Estrellas Orientales: family tradition 3rd-generation owners go for 1st title since '68

December 24, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- There is joy in the owners' box on this night at the little ballpark where the Estrellas Orientales play.

"A much better night than last night, would you say?" shouts Eduardo Antun to a visitor over the insistent salsa music on the public address system.

He is watching through smudged windows with his brother, Manuel, in a bare room with concrete walls, the lights turned off and two ceiling fans spinning. The home team is up nine runs in the sixth inning and the stands are filled with people and noise.

The night before, Estrellas had lost in extra innings in Santo Domingo, the bullpen blowing a three-run lead. One night later: a big win. "That's the joy of baseball," Eduardo says in perfect English.

There have been more happy than sad nights for the Antuns this winter. Estrellas is the surprise of the Dominican winter league, sitting solidly in first place despite having fewer major-leaguers than the other teams.

"It has been exciting," says Eduardo, a 34-year-old, American-educated son of Dominican privilege.

The brothers are the third generation of their family to operate the team, which has an 80-year history. Their grandmother bought it in 1954 with some of the family's textiles fortune, and their father, aunt and uncle Rafael ran it until 1984, when they handed it over to the brothers.

Today the family is a politically connected heavyweight, among the founders of the party now in power, members of the small upper class in a country of enormous poverty and no middle class. But they are still widely known for their baseball team.

"Call it a very expensive hobby," says Eduardo, who attended New York Military Academy and Norwich University in Vermont, and today is vice president of the country's gold mine.

No amount of gold would be better than a winter ball championship, though. Estrellas is named for the eastern star that led the three wise men to Jesus' manger, but there has been no divine intervention here: Estrellas hasn't won a title since 1968. "To win this year would be unbelievable," Eduardo says.

Owning a team is a decidedly different matter here. The team's stadium was built by former dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo in 1954, and there won't be a new one anytime soon. There is no general manager. The team's office is one small room behind the owners' box; it is locked during games while an old woman

counts the cash.

The brothers run the team, building the roster and negotiating salaries with the Dominicans and American minor-leaguers who play. But too many nights have ended with los fanaticos turning and beating on the smudged windows of the owners' box, telling them what they did wrong.

Sometimes it gets to them. As the bullpen blew the lead the night before in Santo Domingo, Manuel kept mumbling disgustedly. "He kept saying we need a stopper," Eduardo says, "He is like the fanaticos; he gets upset."

Maybe things are different this year. The team seems to have a special magic, and now here is Julio Franco, the 1991 American League batting champion, in the owners' box on this upbeat night, talking about playing for Estrellas beginning the next week.

"This would be a wonderful thing," says Eduardo as he looks at Manuel and the bald, muscular Franco deep in conversation, presumably about salary, "but I will believe he is playing for us when I see him on that field playing for us."

Many Dominican superstars, such as Franco, George Bell and Alfredo Griffin, don't play winter ball, fearful of getting injured and losing the big money they're making in the majors. But here is Franco, looking as earnest as a Boy Scout as he pledges perfect attendance.

"He did this one time before to us," Eduardo says. "In 1987 he said he was coming to play and never did. He did it in Cleveland one time, too, isn't that right? He is kind of famous for this. I certainly hope he plays, but I will wait and see."

A life of baseball

The old man's hair is white now, his knee hurts and he was sick for a while, but now he's better. Of course he is better: It is baseball season. "My uncle's whole life has been baseball," says Eduardo, nodding to his uncle Rafael, who was the principal operator of Estrellas Orientales for 30 years.

Rafael sits in the stands now with his retired friends in glasses and Cuban shirts, but when he hears a reporter from Baltimore is with his nephews in the owners' box, he makes his way to the box to offer his sporting fellowship.

"I have known Roland Hemond for as long as I have been in baseball," he says in broken English. "He was here on his honeymoon in 1954. His wife put the first shovel in the ground when they built this ballpark. I have the picture somewhere at home."

The story illustrates how long Rafael has been in baseball. The stadium is now a relic with a rocky field, best suited for a wrecking ball. Rafael doesn't see it, though. He sees only the game in front of him, as he has for four decades.

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