orioles organization and another now lived in Arizona as a professional player and was back visiting family for Christmas and New Year. In the other dugout was a group of younger players ranging from 15-20 years old.
At one point, for no particular reason, a few people strolled out to the infield from the other team. A few minutes later a guy started playing catch on the pitchers mound. That is when I got the news that I would be leading off and playing centerfield. Apparently this was the way to say the game was starting.
Ten minutes later I stepped into the batters box for the first time in six years. Trying to think of all the skills we teach our Santa Clara players, I was quickly reminded how challenging baseball can be! After getting out in the first at bat, my second at bat was a great reminder that squaring the ball up and getting a hit is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
We ended up beating the “young team” 10-0 that day. As a final good bye, I was welcomed to a Dominican friend’s house for a mid afternoon lunch. The concrete flooring and cramped 6 x 12 area that served as the kitchen, dining room and living room in this house made for an even greater appreciation of the great meal of fish, salad and rice his wife prepared.
While there are so many luxuries that the Dominican people never dream of having, the passion they have for playing baseball and serving others is something we all should strive for. The everyday necessities of cell phones, internet and personal vehicles are very nice, but can also take over our lives and become the focal point of our existence if we let them. The time spent in the Dominican was a great reminder that these necessities are in fact luxuries.
At the end of the day, the Dominican people seemed to have all of life’s necessities covered as they shared passion for baseball and each other that was the center of their society. I am hoping to make this camp a staple of my annual calendar as I can’t wait to return to this magical place on one of the world’s poorest islands. In the meantime, I will work to take the lessons learned from this rich culture and live the “Dominican Way” in my daily life.
— COACH SMITH