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Play ball!

Embedded in the culture, sport becomes national pastime

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Talk about The Natural. Kids in the Dominican

Republic just seem born with baseball talent.

"I’m watching a 5-year-old swing a stick at an empty half-gallon container and I’m thinking I’m seeing something different there,’’ said Dr. Charles Steinberg, Red Sox executive vice president/public affairs. "That’s a swing. We were supposed to have invented

baseball. But these kids play much better than American kids. It’s a natural feel."

Baseball was introduced to the Dominican Republic by Cubans who fled a 10-year war (1868-78). The passion for baseball here intensified during the US Marines’ eight-year

occupation of the island beginning in 1916.

Today the game is at its zenith. When Vladimir Guerrero was named American League most valuable player this season, he was in the presidential palace as the guest of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who declared a national holiday.

Now as Guerrero prepares to play winter ball, he’s asked what he would do if he wasn’t a baseball player.

"If I didn’t have baseball," he said with a smile, "I’d be planting tomatoes."

Baseball has blossomed this year in the Caribbean nation that is slightly smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire. Three of the top four finishers in the American League MVP balloting were Dominican, including Red Sox Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. The MVP of last year’s All-Star Game was their countryman, Alfonso Soriano. Baltimore’s Miguel Tejada is an All-Star shortstop.

Why are these players so good?

"It’s so embedded in the culture," said Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino. "The weather allows you to play year- round.’"

Twenty-seven major league clubs have established academies and nearly 400 players have been signed. At the Red Sox Academy, established in 2003, players sleep in bunk beds, eat in a cafeteria that serves piles of native chicken and rice and beans and plantains, and work out in modern facilities adorned with photos of current Red Sox under the slogan, "Keep the Faith."

The odds of these ballplayers making the big leagues are less than 5 percent, but there’s no shortage of role models. The country with a population of 8.8 million now

provides nearly 10 percent of the players in the major leagues and almost a quarter of minor leaguers.

At Quisqueya Stadium, where winter league games are played, tickets cost between $2 and $15. Ice cold beer costs $1 and they sell rum and whiskey by the bottle. Cheerleaders dance on the dugouts between innings.

In other parts of the city, kids play in the streets and alleys with broomsticks and bottle caps that they buy for a dime.

On a busy street in Santo Domingo, Manuel Debiz, 13, stopped as an oil-spewing car left a toxic cloud in the air. He wiped his eyes and then took the next pitch and hit it off the building across the street.

"We were born with baseball," he said. "We have it in our blood."

Sometimes if they don’t have a ball or a bottle cap, kids use a doll’s head or the ball from a roll-on deodorant. Jesus Alou says he used lemons or a piece of coconut shell.

Some baseball people quietly say it’s genetics, others say it’s because baseball is the national obsession.

"These guys speed up the process," said Mark Brewer, pitching coach for the Licey Tigers. "They don’t have much else to do. The economy is poor [inflation is over 40 percent]. They have no money. Nobody has more drive. Nine of 10 prospects understand it as the light at the end of the tunnel to take care of their family.’’

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