It's the same game -- different rhythm In ancient parks, weeds and guns are traditions

December 23, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The starting pitcher wears his gun to the ballpark. Kids and players' friends watch games from the dugout. There are ankle-high weeds in deep center field. Vendors sell rum, balloons, corn on the cob. Balls disappear during batting practice. That is winter baseball.

The barefoot grounds crew lines the field by hand, scooping handfuls of lime from a rusty wheelbarrow. Security guards with clubs and pistols patrol the grass, but scores of kids still sneak in for free during the national anthem, when the guards snap to attention. That is winter baseball.

The first pitch is 10 or 15 minutes late. A bleacher seat is five pesos, about 40 cents. Latin dance music plays between half-innings, sometimes between at-bats. The outfield wall is made of cement. Warm nights, sudden showers and a three-day Christmas break. That is winter baseball.

It is four rowdy Latin coalitions where the game goes on between the end of the World Series and beginning of spring training: pro leagues in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, with teams of native sons in the major leagues and minors and a few Americans, mostly minor-leaguers.

In the Dominican Republic, so much about it is familiar. The five teams have longstanding traditions and fans. The players argue in English with American minor-league umpires, follow the same batting-practice routines, open their papers to box scores and batting averages. The game itself -- roughly Class AAA ball -- isn't that different.

But this is the Third World, and, in other ways, the game bears no resemblance to the American version. The stadiums are old and battered, the fields marked by rocks, trash and bad bounces. Attendance is down in Santo Domingo because so few fans own cars. There are guns in the clubhouses.

There has been a Dominican league for most of this century, and for decades it was a thriving fiefdom into which the country poured all of its love for baseball. The best Dominicans, such as Luis Tiant Sr., played alongside Negro League stars from the United States. Every game sold out.

But things are no longer the same. When Dominicans began playing in the majors after the dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, suddenly fans had other, better teams for which to cheer. The home-grown stars of the past -- Rico Carty, Juan Marichal, Cesar Cedeno -- still played in the winter, but many today don't deign to play, unwilling to risk their astonishing major-league salaries.

As well, a collapse of the Dominican economy has cut deeply into the fan base. There are no team T-shirts or jackets for sale at the ballparks. No one has the money to buy them.

In a sense, though, the devastated economy keeps the league going. So many people have so few diversions. No television. No Nintendo. Not enough to eat. Their unallayed devotion to baseball demands that the games go on.

"Probably 70 percent of the country will either see this on TV, hear it on radio or read about it in the paper," said Eduardo Antun, co-owner of the Estrellas Orientales of San Pedro de Macoris, watching his team play Licey of Santo Domingo. "The league is different now, but people are still crazy for it."

A seedy stadium

Antun sat behind the plate in a rusted grandstand covered by a metal roof. Tall concrete bleachers ran down the foul lines. The outfield wall was covered with three decks of advertisements for liquor, soap and credit cards. Bulbs were out on the electric scoreboard. A hand-operated, out-of-town scoreboard gave the score, inning and number of current base runners in another game. A vague burning smell hung in the air.

There were 1,500 fans scattered around the 15,000-seat stadium, no more than 50 cars on the littered lot outside. Crowds are bigger in the country towns with teams -- Santiago, San Pedro and La Romana -- but this was an average night in Santo Domingo.

It began before sunset, with batting practice. The security guards let kids run among the players. Some helped, collecting balls. Some were more devilish.

"Balls are like gold to a kid playing in the street," said Baltimore Orioles first-base coach Greg Biagini, who managed Estrellas for two seasons. "My players always fought to be the first ones to hit in batting practice, because half the time we had to call it off early. All the balls were gone."

Some kids had gloves. "If you need someone to throw with, they're always around," said John Pulowski, a California Angels farmhand who has pitched three seasons for Estrellas. "They'll be 10 years old throwing you curveballs and sliders, and you start going, 'Hey, show me how you threw that.' "

The players gradually arrive. "We've been trying to get everyone here by 4:30, but we're still working on it," said Estrellas manager Nelson Norman, who played three seasons in the majors. "That just isn't emphasized as much here. It's a different culture."

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