The ball darts out of the Dominican’s left hand and is drilled into right field for a single, the first hit for the Americans in the game. The lefty sets and fires, oblivious to the base runner’s antics. The ball crosses the plate, and the runner takes off for second, hoping to jumpstart his team, losers of game one 9-4.
A recent game played in the World Baseball Classic? Nope. The runner is my son Owen and this game took place last week on a diamond hacked out of a sugarcane field near Chicharron, San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic (Don’t bother with Google maps. It’s not there).
The email arrived on Owen’s 9th birthday: Home Run Baseball Camp (HRBC) was organizing a camp in the Dominican Republic over Spring Break 2013. If you know baseball even just a little bit, you know how large the influence of the Dominicans is on today’s game. Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Juan Samuel, Pedro Guerrero, Robinson Cano, Rico Carty and our host, Pepe Frias are among the 76 major leaguers from San Pedro de Macoris; the cradle of shortstops; a town 60 km east of the capital of Santo Domingo. The camp was located in Consuelo, a town of about 32,000 just outside of San Pedro and birthplace to 11 major leaguers including Carty, Sosa and Frias.
Owen’s been attending HRBC in Brooklyn for the last two summers- the camp is designed for maximum game time with tons of at-bats and plays in the field; which he loves. There are plenty of drills, but the highlight is two games per day, machine pitch, ensuring a fast pace and plenty of action. The camp emphasizes becoming a better person, being a great teammate, reading a ton and making sure you are aware of your surroundings and how you can help those around you. The camp motto is “Talent is what you have, effort is what you give.” There was no chance Owen was passing up a week of HRBC in the DR.
The founder of HRBC is John McCarthy, the son of Colman McCarthy; former PGA pro, turned monk, turned Washington Post reporter. McCarthy walked on to the baseball team at The University of South Alabama and worked his way onto the Orioles rookie ball team as an undrafted free agent. After his playing career ended he made a life in baseball, founding the camp in DC and starting an afterschool baseball program in the DC area. McCarthy became enamored with the DR 20 years ago and with the help of Pepe Frias and Sister Lenore Gelb (Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception) started a program called Beisbol y Libros in Consuelo in 1999. The program lasted until 2010 and helped over 400 children with their schoolwork and their baseball skills.
Consuelo is where we arrived on Monday morning, 14 eager baseball kids, 3 from Brooklyn (Owen and 2 Brooklyn Bulldog teammates) and 11 more from Washington, D.C., ranging in age from 7 to 13. We pulled up to a field with room for 16 baseball games at any one time- all of which are used on the weekends. This morning there were about 50-60 Dominican kids there to greet us and participate in the camp. They are there for baseball almost every day- school in the DR is currently only a half day, so many children spend the other half playing baseball. The format was classic HRBC- some drills and then game time. Everyone on both sides was greeted with smiles and joy. The Dominicans were thrilled to have up there and loved receiving the donations of gloves we all brought from the US. Our host was former big league manager Manny Acta’s ImpActa school. Acta grew up in Consuelo and this is his way of giving back to his community, picking up where beisbol y libros left off.
At about 11 o’clock in the morning I noticed a group of boys pushing a shoving around Owen. My initial fears were assuaged when I realized they were just playing the universal sub-game of 9 year old baseball; the tapping of the protective cup. This was one of many funny cultural exchanges throughout the week- one morning Owen was greeted by a boy who called out “Hey Motherf—r.” He had no idea what it meant, only that it was an American greeting! Everyone made lots of interesting connections- Owen even got a phone number from one boy. What he’ll do when he calls him, I have no idea, since neither speaks the other’s language. Owen thinks Google Translate might work.
Wednesday was a memorable day. The morning was spent in normal HRBC mode, but the afternoon was centered on spending time with Sister Catherine O’Shea, a Canadian nun who has served in the areas around Consuelo for over 20 years. Pushing 75, sister Kathryn came to the DR for a year 20 years ago and realized she had found a great place to continue her mission of educating impoverished youth for her order, the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
The main industry of the Dominican Republic prior to tourism was sugar. San Pedro and Consuelo were sugar towns with acre upon acre of sugar cane surrounding the towns with railroads and roads solely constructed to get the cane back to the port in San Pedro. All that cane needed to be harvested and much of the population in those towns were cane workers imported from Haiti and the English speaking Caribbean. These migrant workers are known as cocolos.
Picking cane ranks with the most dangerous occupations in the world and picking it in the DR is the worst place to pick it. The industry has not modernized at all. Workers are not paid by the hour, rather by the weight they pick. In most countries the leaves are burned off the can prior to picking, allowing the picker easy access to the cane. Not in the DR. The leaves stay on so the machetes are used for the entire process- the cocolos in the DR can harvest roughly two ton a day vs. 7 tons a day in other countries. A huge difference when you’re paid by weight. A picker is paid 115 pesos per ton. That’s $5.60 a day for 2 tons worth. The zafra (harvest) lasts for 4-6 months. That’s a maximum income of $1,008 a year.
All of those migrant workers needed places to live. In response, the sugar companies set up bateys. A batey is a shantytown for the workers with the most basic shelter (think corrugated metal roof) and no safety or organization at all. Bateys are tiny; no more that 500 people and were originally intended as seasonal housing only. That changed with the loss of the migrant economy and now bateys are the poverty frontier in the DR. Hovels with an estimated total population of 500,000 across the country.
On Wednesday, Sister Catherine took us to Alejandro Bass, a very large (500 people) batey near Consuelo. The poverty is staggering. Better than Soweto perhaps as there are cement floors and some power. Worse than anything else you can imagine. Stray dogs, chicken and ducks roam the streets along with people of all ages. 3 year olds hack at tables with 10-inch knives. If you’re lucky, you have a lock on your outhouse. The number one task for the residents every day is finding something to eat.
A bus filled with Americanos, including 14 baseball-playing kids was a major event. The kids set up on the field (after the horse was lead off) and the parents toured the town with Sister Catherine.
Listless children lying watching the news under leaky roofs, mothers attempting hand laundry, barbed wire surrounding the school, those are some of the images etched in my mind.
On the field, baseball was universal. Gloves were traded, bare hands used for drills, mighty hacks taken with the wiffle bats brought by the camp. Everyone on the field was happy. We rolled out, on our way back to the hotel with a new perspective on beisbol.
Friday was a great day. Instead of starting at Manny Acta’s facility, the camp rolled straight to Chicharron, a batey of roughly 300 people close to Consuelo.
One of Beisbol y Libros’ successes is pitcher Luis Noel. Luis is from Chicharron and attended beisbol y libros starting at age 10. His mother scraped together bus fare to get him to Consuelo each day and he took his opportunity, learned to read, learned to speak English and learned to pitch. He learned to pitch well enough to be signed by the Orioles, earning him a $20,000 signing bonus at age 18.
Luis worked his way up through the Orioles system and became a well-regarded prospect. More importantly, he positioned himself to further his education in the US. Major League baseball is a cruel world; Luis learned with the hard way when his work visa was delayed in 2012; costing him his roster spot and his future with the Orioles and a major source of income for his family of 11 (he’s the oldest child).
Luis is now sorting out his future, which hopefully includes a degree in the US, and while he does that, he’s started a beisbol y libros program in Chicharron. That’s where we headed Friday. A short cement backstop provides seating for spectators and when Luis heard Los Americanos were coming he and a friend collected the best wood they could find and built a dugout with bamboo and palm fronds to keep the visitors cool. This was beisbol puro: US vs. La Republica Dominicana on a field with sugarcane as a fence surrounding the field and sugarcane as the free snack for players and spectators alike.
My son eventually worked his way around to score, but baseball being baseball, the home team swept the doubleheader, with the highlight a two run bomb into the cane by a Dominican slugger. The American team had their moments; a steal of home and catches made by the youngest kids on the team.
Beisbol puro; a day I will never forget not for the magical setting and the spirit of the boys on the filed, not to mention the 11 year old Dominican lefty throwing darts and never knowing the count. He is deaf and he never looked back at the umpire. You can do that if all you throw are strikes.
After the game, we walked to Chicarron to meet Luis’ family. 11 of them live in a two-room house only slightly better than those in Alejandro Bass. Baseball pictures of Luis adorn the walls.
You’d have never known it you were standing in abject poverty if your only gauge were the electric smiles on the faces of the family beaming at Luis, who brought his American friends home to meet Mom.
It was a tremendous week. The kids got in a lot of great baseball and tons of life experiences. It was a treat spending the week with other families and having fun with them.
A huge thank you to Coach Mac for setting up this opportunity and to the other coaches who spent a week teaching kids how to play baseball in multiple languages: Brian, Mo, Matt, Eddie and especially Emma, who made sure the buses got us where we needed to do and got the water to the fields. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip.
Huge thanks as well go to Ramon and Julio Cesar from ImpActa for hosting us, Sister Catherine for the time spent with us and Luis Noel for sharing a piece of his life with our group.
If you’re interested in more information:
-Most of the information in this post regarding the sugar industry, San Pedro de Macoris and Consuelo comes from the fascinating book "The Eastern Stars" by Mark Karlansky.
-This Mother Jones piece is a must read to understand how the Major Leagues can mistreat their athletes: Yewri Guillen.
As always, email me at smith c at gmail! Arriba!