ISLANDS Magazine: Baseball in the Dominican Republic

Family Pride
Just as big-league superstars make pride swell in fellow Dominicans, a kid like Piyoyo brings pride to family and friends in the barrio. See the full article Going Deep: Baseball in the Dominican Republic »Jon Whittle

The 76-year-old man suddenly stands up from the dinner table. His eyes have swelled to the size of mangoes and he wants to take a swing. The man's name is Fiallo, pronounced Fee-eye-oh. For the past hour I've been calling him Fay-oh, which the villa manager just told me means ugly in Spanish. The man motions for me to get on my feet. Now. But Fiallo is fired up because I've also uttered a gringo-proof word: baseball. You could say it has moved him.

Fiallo turns his back to me and slaps his hips. "Hands here!" he demands. I separate myself from a plate of butterfly shrimp and oblige. We're standing on the veranda of the Golden Dolphin Villa, high above the Dominican Republic's north coast, in something like a tango position. With my hands on his 76-year-old hips, Fiallo yanks his torso around 90 degrees , hard enough to hyperextend my wrists. He does this three times before I realize what he's doing: giving me an unsolicited batting lesson. Anywhere else people would be snapping iPhone pictures. Here, nobody looks twice.

“Baseball,” Fiallo says, tapping his heart, “for us, it is here.” It’s also here, in front of dinner guests at a mountaintop villa.

I nod my head at Fiallo and begin to sit down. But his eyes are still engorged. “Here,” he repeats, still pointing into his chest. “Tomorrow you go look around. You’ll see.”

I’m on my way out to see what Fiallo means 12 hours later. But I get no farther than the coffeepot and a formal stone table at the bottom of the villa’s staircase. Someone must have been sidetracked en route to the recycle bin, because two pieces of cardboard, cut roughly to the size of cereal boxes, sit on the table. The villa’s manager, Charlie Torres, walks out from the kitchen.

See related photo gallery: Dominican Baseball: Anytime, Anywhere »

“Those are gloves,” he says.

I hold up the cardboard. He said gloves. As in baseball gloves. As in, Here son, look what we got you for your birthday.

“I wanted you to see what we all grew up using,” says Charlie. He’s cut a slit in each cardboard piece for the hand to slide through, carved a hole for one finger and folded them over to create a pocket for catching whatever might be tossed. Charlie grabs a lime from the fruit shelf and we play catch in the dining room, breaking in our brand-new gloves.

“I’ll make you a bat too,” says Charlie. A while later he wanders out into the 100-acre orchard that surrounds the villa. He returns from the jungle with a cabilma branch and, using a machete and a piece of broken glass, lathes the wood into a smooth and straight club. “Everyone uses a bat like this at some time. Everyone.” He calls Julio, the chef, out of the kitchen. “Did you ever use a bat like this, Julio?” Julio, thumbs dirty with garlic and head perhaps bubbling up memories, nods.

"For some boys, baseball today is about signing a contract and making money," says Charlie, demonstrating his batting stance. "But most of us, we just want to play. Not in a stadium. Just in a pasture or on a street. Anywhere flat, we play baseball."**
**

Anywhere. Baseball. That’s the story. Over the course of the next two days, I’ll play the game with two 6-year-old boys, using almond pods for balls and palm fronds for bats, in a dirt parking lot. A brother and sister slugging bottle caps alongside a road will get my attention. I’ll even stand with a stadium full of trompeta-blowing, Macarena-dancing fans at a professional Dominican Winter League game in Santiago. But this barely touches the skin of what Fiallo meant when he gently lectured me at dinner the other night.

I remove myself from all hints of baseball at Playa Don Mino. The sand is vacant. The sky is clear. But the trees are raining sea grapes. I spot two boys who also spot me. They dart between the trees and every so often throw sticks at the grapes hanging 25 feet above. Then they suck on the seeds that fall.

“Sea grapes,” I say from a distance. “Bueno?” They glance at me with the zero trust any 11-year-old should give a strange man from a strange land. I’ve seen a ton of sea grapes in the tropics but have never actually put one in my mouth. I just need an icebreaker with these boys. There’s something about the way they throw the sticks into the trees. Elbows up. Hands behind the ears. Perfect follow-through. So I drop to my knees in the sand and sketch a baseball field with a finger.

“Donde [where]?” I ask. Both boys converge on my artwork and point to their positions. Catcher. Center field. One grabs my pen and writes in my notes: “Jean Carlos, 14, CF [center field].” He hands me three sea grapes and motions for me to eat with him. “Beisbol,” he says. Just one word. And then he does something familiar. He punches his chest.

“Fiallo, he wants to show you something,” says Charlie. So on a Thursday morning we descend the mountainside and land in the village of Cabrera. The place is an hour east of the surf tourism in Cabarete, and even farther west from the all-inclusives in Punta Cana. Untraveled beaches are Cabrera’s closest neighbors.

Fiallo is waiting for us along a narrow street, wearing a ball cap and a bounce in his socks. After our hitting lesson at dinner the other night, I found out that Fiallo was an island baseball legend. Or could have been. During his prime as a second baseman in the early 1950s, he was one of the DR’s best players. But there was no such thing as a major-league dream. The country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and his puppet presidents didn’t allow baseball scouts onto the island or homegrown players to leave it.

"We are not like Cuba, though," says Fiallo. "There they have to play. Here we want to play."

The world didn’t know about the DR’s incredible talent pool until 1956, when one of Fiallo’s peers, Ozzie Virgil Sr., made it to the major leagues (he later had an airport named after him). Ozzie brought with him a playing style fitting the island mood: fun and free, not rigid and robotic. In the 55 years since, more than 500 Dominicans have played in the big leagues, twice the number of any country besides the United States. But the inexplicable numbers are not the story.

Fiallo leads us into a barrio. We walk down a dirt alley and up to a small windowless home, where five pairs of blue jeans are drying on the low metal roof.

“This boy, two years ago, was a great prospect,” Fiallo says while we wait for someone to come out. “But he has to work on weekends for his family. Excavation. It’s hard work. He loses energy. He cannot play enough. He’s getting older. So now …” He waggles his hand in a so-so gesture.

I ask how often this guy plays. “Maybe four hours a day,” says Fiallo. “Other prospects play eight hours a day.” And his age? “He is 17.”

That’s become a central problem in this surging pipeline of baseball talent. For some, the fun and free game becomes a way out, almost desperately, to a big major-league contract. Yet less than one percent of the 800,000 Dominican kids who play baseball will sign such a paper. Steroids are common. Kids will also lie about their ages, say they’re younger to allow more time to prove themselves before hitting the dreaded age of 17.

This information, and knowing that the kid who just came outside to shake my hand still has a dream, make it a little awkward when we sit on plastic chairs to get to know each other. His name is Alex. Alex Lopez. Goes by the nickname Piyoyo, a name spray-painted in heroic fashion on a block wall through the alley. OK, what else should we talk about? _Sooo …. how’s work? Ever inject any human growth hormone? _

I lob a soft question Piyoyo’s way. “You see the World Series?”

A beam of light explodes on his sleepy face. He talks about his favorite Dominican players. Stands to mimic their mannerisms. Piyoyo’s mother stands nearby, a caricature of pride, her chin high and firm enough to be on Mount Rushmore.

“She taught me how to hit,” Piyoyo says of his mother. You could say she was creative that way. She would throw rice kernels for him to hit with a broomstick at night — good for focus. Showed him how to spit corn kernels out of his mouth, one at a time, and hit line drives — good for bat speed. I’ve never seen this technique. Corn spitting. Fiallo’s never seen it either. So Piyoyo walks us into a larger alley for a demonstration.

Four other kids show up to watch as the star of their barrio loads his cheeks with dry corn and proceeds to spit and swing, spit and swing. “Tink! Tink! Tink!” The kernels ricochet off his aluminum bat like BB’s, with one neighbor hiding behind a tree for protection. I know the answer from his lean build and baby face, but for the sake of research I still have to ask: Have you taken steroids or had a notion to try?

“No,” Piyoyo says with the assertion of a much older man. He points to his chest. “The only thing in here is passion.”

my hand stings. A ball is exploding into my glove — a leather one. It's the bartender, Tony, from the villa. He asked if I wanted to play catch, and now, wearing pressed black pants and a collared white shirt, he's serving molotov cocktails into my palm. Smack__! Says he was a catcher (smack__!) until four years ago when he (smack__!) broke his leg in a motorbike accident.

"I haven't been able to run or squat very well since then [smack!]." Tony isn't trying to impress a guest. "Baseball," he says with cheeks bulging around a smile that's practically touching both ears. He's trying to find the right words before saying, "It's in my hair."

The game is at the dinner table, in the parking lot, on the beach, and now it’s stuck in the bartender’s hair. It must be getting into mine too because at 9 p.m. a call goes to Fiallo. It’s a long shot, but I’m wondering if we can get a game together tomorro w. The temptation has been here at the villa all week because outside the master bedroom is a full-size baseball field, in a clearing amid bamboo and fruit trees.

“I’d see kids playing in the villages with whatever they could get their hands on,” says Golden Dolphin owner Mike Siemer, standing on a balcony he calls the skybox. “I thought the field would be a good way for guests to see what this island is all about. We let the guests play too. You playing?”

The next morning Tony and I are warming up our arms on the field when Julio comes out wearing a glove and his chef’s apron. Charlie joins us too. It’s barely 12 hours after our late call to Fiallo when a flatbed truck comes motoring up the steep driveway. Then another. Players spill out, chattering and razzing each other. More players hike down from the hills. Some are 15 years old. Others are twice that age, with no aspirations of being discovered by a scout. It’s a Friday morning and 25 guys are simply here to play baseball. Including Piyoyo.

“I’ll play every day until I can’t play anymore,” he says, taking off his work jeans and pulling on his baseball pants. Beyond the outfield fence villagers are standing in thigh-high vegetation to watch a game played with no umpires and no coaches. Just to be near it. Players see me in a sweaty jersey and realize this won’t be the same story. They start turning the questions back on me: What’s your favorite team? Can we get a picture? Wanna play first base?

A foul ball lands 50 feet behind home plate, so I trot to the top of a berm to get it. As I look back toward the baseball diamond, I notice huge leaves of a grajumbo tree hanging over the center-field fence. The field is not exactly a diamond. To me, it looks like a huge heart carved into the island.