ALONG COASTAL HIGHWAY 3 — ALONG COASTAL HIGHWAY 3, Dominican Republic -- On a hot, baby-blue-skied Sunday afternoon, a bus rolls down the two-lane road from San Pedro de Macoris to Santo Domingo, carrying the Estrellas Orientales to an afternoon game against Escogido. It is not a quiet trip.
The air conditioning works today, a bonus, and the stereo is up to 11, blasting a Latin beat on and on and on. You shout to be heard. Cars pass as the bus driver maintains a steady 35 mph, fearful of the ubiquitous potholes, or perhaps a burro around the next curve.
Out the left window is the soft, shimmering Caribbean and the tourist hotels where Germans and Italians lie on the beach topless, watched by guards with semiautomatic weapons. Out the right window is your average Dominican roadside fare: horses, goats, mopeds, shacks, mysteriously burning stacks of something, roadside restaurants serving Presidente beer, policemen standing on the shoulder every 15 minutes . . .
Some players met the bus at the stadium back in San Pedro, acrossthe street from an open-air market where vendors sold fruit and sugar cane. The players with cars met the bus at the edge of town, at a pizzeria where the owner guards their cars. Dion James, a first baseman from the United States, was picked up 10 miles out of town, across the street from his country apartment.
Three or four long, thin sugarcanes are brought onto the bus and split, the players sucking out the sweet juice and throwing away the pulp. In the back, a batboy eats a container of rice and beans. Manny Alexander and Luis Mercedes sit in the front seat, sharing a pizza. "Not as good as the pizza in Frederick," says Alexander, "but good."
On and on and on. Two coaches smoke cigarettes. A baseball magazine -- Los Hispanics in Los Grandes Ligas (Hispanic Players in the Major Leagues) -- is passed around. One player shows a reporter his wallet lined with baseball cards. The players jump up and down, change seats, joke, pretend to fight, giggle, hit each other on the arm, steal each other's food.
The airport, halfway point, passes on the left. On the right, as the big city nears, is a barefoot kid selling coconuts, a throbbing disco stuffed with people, a dead dog, another dead dog. Nearing the stadium, the atmosphere grows more serious.
"Who we playing today?" someone asks in English.
"Escogido," says Mercedes, flexing his shoulders.
"We win, we win," comes a voice from a couple of rows away.
The scenery changes in the heart of the city: unpaved streets and alleys, kids playing baseball with bottle caps as balls, a cafeteria, and then suddenly 27th Avenue, a broad, green, palm-treed boulevard with fancy hotels and restaurants. The bus turns a corner at the racetrack and pulls up along the stadium.
Greeting the players are a teetering drunk and a collection of silent, wide-eyed kids rushing to see the spectacle. The bus driver tells the drunk to carry a water cooler into the clubhouse. It's time for batting practice.