Where Ballplayers Are Born and Made
Sammy Sosa. Albert Pujols. Pedro Martinez. Juan Marichal. Felipe Alou. The names of the great players that the Dominican Republic has supplied to Major League Baseball just roll, with a trill, off the tongue. Since 1958, this tiny Caribbean nation, with a population of about 9 million, has sent 440 players to the majors, and it produces about a fourth of all players in the U.S. minor leagues.
How do they do it? The answer is partly historical, partly cultural, partly economic. American sailors taught Cubans the game, and in the 1870s the Cubans brought beisbol to the Dominican Republic. The sport quickly became the national pastime, and soon the national passion. By the 1950s, the U.S. major leagues had established formal relationships with Dominican teams to flow the most talented players to America. And by the 1970s, U.S. teams were setting up academies in the D.R., enrolling the best players and providing them with food, healthcare, and schooling. Chosen trainees get a salary and a signing bonus-the bonus alone can be many times the average annual Dominican wage. The best of them, maybe 2 percent, make it to the American minor leagues.
First glove. It doesn't hurt that many Dominicans are dirt poor. Says David Sanchez, who runs a league for penniless young players in Puerto Plata, "I tell them if you practice every day ... maybe you can go to the U.S. and make some money." But what helps even more is the Dominicans' unparalleled love for the sport. "When a child is in the womb, that's when the father buys him a baseball glove," says Francisco "Frank" Cruz, a Dominican youth coach.
American coaches who visit the D.R. are intrigued by how these young players are made. For starters, they note, most Dominican kids don't have video games-they have beisbol. They may practice three hours a day, two or three days a week. Then, after dinner, they run outside and play more baseball. Children hone their skills with street games like vitilla, in which the batter tries to hit a water bottle cap with a broomstick. Good pitchers can make the cap dive like a curveball. By age 9, kids are trying to hit tossed kernels of corn.
The lesson for Americans here is play, play, play. Baseball is a game that is only learned through repetition. And there is nothing like a simple game of street ball-where home plate is a paving stone and first base is a car fender-for getting swings of the bat. In a pickup game, a child will see scores of pitches and will get to field dozens of flies and grounders. Brendan Sullivan III, who runs Headfirst baseball in Washington, D.C., came back from his visits to the Dominican Republic with a firm resolution: "In every practice, set aside some time for kids to just be kids."
Dominican players are marked by their relaxed and fluid style of play. One reason, perhaps, is that in the republic, there are no moms hanging over the fence during practice, no dads tracking batting averages, no red-faced coaches. Tension, the fear of making a mistake, is missing. "They play that game with so much joy," says Sullivan. "They are just playing to play."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.