Photos via Author, Luke Albrecht.
In my short time living in Santiago, I’ve been surprised at how little baseball I’ve actually seen being played. That’s not to say that baseball isn’t the most popular sport. When the professional team, Las Aguilas, plays, it’s the biggest event in town. During the MLB season, it’s hard to avoid TVs and radios with the Yankees or Boston playing. But it’s harder to find locals actually playing the game.
There are a few reasons. There aren’t too many fields. The fields that are there are often empty, due to a lack of organized teams and leagues. Many baseball diamonds at high schools have been converted to soccer fields in the past ten years. On Friday nights, it’s much easier to find boys playing basketball on the numerous courts around town than to find an organized game of baseball.
In front of my apartment building there’s an empty gravel lot. Sometimes it’s used for parking but during the day it’s usually empty. In the evening, it’s usually full. Not with cars or food trucks, but with boys playing baseball. Some nights it’s three or four and some nights it’s more than ten, but almost every night somebody’s out there playing the game.
Their equipment is basic: either a plastic wiffle bat or a wooden stick; a ball, usually made out of tape; and pebbles, pieces of cloth or plastic to mark the bases. These boys, who seem to be anywhere from six to ten years old, make this equipment work, night in and night out.
I always make a point to say hey and watch a few pitches if I have time. I’ve even been invited to play a few times. There’s nothing like the giggles that come from the younger boys when I pitch with my exaggerated leg kick and slow toss. The older boys don’t giggle. They’re trying hard to show that they’re serious about this game.
This type of neighborhood game is part of what I expected to see when I came to the Dominican Republic. These neighborhood games are the Dominican equivalent of tee-ball. Unlike the American version, where parents stand with their kids all over the field, the Dominican version has no coaches or parents. There is no instruction on fundamentals. This is where boys learn to have fun playing the game, but also where they first try to stand out from their peers. They need to show coaches that they’re serious about the game in order to move from the sandlots to organized ball.
Here in Santiago, there is no RBI league for boys without the means to pay for an organized team. In the past decade or so, most schools have dropped their baseball programs in favor of soccer and basketball. In this city, there just aren’t many options if you want to play organized baseball. Kids can pay to play for an organized league here in the city, but that is a privilege that many cannot afford. There are a few baseball schools and small academies that train kids from the age of four until they’re old enough to sign. These academies use the resources available to them: local neighborhood fields and sponsorships from businesses for equipment. The latter option is only available if someone sees you play and believes that you’re worth using their limited resources to train.
Since I’ve been living here, I’ve tried to watch as much youth baseball as I can. I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to find games being played. I’ll often walk to my local diamond, only to find it empty, with it’s gates locked. I’ve always found it strange that while kids are playing baseball on gravel near piles of trash, the few real fields are kept locked. I believe this to be a fitting metaphor for youth baseball here in Santiago in general.
Last Saturday, I once again walked to my local diamond, Estadio Miguel “Guelo” Diloné. This park, located in a nice residential neighborhood called Villa Olga, is named after the former major leaguer who played 12 seasons and had 267 career stolen bases. As I got there, I was happy to see that there was action on the field. The gates were unlocked, so I went in and sat on the concrete bleachers.
There seemed to be two teams preparing for a game. One team looked to have about twenty players who were taking infield. The other team, which counted about a dozen players, was throwing in the outfield. The larger team didn’t have uniforms or anyone that stood out as a coach. The smaller team had two older men who were obviously coaches. Most of the players had the same gray uniform that said MP- Master Project Training Development Team on the front.
As the game got going, I started talking to an older man sitting in the stands with me. He was related to one of the players on the MP team and he filled me in on the specifics of this game. The MP team was a small academy run out of this field. They practiced for two hours every day and played whenever they could organize games. All the players but one were under the MLB signing age of 16. The other team was older and came from one of the local two-year vocational training college UTESA.
There were also two teenage boys sitting in the bleachers when I arrived. They were dressed in their baseball uniforms and had bats and had their gloves with them. Before the game started, they asked one of the coaches of the MP team if they needed any more players. The coach said no, and the teenagers left. These guys would have to try their luck at playing in an organized game another day.
As I watched, it was apparent that while the UTESA team was more physically mature, the academy team was much more polished. Their fielding was more fluid and their throws more crisp. Their pitching was also more consistent. They used three pitchers in nine innings, with two of them throwing four innings each. This is compared with the five pitchers used by the UTESA team.
The academy team won the game, mostly on the strength of their pitching and superior defense. This isn’t to say the UTESA team didn’t have talent. Their most talented pitcher was throwing a curveball that kept the academy boys off balance all day. They also had a few players make really solid contact over the course of the game.
One of the more interesting things I saw happened off the field. During the fifth inning, a family with a little boy walked in. The father walked behind the bench and asked the coach if his son could start training with him. The coach gave a recommendation for a different coach to contact and the family left.
It’s telling that this family came to see if their young son could be trained. Being trained at an academy is not only his chance at a career in baseball, but really his only chance to play organized youth baseball. Without this training, the gates of the fields of Santiago would be locked. The boy would probably turn to more accessible sports, like soccer and basketball, that are quickly gaining in popularity.
While the MLB pumps millions of dollars into scouting, academies, and signing bonuses in the Dominican Republic, they’re missing the boat by neglecting to promote and support community baseball on a widespread basis. In the US, MLB has long funded RBI and other leagues for kids who may not have another opportunity to play, and those leagues have produced numerous major league players. Heck, I owe a great portion of my passion for baseball to the fact that my local RBI league allowed me to play organized baseball throughout my youth at a low cost and without great pressure to preform at a traveling or high school level.
MLB should see that although baseball is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the Dominican Republic today, there are challengers for that spot in the longer term. If the average kid is locked out of organized baseball at the age of ten, it’s easy to see him turn to the more accessible sports like basketball and soccer. Major League Baseball needs to make funding community baseball programs a real priority. While this may not necessarily grow the prospect pool, it will insure that baseball is the sport of choice in the Dominican Republic for years into the future.