Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

Elizabeth Eames Roebling


Dominicans have an extraordinary passion for baseball. All young boys play the game, sometimes with uniforms and equipment on a town baseball diamond, sometimes using coconut shells and old planks as ball and bat on an empty street or sand lot.

Many of them have the dream that they will be selected to go to one of the nine baseball camps which the major leagues run here in the Dominican Republic, and then join the other 1,500 Dominicans who play professionally in the United States. Baseball success means not only a visa but holds the promise of great fortune.

Along with the standard players' statistics, home runs or no-hit games pitched, there is now posted another statistic - how much money players make. In a country where the per capita income is around 6,000 dollars and a good middle-class income is 24,000 dollars a year, these numbers are staggering: in the course of their careers to date, Pedro Martinez has earned 146 million dollars, Sammy Sosa took in 125 million, and Miguel Batista earned 45 million dollars.

At a recent gala at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, the USAID programme launched an initiative to help leverage the popularity of Dominican ball players into aid for their native land, inviting some current and former Dominican baseball stars.

"Twenty percent of the players in the major and minor leagues are Dominican. We are creating a mechanism for funding that combines the motivation of teams, players and fans in the States and links it to development projects in the DR," said Megan Rounseville, director of the Major League Baseball Dominican Alliance at IDDI (Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral).

"There have been individual initiatives by teams and players, but this is something that is really attentive to local needs," she explained. "We have six local NGOs, some of them are international but all work locally, and they identify projects."

"We now have five projects on the ground - an after-school project which completes the school day, another working with HIV/AIDS patients, another with micro-credit, another donating beds," she said.

One of the first Dominican baseball stars, Rico Cardi, who is now the undersecretary of sports and director of the little leagues, as well as running his own foundation, discussed how baseball evolved in the country from the perspective of someone who signed with the major leagues in 1959.

"I came out of San Pedro de Marcoris, which is the heart of baseball in this country," he said. "I think it was because we were surrounded by the sugar cane factories, which were American-owned. We were blessed by the Almighty God by that, so that all these kids, surrounded by these sugar cane factories, all they look at is baseball."

"When I came out of here there were no camps. It was all ability, just raw ability. You didn't have nobody to tell you to do this or do that. I signed with nine ball clubs and tour ball clubs here, because I was just a kid and I had no lawyers," Marcoris recalled.

"Everybody was just coming at me. But I did not take any money from anyone which kept me from being suspended from baseball forever. Eventually I was signed by the Milwaukee Braves but I played for a lot of teams in my day," he said. "When I walk down the street, yes, I am a star, but the important thing is to keep your humanity, to be kind with the people."

Miguel Batista, who earned nine million dollars last year playing for the Seattle Mariners, travels in the off season throughout Latin America delivering humanitarian assistance and speaking of baseball. He first signed with the major leagues in 1992.

"When I was in camp, we were just a bunch of guys, living together and playing baseball. Now they have these great installations with everything that they could have in the minor leagues here in their own countries," he said. "The fact that they have been treated professionally is the most important."

"There are guys who made that possible, guys who opened the doors for us, and I believe that a lot of us are doing that for guys now coming up, to get better treatment, for a better future," Batista said. "I do a lot in South America on behalf of Major League baseball trust fund to help their communities. I help the kids understand that it is not magic, it is having a dream and following it."

Rounseville says her project is only for three years, to set the links in place. "It is a unique project for USAID which has put in place a 50,000-dollar matching fund to help get things started."

Manny Moto, who, like Cardi, is now 70 years old, says, "This is a great project. I retired in 1982 but I have been coaching for the Dodgers. I just try to give the kids good advice, to stay in school and get a good education."