Mudhole of Dreams

December 27, 1991

The role of sports in helping talented kids claw their way out of poverty is legendary: Shoeless farm boys who learned about plumbing after knocking baseballs over the distant walls of early stadiums; tough dropouts from slums where Yiddish was spoken who found the American dream in the ball park; tough black youngsters battering each other in club boxing for dollars and glory; sturdy sons of coal miners in Western Pennsylvania hills, strapping on shoulder pads to bash their way into the big-time football; and today, the black kids leaping at every bucket on an asphalt playground, perfecting the slam-dunk guaranteed to get them to Georgetown and beyond.

But there's a world labor market in sports, as anyone knows who has watched a Nigerian play soccer, or a Yugoslav basketball giant or Czech tennis champ. Nowhere is the culture shock of rags to riches more drastic than in baseball, where fields of dreams mean millions of dollars and the untapped talent pools are in Third World mudholes of Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries.

Anyone who read The Sun's insightful Christmas week series on "The Winter Game" by sports columnist John Eisenberg and photographer Kenneth K. Lam understands the human side of baseball a little better. Witness the Orioles's erratic second baseman, Juan Bell, growing up in a sugar mill center called San Pedro de Macoris, which had 12 local boys in the major leagues last year.

Or rookie outfielder Luis Mercedes, whose quick temper and slow English started fights in Rochester. Or the work ethic of third baseman Leo Gomez, from comparative middle-class stability in Puerto Rico, who took thousands of grounders in practice to stun his employers with nearly errorless field play. And teen-ager Manny Alexander, who improved his family's housing with earnings at shortstop in the new gem of a minor league stadium in Frederick. Or a scrawny 17-year-old named William Percival, from such poverty as most Americans cannot imagine, who may -- just may -- blossom into the pitcher of the Orioles' dreams.

It is an old story with new players. A shrinking world in which the Orioles invade the Dominican Republic with dollars and bats and an eagle-eyed scout, not out of altruism but in competition with other American clubs and one that's Japanese, all searching out the same hungry talent. What Valhalla was to the early Norsemen and Mount Olympus was to the ancient Greeks, Oriole Park at Camden Yards soon will become for many poor youngsters of the Caribbean -- the playground of the gods.

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