Orioles, Dominican youth seek futures

A FIELD OF DREAMS IN THE THIRD WORLD

December 22, 1991|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Staff Correspondent

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- Ten miles from the middle of town, down an unpaved road of rocks and craters, past the tumbledown cement factory and miles of sugar cane fields, past the traffic jams consisting of goats and bony horses and shirtless men on burros, past the tin shacks bulging with hungry children, the Baltimore Orioles are attempting to better their distant future.

Appearing suddenly in this sunlit Caribbean dead-end, where electricity and running water are as valuable as gold, is a shocking sight: two dozen Dominican teen-agers wearing old Orioles uniforms, playing baseball on a tidy field surrounded by concrete bleachers and fences shimmering in Orioles' colors, with Bird logos on the outfield wall and dugouts.

Welcome to the outermost tip of one of baseball's tendrils, an island of order in a sea of Third World chaos.

The players are young sons of poverty, some unable to read or write, their gaunt bodies testimony to a life of hunger. But they play baseball with startling grace and knowledge, and the Orioles have invested in them, signing them to contracts with small bonuses and giving them this improbable slice of Baltimore on which to hone their games.

The catcher is a 17-year-old who never spent a day in school but helped his father kill animals for market. The Orioles' Dominican scout, Carlos Bernhardt, found him on a nearby field of tall weeds and trash, using a glove made of cardboard and moving gracefully behind a tin can serving as home plate.

The second baseman was discovered in town, on a dirt field. The tall first baseman, who just turned 17 and can hit a ball 400 feet, was cutting sugar cane for a living. His cheeks and belly are still puffy with baby fat, but his enormous, calloused hands belong on a man twice his age.

They all stirred the imagination of Bernhardt, a thick-armed former minor league pitcher whose task is to dive into the wretched Dominican mass of cane fields and muddy streets, separate the prospects from the thousands of players and give them their first push as professionals.

"You've got to be a scout, a father and a teacher," Bernhardt said. "You've got to find the kids, then teach them not only to be baseball players, but human beings."

Bernhardt, 42, is the entirety of the Orioles' increasingly active Dominican operation. For decades the Orioles culled none of the Dominican talent flooding the majors, led by such stars as Juan Marichal and George Bell. But Bernhardt has funneled some 40 prospects into the organization since 1987, including "eight to 12" that Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin calls "legitimate."

Four are on the 40-man roster for 1992 spring training. Luis Mercedes, a fast outfielder, could become the first to make the club this year There also is Manny Alexander, an elegant shortstop who played at Class A Frederick and Class AA Hagerstown last year; Cesar Devares, a bullish catcher whom Bernhardt uncovered stirring buckets of cement on a dusty street; and Francisco de la Rosa, a burly pitcher.

Now comes the next generation, taking their baby steps inside the orange and black walls of the little park Bernhardt built two years ago, where every day now dozens of dusty children and unemployed laborers watch silently and intently from the bleachers, goats wander along the foul lines, an old man sells giant oranges for 50 cents, another sells wrinkled lottery tickets, cows graze behind the home plate screen, kids stand on the dugouts flying kites made of sticks and trash bags, and teenagers play the ubiquitous game of catch, hoping they'll be the ones in uniform in five years.

The best young pitcher in camp, William Percival, was one of those on the outside until Bernhardt found him. "I was on my way to see another kid," Bernhardt said, "and saw a game on a field with no mound, out in the country. I got out to watch, and here's a 16-year-old kid, weighing maybe 115 pounds, obviously a very poor kid, wearing tattered clothes and throwing a beat-up ball."

Bernhardt never made it to that other game. "He was throwing 85 miles an hour, with a good breaking ball, a forkball, all the pitches. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He had been cutting cane for a living, sometimes digging holes. You should see where he comes from. You won't believe it."

A hope for escape

"Turn left at the horse," Bernhardt said.

Left at the horse and there it is: a shack, a collection of pieces of corrugated tin, 10 feet by 20, separated into two rooms by a blanket draped over a string. In the back are three beds in which eight people sleep. A small pig and three sad cats roam in and out. The father is gone. William, the baby, grew up sleeping on the dirt floor of the front room.

"He would throw down a stack of clothes to make it as soft as he could," Bernhardt said, standing on the spot and looking down. "This was his bed, his home."

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