SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Baseball’s past in this country is embodied by Cuqui Cordova.
He has seen war, poverty and politics tear his country apart. He endured a 20-year dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo, and he witnessed revolutions that forever changed neighboring Cuba and Haiti.
But the constant through it all was baseball.
“Baseball has always been the king sport here, ” Cordova, 80, a journalist and historian, said from his home office.
Cordova was a child when Cocolo West Indian migrant workers played cricket outside the sugar fields of nearby San Pedro de Macoris. He also has seen how future generations turned to baseball and began to flood the professional ranks, to where the Dominican Republic now is the largest producer of major-league talent of any country outside the United States.
“Little by little, ” Cordova said, describing his nation’s ascent in the sport.
Cordova’s office is a museum of baseball history in his country. A few dozen baseball caps hang on the wall, some with well-known logos, such as an intertwined “NY” for the Yankees, a red “B” for the Red Sox and a white Olde English “D” for the Tigers.
Others are less recognizable. A yellow “A” is ringed by a “C” — the symbol of las Aguilas Cibaenas, the Winter League powerhouse that counts Adrian Beltre and Raul Mondesi among its alumni. A cursive “L” adorns a blue cap, the stamp of los Tigres de Licey, whose lineage of players includes Pedro Martinez, Luis Castillo, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Mota.
“The Cubans were the ones that brought the game here, ” said Cordova, who still writes a column for Listin Diario. “But we are the ones who are the best now.”
At the end of the 2008 season, more than 80 major-league players were either born or raised in the Dominican Republic. Hundreds more populate the minor leagues, and the talent pool is so rich that Major League Baseball has spent more than $20 million in the past five years building infrastructure and supporting programs, leagues and recruiting efforts along the southern coast of Hispaniola.
Baseball on the island has come a long way since the days when Negro League players would spend winters playing here. The 1937 Cuidad Trujillo team featured Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and George “Cool Papa” Bell, and they led what is regarded as the best Caribbean team ever assembled.
“These players were great — as good as Babe Ruth, ” Cordova said. “But they came here to play because they couldn’t play in the major leagues.”
Baseball’s present in this country is in the determined guile of Denny Polanco, for better or worse.
Polanco was raised in Santiago and taught the game just like every other child there. When he was 18, he signed a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers and moved into the club’s academy in Boca Chica. The compound, which houses 10 major-league franchises in their player development efforts, is known as “Baseball City”.
“They’ve built so many here, almost all the teams are represented here now, ” Polanco said.
Polanco’s life is baseball. He knows the names of all of the players and staffs. He walks comfortably through areas of the Dominican Republic where North American scouts would not tread.
Polanco soon found himself back home after his career ended. Today, he is referred to as a “buscon” (the finder).
The best buscones act as guides to help scouts find talent while also trying to carve out their careers. The worst of them charge fees for the right to talk to their players and then skim the signing bonus money awarded.
Polanco has seen this process unfold many times.
“[Those buscones] don’t want to help the players — they use them, ” he said. “They claim them, and then they try to force their will on them.”
Many of the unsavory stories coming from the Dominican Republic — steroid use, identity theft, fudging of documentation, bonus skimming — have a buscon at their center, usually someone’s “cousin.”
“[The players] are poor and without a lot of education, so they make mistakes, ” Cordova said. “They try to do things illegally, like using fake names and fake IDs, and it is because of the lust of making the money and going to the United States.”
But there is a market for the players, so there is a market for their handlers. For the past 30 years, MLB-sponsored academies have sprung up all over the island. An $8 million complex in Boca Chica stands as a symbol of the hopes of nearly every adolescent boy in this country who hopes he someday could be the next David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero or Hanley Ramirez.
“The difference is we play all the time here, ” Polanco said. “We never stop — all day long, all year long.”
Baseball’s future in this country is in the glove of Julio Pedro Rincon.
Today, that glove is a loosely stringed remnant of what was a decent Rawlings model, one he and his friends must share. On what can liberally be referred to as a “field” — more a gravel one-lane road — Rincon, 10, deftly nabs a tattered ball with range that defies his size.
Unlike most boys his age, there is no fear in his fielding. He races after line drives with abandon. Erratic ground balls become more unpredictable on the uneven terrain, but he adeptly plays the ball instead of letting the bounce play him. He at least gets in front of whatever is hit to him. When he bats, his swing is pure and fluid, and he can hit the ball as far as 200 feet.
Rincon would be out of place in Little League. In fact, he is good enough to be on a high school varsity baseball team.
“You see kids like him all over this part of town, ” said Polanco, pointing across the field to fences that surround Baseball City. “They all want to go there.”
Nearby, a man in his 30s watches Polanco warily. This is Rincon’s buscon. Not keen on competition, the talent on this street is clearly his, and his alone. Rincon has a career manager, but not his own bat and glove.
A change in that culture might be coming. There are federal agents and members of the state department in Santo Domingo working in conjunction with Major League Baseball investigating the buscones.
The high-profile case of Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, a prospect whose buscon helped him earn a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals by claiming the identity of a younger relative (Esmailyn Gonzalez), has prompted further action.
Clubs have started to ban buscones from their compounds, and at least six scouts or managers on the major-league level have lost their jobs because of underhanded dealings.
A further complication is the perception that the Dominican Republic, specifically the outlying area known as the Cibao, is a breeding ground for steroid use. Eighty percent of all minor-league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2008 were from the Dominican Rookie Summer League.
Along with Alex Rodriguez’s recent admission that he had taken steroids that were provided to him after being purchased in the Dominican Republic, and the drug allegations against Dominican trainer Angel Presinal — who operates an academy in Santiago — the country’s sporting reputation has taken a hit.
For some, the World Baseball Classic can’t come soon enough. On these recent travails, Cordova maintains his perspective.
“Just like in life, it’s always an up and down, ” he said.
“Some times are good; some times are bad. And that’s how it is with baseball.”
Baseball in the Dominican Republic
Ignacio and Ubaldo Aloma – brothers from Cienfuegos who left Cuba in the midst of the 10 Years War – found the first two clubs in the Dominican Republic. El Cauto plays Cerveceria (a team that bore the name of the local brewery) at the Alomas’ iron-working complex.
La Bombita, the first sandlot field in Santo Domingo, is used for baseball in the Ciudad Nueva neighborhood. Today, the area is a tourist spot, with a hotel and casino standing where the field was located.
The legend of ”Indio Bravo” is born when pitcher Enrique Hernandez strikes out 21 sailors off the deck of the USS Washington while the ship is docked in Santo Domingo.
Tetelo Vargas, ”The Dominican Deer, ” is signed by the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues. Vargas is one of the greatest Dominican hitters, and the premier stadium in the country – Estadio Tetelo Vargas – is named for him.
With the advent of professional leagues, the Dominican Republic’s Romantic Era of baseball ends.
May 18: Dictator Rafael Trujillo begins a bloody 20-year rule. However, during this era, Trujillo fosters baseball in the Dominican Republic, making a habit of poaching the best players from across the country to play on his Escogido teams in Santo Domingo.
Jan. 11: A plane carrying the Dominican national championship team – Los Caballeros de Santiago – crashes near the Rio Verde. There are no survivors.
Sept. 23: Osvaldo ”Ozzie” Virgil becomes the first Dominican to play in the major leagues. Virgil starts at third base for the New York Giants and is 0f o r4i na 6-2 loss to Philadelphia.
Following the Cuban Revolution and baseball’s slow decline in that country under Fidel Castro’s regime, the Dominican Republic Winter League takes its place as the jewel of Caribbean and South American baseball leagues, a title it still holds.
June 15: Juan Marichal, ”The Dominican Dandy, ” pitches a no-hitter in a 1-0 victory against Houston. Marichal went 25-8 that season but lost the Cy Young Award to Sandy Koufax.
The Dominican Republic wins the first of the country’s 17 Caribbean World Series titles, defeating Puerto Rico 5-1. The 17 titles are the most by any country.
The Dodgers build Campo Las Palmas, the first of 20 MLB training complexes in the Dominican Republic.
July 31: Eight years after retiring with a record of 243-142 in 16 seasons, Juan Marichal is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sept. 23: The Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, the pride of San Pedro de Macoris and a Dominican folk hero, becomes the first player in major-league history to hit 65 home runs in a season, when he sends a fastball from the Brewers’ Rod Henderson 410 feet at Milwaukee County Stadium.
2004 Oct. 21: After leading the Boston Red Sox past the New York Yankees in the greatest postseason comeback in major-league history, Santo Domingo designated hitter David Ortiz is named MVP of the American League Championship Series. Boston went on to win its first World Series since 1918.
2006 March 18: A heavily favored Dominican team that was loaded with major-leaguers loses 3-1 to Cuba in the semifinals of the first World Baseball Classic. Cuba went on to lose 10-6 against Japan in the final.
Major League Baseball, with help from the U.S. State Department and the Dominican government, initiates an investigation into alleged fraud and corruption surrounding international scouts and unofficial player agents known as buscones . To date, the investigation has resulted in at least six firings among clubs.
Every majorleague club has a recruiting and player development presence in the Dominican Republic, with 13 facilities and dozens of scouts. At the end of 2008, there were 79 Dominican players on major-league rosters.