In a town the size of Carroll County, game is everywhere

A STRING OF MAJOR-LEAGURERS

December 25, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- The numbers are astounding. Nothing less than that.

During the 1991 baseball season, 12 players from this coastal city played in at least one major-league game. That means that one of every 10,000 residents becomes a major-leaguer.

If the Baltimore area produced talent at the same rate, it would have 200 natives wearing major-league uniforms right now.

Two hundred. Astounding.

As it is, the Baltimore area had just a half-dozen in the bigs last season, ranging from Glenelg's Greg Smith to Aberdeen's Cal Ripken. San Pedro? It had the following:

* The American League batting champion, Julio Franco.

* Three All-Stars (Franco, George Bell, Juan Samuel).

* Four shortstops who played at least 100 games (Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin, Manuel Lee, Rafael Ramirez).

* Four second basemen who played at least 100 games (Franco, Samuel, Mariano Duncan, Juan Bell).

* Two cleanup hitters (George Bell, Pedro Guerrero) with a combined 156 RBI (not to mention 441 combined career home runs).

All from a city of 120,000, roughly the population of Carroll County.

A city not even listed in most Dominican travel guides. A city with seven sugar mills and one university. A city where unpaved roads and crumbling houses are common. A city where horses sit next to Toyotas during rush hour.

OC It is called the baseball miracle here. The miracle of Macoris.

*

The batter stands with his back to a disintegrating concrete wall, the remains of a house. He is 10 years old, wearing blue jeans, no shirt, no shoes. He wiggles the broomstick handle he is using as a bat.

A light rain falls. The pitcher stands in the middle of the narrow corridor of mud, trash and rocks that passes for a street: the Dominican field of dreams. He stops in the stretch, giving the batter his best Dr. Doom glare.

The pitch is delivered sidearm. A plastic juice bottle lid sails in on the batter, who swings and connects -- broom meets Tupperware -- and sends the lid past the pitcher, toward the half-dozen barehanded fielders. Everyone shrieks.

*

The question came sputtering out in broken Spanish: "Beisbol? Los ninos? Donde?" Where are the kids playing baseball?

The young Dominican leading this tour of the city, a friend of a friend, his English no less broken, swept his hand broadly out the passenger window of the car.

"A la derecha," he said -- to the right -- but his gesture crossed the boundary of language. Over that way, he was saying. Anywhere over that way, everywhere over that way, was beisbol.

And so it was: in the streets, alleys and luscious parks, along the Malecon promenade by the sea, on just about any open space, using juice lids and mounds of string as balls; license plates and milk cartons as bases; rough-edged wood carvings and broomsticks as bats.

Gloves made of cardboard.

Sometimes it was a game, maybe one neighborhood playing another.

Sometimes it was just a pitcher, batter and a couple of fielders, taking turns.

Sometimes it was crica, a variation of the English game of cricket.

Sometimes it was los hit, a wall game played with a rubber ball: the game on which, so the legend goes, Tony Fernandez was weaned.

Sometimes it was softball. Slow pitch. Fast pitch.

Always, at the essence, it was baseball. Pitching. Hitting. Catching. And suddenly the miracle made perfect sense.

"All day long, you see baseball," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' Dominican scout, who was born here and lives here.

It has been that way for years, decades. Baseball has been a Dominican passion for a century, but the epicenter of that passion has never been the capital of Santo Domingo or the farmlands near Haiti. It has always been San Pedro.

In 1990, there were 12 natives of San Pedro and 21 natives of Venezuela in the major leagues. When the national newspaper Listin Diario recently suggested a national team representing the last 40 years, eight of the 25 players were from San Pedro. Santo Domingo was next, with three.

Why?

4 "Sugar," Bernhardt said. "You start with sugar."

The game arrived on the island more than a century ago, when American businessmen and soldiers exported it to Cuba, and Cubans brought it here. Then cricket came to San Pedro with the West Indian laborers imported by the sugar mills to work in the cane fields.

Cricket and baseball were cheap games whose equipment could be modified, and although the scions of the rich composed the first generation of players, the games drifted down to the working classes, spilling into the streets in a dozen forms.

When the dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo organized the mills and banana factories into semi-amateur baseball leagues after World War II, San Pedro experienced a startling boom.

The city was (and is) surrounded by miles of cane fields, enough to keep seven mills operating. Each mill built little ballparks and set about constructing teams. It was the first organized system for developing talent, and also a way to make money. Since San Pedro had by far the most mills, the game became much more popular here.

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