Winter Leagues: Dominican Real Fan and Talent Hotbed

This article was written by Rob Ruck

This article was published in 1984 Baseball Research Journal

Tony Pena sat alone on the top of the dugout steps, his legs sprawled in front of him. He tucked the gold chains around his neck under his jersey and fastened the clasps on his shinguards. After staring at the dirt for a moment, Pena snapped to his feet. Peering into the dugout, he smiled and shouted, “Vamos, vamos, vamos. Let’s go!” then broke into a solo merengue. As his Aguila teammates responded with shouts and laughter of their own, Pena led them – a mix of big league stars, American minor leaguers and Dominican hopefuls – onto the field.

The seventh and deciding game of the semi-final series of the Dominican Republic’s 1983-84 winter league season had begun. Las Aguilas (the Eagles) from the northern city of Santiago versus Las Estrellas (the Stars) from San Pedro de Macoris for a berth in the finals and a chance to represent the island in the Caribbean Championships in Puerto Rico.

For Pena, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ All-Star catcher who lives in Santiago, 100 kilometers from the farm in Monte Cristi where he grew up, it was about the 260th time in the past year that he had suited up for a game. But if he was tired, it didn’t show. “You’ve got to play hard every day,” he had commented in the dugout before the game. “You’ ye just got to – especially here.”

Baseball is more than a game on this Caribbean island which the Dominican Republic has shared with French-speaking, soccer-playing Haiti since the 17th century. “It’s a way of life,” Aguila manager Winston Llenas explained. The Dominican Republic, with a population of only five million, is the leading supplier of baseball talent in the world after the United States. More than 25 Dominicans play major league ball, and they are only the vanguard of a potentially larger invading force.

Ask just about anyone familiar with Dominican baseball where the best players come from and the answer will be San Pedro de Macoris. Cocos frios, cangrejos and some of the best ballplayers in the world you can get them all in San Pedro. The cold coconuts and masses of slowly-moving crabs can be bought along the palm-lined road leading into town, the ballplayers inside their pastel-colored homes.

San Pedro currently produces more ballplayers per thousand residents than any other town has at any time in history. A city of perhaps 100,000, including its surrounding sugar mill towns, San Pedro counts among its favorite sons Pedro Guerrero, Joaquin Andujar, Toronto’s keystone combo of Alfredo Griffin and Damaso Garcia as well as Jorge Bell and phenom Tony Fernandez, Atlanta’s Rafael Ramirez, Philly’s Juan Samuel and Cleveland’s Julio Franco.

Sugar is the reason San Pedro’s ballplayers are so sweet. “It’s just like it was in Cuba,” Dodger scout Ralph Avila noted. “Sugar country is where you’ll find the best baseball because the sugar centrales put money into it.” In San Pedro, with its six sugar mills, baseball received a large infusion of company support in the 1930s. This legacy can be found on the scores of diamonds where company-supported teams still play.

Aguila shortstop Nelson Norman grew up in Consuelo, a few kilometers outside of town. His father, a Virgin Islander, has worked at the Consuelo centrale for more than 30 years. Norman talked about sugar and baseball in the dugout, switching effortlessly between Spanish and the fluent English with a West Indian lilt he learned from his father.

“Consuelo is a bit like Pittsburgh,” he laughed, “except the mills are not steel but sugar.” In Consuelo, oxen haul the trash wagon and horses are as evident as cars. The people, he pointed out, work for the mill or hardly at all. And for five to six months a year during the tiempo muerto or dead season when the cane requires little attention, it is hardly at all. They have the time, especially then, to play ball.

Winter ball in the Dominican is a study in contrasts. Palm trees tower over the outfield fences against tropical Maxfield Parrish skies, yet the stadium showers often run only cold if at all. Major leaguers like Pedro Guerrero and Mario Soto with their annual salaries as long as telephone numbers play along-side Dominican youths making 500 pesos or about $225 a month. While armed soldiers protect the dugouts and sometimes frisk the fans for bottles, before the game four-year-old Omar Moreno, Jr., familiarly known as OJ, jogged next to his graceful, long-legged father along the outfield grass, his cap falling down over his eyes and then off his head completely. As his father chatted, OJ practiced hook slides in center field. With the game only minutes away, Omar Sr. pulled up his son’s pants and rolled up the cuffs before handing him over the railing to his mother.

On the mound, minor leaguer Stu Cliburn, working on only two days’ rest, set San Pedro down in order. The opposing pitcher responded in kind, beginning the inning by retiring first baseman Dave Hostetler on a called third strike. Hostetler whirled and snarled something at the umpire before stalking back to the dugout, punctuating a long string of expletives by cracking a batting helmet in half with his bat. It had been a frustrating winter for him. In 1982, Hostetler hit 22 home runs for the Texas Rangers. But he slumped in 1983 and had come to the Dominican to regain his form. His wife and ten-month-old son had accompanied him but left after the latter got an ear infection. Lonely and not particularly pleased with his performance, Hostetler wanted out. “Damn!” he had shouted earlier while leaving the batting cage. “I want to go home.”

Hostetler might have been unhappy being there, but most of his Dominican teammates were not. For many, playing for Aguila was a dream come true. Pirate farmhand Tomas Martinez had hardly played all season, but as he walked down the dugout alley he was all smiles, knocking hats off his teammates sitting in a row along the dugout steps. Nor were Hostetler’s fellow Americans disappointed to be playing baseball in January.

With two out in the fourth, Hostetler singled over a leaping Alfredo Griffin, whose manos dulces (sweet hands) had repeatedly robbed Aguila players of hits. Cuban-born Barbaro Garbey then doubled to the wall in left, scoring Hostetler and coming around himself a batter later. Garbey smiled briefly as he accepted the slaps of his teammates but took a seat away from the clamour and pulled a pack of Montecarlos out of his back pocket. Tossing aside three crumpled cigarettes, he finally found one intact.

Of all the Aguila players, Garbey’s path to the majors has been the most perilous. He made it to Cuba’s top league in 1974 as a 17-year-old and played for Cuba’s world champion team. But in 1978, his reputation was shattered by implication in a game-fixing scheme. Banned for life from Cuban baseball, Garbey tried to join the Mariel exodus in the spring of 1980. He was recognized and stopped twice, but finally made it on his third attempt.

Signed out of a refugee camp, Garbey had progressed through the Detroit organization to its top farm club when the game-fixing allegations surfaced. He argued he only helped keep down the margin of his team’s victories, but Cuban sports officials countered that he had admitted throwing games, not just shaving runs.

Minor league ball put Garbey on probation and later briefly suspended him after a post-game altercation with a fan who had been razzing him about the betting charges. Since then Garbey has limited his conversations with the press and was reticent to talk about Cuba. A teammate explained that Garbey’s wife and daughters were still in Cuba and that the government was preventing them from leaving.

Cuba, once the chief source of Latin talent, stopped exporting its ballplayers after the 1959 revolution and the resulting U.S. blockade. The Dominican Republic stepped into the void, but not until the demise of Rafael Trujillo in 1961.

En este letrina, Trujillo es el jefe” is written on the door to the bathroom by the visitors’ dugout at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo. It’s about the only place he still has clout. Rafael Trujillo gained his spurs during the Marines’ occupation, seized power in 1930 and spent the next 30 years as el caudillo. Trujillo’s meglomania knew few bounds. He renamed the highest mountain on the island, two provinces and even the capital city after himself. By the end of his reign the entire country had become his private estate.

From the 1930s and the inception of league play until his death, Trujillo cast a shadow over the country’s favorite pastime. “He wouldn’t let guys play for anybody but his own team if he thought they were good,” Aguila coach Octavio Acosta asserted. “He threatened players, their families and even stopped them from playing abroad.” Each stadium in the county was named for either Trujillo or a relative, and championships almost always were won by one of the two Ciudad Trujillo teams.

But in 1961 the CIA helped terminate Trujillo. “When Trujillo went down,” Acosta smiled, “Aguila went up.” By 1970, Aguila was a contender and went on to win five pennants in the decade. More importantly, Trujillo’s death unstopped a current of Dominican players to the U.S. as Ossie Virgil, Julian Javier, Juan Marichal, Rico Carty and the Alous (Felipe, Matty and Jesus) were joined by Winston Llenas’ generation.

With Garbey, the Pirates’ Marvell Wynne and Panamanian-born Moreno, the Aguila outfield had a multi-national caste. Garbey and Wynne lived with Cliburn and lefthanded reliever Chuck Cary in a residential section of Santiago, replete with ESPN and MTV.

Garbey and Wynne had come to baseball from working-class neighborhoods in Santiago de Cuba and Chicago, respectively, Cliburn from Jackson, Miss., and Cary from San Francisco’s suburbs. What amazed Cary was that so many Dominican ballplayers “were as good as those in the States,” but without the chances he and his American compatriots had to make it. And American players, he added, made a minimum of $3,000 a month plus a 750-peso living allowance, free housing and a rented car while the Dominican substitutes made just 500 pesos a month.

Five hundred pesos a month, however, is not all that bad in a country where the average household head makes barely 200 pesos a month. Nor are the options that attractive. When asked what he’d be doing if not playing ball, one benchwarmer stared and said, “Nada.” Others, when asked why Dominican ballplayers were so good, answered, “Por que no hay trabajo.” Because there is no work.

Aguila led 2-0, but with two out in the top of the fifth inning Ruben Robles, the muscular San Pedro centerfielder who moonlights as a fashion model, beat out a slow hopper and the next batter walked on four pitches. Manager Llenas visited Cliburn on the mound and Cecilio Guante began throwing in the bullpen.

Winston Llenas has the good looks that Michael Nouri brought to his managing job on the short-lived Bay City Blues television series. But unlike Nouri, Llenas starred for Aguila in the 1960s, later played for the California Angels and took his managerial baptism with the Mexican Diablos Rojos.

With two on and Griffin at bat, Llenas considered his options. San Pedro’s fans, meanwhile, chanted “Wah,” led by a boy who teased each “Wah” out of them with a snap of his Estrellas banner. On a 2-0 pitch, Griffin hit a screamer foul toward the bullpen which Guante calmly snagged as he stood watching. When Griffin walked, loading the bases, Llenas signaled for the reliever.

Guante sparkled in relief for Pittsburgh in 1983 and did little to tarnish his promise during the winter. He was the loosest on a loose club. In the locker room before the game, with his muscled torso bare to the waist, Cecilio dipped and bobbed to the sounds of Boy George and the Culture Club on a teammate’s tape deck. During the game he often appeared to be in a different dimension, gazing into the stands and joking with the soldiers in the bullpen. But once in the game Guante was serious for the first time all evening. After falling behind Manny Castillo in the count, he induced the San Pedro infielder to ground into a rally-killing out. Signs along the Dominican roadside read “Cristo Viene,” but at the ballpark it’s Guante who saves.

The stands erupted and the band began to play “La Lena,” the Aguila merengue. Led by a man in a paper mache and feather eagle costume, the band snaked through the crowd. On the dugout a self-appointed cheerleader in an orange cowboy hat, leisure suit and a

Dominican flag T-shirt danced with 16-year-old Juan Baltazaar, Aguila’ s midget mascot, who during the inning had sprawled on the dugout roof, one leg provocatively raised.

On cue Nelson Norman singled. A single by Moreno, a sacrifice fly by Pena and an error led to two more runs. In the sixth Norman’s third hit of the night gave Aguila a 5-0 lead.

San Pedro had exploded in game three with a ten-run inning and a triple play. Their first two batters in the seventh reached base, and when Ruben Robles lofted a foul behind the plate,

Pena and the ump ran into each other. The ball, which could have been caught otherwise, fell to the ground a few feet away. Several players on the Aguila bench shouted “Coho!” the all-purpose Dominican baseball expletive, while another murmured, “Eso es una Pena colida,” and then ducked as balls and gloves came flying his way. With everyone on the bench standing, Guante retired the next three batters. As he walked into the dugout, a coach slipped a towel and jacket onto his pitching arm with valet precision.

San Pedro began the eighth in similar fashion, but this time when Ramirez hit a foul pop, Pena reached into the stands to catch it inches from midget Baltazar’s face and only a few feet away from where his son, Tony Jr., sat smiling in the arms of pitching coach Rick Peterson’s wife, Betsy.

Rick first came south in 1966 at the age of 13 when his father, Harding, now the Pirates’ general manager, was managing Aguila in winter play. His initial memory is the bullet holes in the taxi that drove the family from the airport into Santo Domingo, just months after the Marines had helped put down a rebellion against the autocratic hangover of Trujillo’s regime. Now a Pirate coach, Rick pitched for Gulf Coast College and then in the minors until injuries ended his career.

Unwilling to leave the game, he sought work as a pitching coach, a trade he plied in the minors during the summer and in Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican each winter.

Like most Americans with winter league experience, Peterson preferred the Dominican. Not only is the competition better, he asserted, but the players are treated better, too. In Venezuela, he recalled, “I coached third base and when I held up a runner or when one was called out at the plate that I sent, I’d have to duck the corn cobs, rocks and bottles that fans would be throwing from the stands. After games we won away, their fans would be rocking the buses and cursing us.”

Earlier Peterson had confessed, “There’s no way we should have done so well this season.” Indeed, Aguila had been in first place from day one, despite the loss of several key pitchers.

Some of the Americans had not returned after going stateside for Christmas, and in January the team was stunned by the arrest of Atlanta Braves ace Pascual Perez on cocaine charges.

In the stands the vendors, sensing the end of the game, furiously peddled the last of their rum and beer, dispensed in plastic cups, along with peanuts, fried plantains and yucca. A magician performing tricks between innings began to collect a hat full of change for his efforts. The little boy in the Mickey Mouse T-shirt who sold demi-tasse cups of hot, sweet strong Dominican coffee for 15 centavos to the players during the game was ushered out of the dugout by an officer with a black pith helmet and a chrome-plated revolver.

Guante set the last three batters down on two strikeouts and a pop-up and the crowd spilled onto the field. The final score: Aguila 5, San Pedro 0. In the locker room, as beer sprayed in the air, Omar Moreno stood quietly in the doorway, a half-smile on his face.

The cache of beer soon exhausted, the players filed out of the locker-room, reuniting later at discos across the city. The roommates partied till four, dancing to a mix of merengue and new wave. While Wynne and Garbey slept the next day, Cliburn and Gary accompanied two writers traveling with the club to Sosua, a nearby beach town established by Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s.

When the ballplayers’ car pulled up to the beach, it was surrounded by a corps of prospective car washers and watchers. Gary asked for Marcos, a youth of 12 years with whom he had negotiated on previous excursions. Marcos appeared moments later and assigned each of the foursome a “secretario” for the day. The secretario’s job was to guard personal possessions and go for beer, barbecued chicken and other whims.

Walking along the beach with Marcos, Gary chewed a foot-long section of sugar cane and conversed in Spanish. Gliburn, meanwhile, basked in the sun and the memory, of his four and two-thirds shutout innings. Stu’s secretario worked double-time, bringing him two beers at a time. Gliburn, a fast worker on the mound the night before, was an even faster worker on the beach, romancing a young Dominican girl with beers and a necklace he bought from a beach vendor. By late afternoon, they had disappeared. When they made it back by sunset, the secretarios convulsed in adolescent envy.

On the way back to Santiago that night, their car was pulled over by the police. The driver, one of the writers, walked back to the cop, who shook his hand and asked him how he was doing before pointing out that a headlight wasn’t working and that a ticket was in order. The writer already knew that from a previous encounter with the police outside of San Pedro which had ended in a five-peso contribution to the policeman’s “gas fund.”

This time, however, the policeman wanted to know who else was in the car. “Turistas?” he asked. “No, senor,” the writer responded. “Son peloteros (ballplayers) de Aguila.” The policeman smiled and asked which ones. Hearing the name Cliburn, he nodded and said “Si, es bueno.” When Cary’s name came up, the cop grimaced and asked if he was not the reliever who had given up three consecutive doubles in the sixth game. The writer confessed that Cary was indeed the culprit. After introductions, the cop once again shook hands and cautioned the driver to get his headlight fixed. No ticket – no contribution to the policeman’s gas fund.

Dominican baseball is, in some ways, like baseball used to be in the United States. Local boys shag flies alongside their favorite players in the outfield before games and youngsters play catch with home-made cardboard carton mitts along the roadside, dreaming of careers as peloteros. Only in the highlands does the game take a back seat to any other sport. There, where there is no place flat enough to play, cock-fighting is the principal passion. As one grizzled aficionado in Pedro Garcia, when asked what sport was the most popular in his mountain village, explained, “Aqui, las mujeres, los gallos y la pelota.” Here, women, cockfighting and baseball. But elsewhere, it is pelota.

The celebration outside the stadium continued as the band played “La Lena,” and revelers danced the merengue. Old ladies in bandanas did a brisk trade in barbecued chicken, fried sausage and flour cakes which they grilled on braziers made out of steel drums. Overhead the Big Dipper stood straight up, a giant question mark pointing the way north. For most Dominican players, making it northward to baseball’s promised land is a question yet to be answered. But not for all. A few yards from the Aguila dressing room, Tony Pena stood holding his son, surrounded by circles of fans. Still dressed in his uniform with the number 14 on it – his

Aguila, not his Pirate number – Pena joked with his compatriots.

“He could be president of this country some day,” an admiring Cary speculated. Perhaps he could. The Pirates did not want Pena playing winter ball, preferring that he rest instead.

“How could I do that?” Pena protested. “It would be like hitting the people in the face.”