"I felt like somebody important, because I caught the attention of 60,000, plus you guys, plus the whole world, watching a guy that is, you reverse the time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus. And today, I was the center of attention of the whole city of New York. I thank God for that, and you know what? I don't regret one bit what they do out there."
- Pedro Martinez after losing to the Yankees in Game 2 of the 2004 ALCS.
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - There's one special mango tree in this capital city, which was first settled by Europeans in 1498.
It is both the metaphorical mango tree of Pedro Martinez's youth and a very real version. This tree stands in an outdoor square next to the Alcázar de Colón [Palace of Columbus] and serves as the Dominican Republic's "official state" mango tree.
Martinez, whose place on the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot became official last week, is one of a handful of great Dominican baseball players who helped create and expand the roots of a baseball tree that will bear more major-league fruit than ever in 2015.
Baseball didn't come to this Caribbean country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti until the late 19th century. American "imperialism" and expansion took hold in the region. Sugar plantations covered the landscape. American workers and companies imported their evolving national pastime. The expansion and dominance of baseball players from the D.R. into Las Grandes Ligas has helped the Red Sox and others build baseball empires of their own.
Chief among those native Dominicans for the Boston Red Sox are David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez. While Ramirez was born in Santo Domingo, his family moved to New York when he was 12. All three are transcendent sports personalities in Boston and national figures here. They have raised millions to build hospitals, schools, baseball fields and promoted other charitable endeavors. Ortiz's annual charity golf tournament in the eastern resort-laden province of Punta Cana begins Dec. 4. It has raised more than $1.8 million to help children in the D.R. and Eastern Massachusetts.
Come next summer, Martinez will be the second.
He will not be the last.
Baseball is No. 1 here
Santo is a tour guide who speaks fluently in [at least] three languages. His last name contained several names that he didn't bother to repeat. He is a life-long resident of both Red Sox Nation and the D.R..He recently led a 13-hour trip that went through the heart of this nation and this city.
Baseball is his game. And his nation's. The Red Sox are his team.
"Children in the Dominican Republic learn how to play baseball before they are born," says Santo. "There are three sports here, baseball, cock fighting and dominoes. Baseball is far and ahead No. 1. It is the best sport ever."
Baseball has become the D.R.'s most notable export in the 21st century, even though it manufactures more cigars than any other nation in the world. There's never been a Red Sox Nation census here, but Santo would count himself among the "Nation's" most loyal. He offered multiple compliments on one Red Sox hat that became part of his tip at the end of this day's journey.
There are plenty of signs of Red Sox popularity here. One of the larger gift shops in this capital features officially licensed Red Sox merchandise among the thousands of trinkets, t-shirts, magnets and costume jewelry items. Satellite-TV sports bars feature unlicensed Red Sox logos and images of Ortiz and Robinson Cano.
The road to Las Grandes Ligas for most Dominican ballplayers stretches back to their early teen years. A total of 28 major-league teams have baseball academies here - called "baseball factories" by the locals - to nurture, develop and educate young talent. The players are both schooled in baseball and the cultural mores of the United States and Canada. The Red Sox are one of four teams that require their players to attend a private high school.
One of these "factories," east of Santo Domingo in Boca Chica, houses potential members of the Reds, Twins and White Sox. It offers lush and perfectly-maintained baseball fields. The dorms resemble what you might see on a college campus. If the players need any extra motivation to reach the majors, all they have to do is look over the left-field wall that runs along Los Rieles. That is an unpaved road which boasts a variety of ramshackle, crudely built homes and a school that is surrounded by barbed-wire fence.
Santo, like many of his baseball-loving countrymen, is eager to talk about the Red Sox. No doubt the return of Dominican native Hanley Ramirez to the Red Sox organization met with his approval. Without prompting, Santo broke down Dominican shortstop and Boston prospect Elwin Tejada.
Tejada was signed by the Red Sox for $300,000 in July. All of 16, Tejada has a "long, ultra thin frame at 6-foot-2, 150 pounds [with] a solid swing and a high baseball acumen that stands out more than his raw tools," according to Baseball America.
"He is a lot like Ortiz when he first broke in with Minnesota," adds Santo. "He can help the Red Sox, someday. He bats righthanded, but can't hit any breaking pitches. He needs to switch to the left side."
Did you get that, Ben?
Baseball's presence here serves as a national pastime and passion. It requires little overhead to play - a broom-handle and tennis ball can do in most cases. The tropical climate allows for year-round play. The culture practically demands it.
"That's what baseball is in the Dominican," Ortiz wrote through Boston.Com columnist Tony Massarotti in his 2008 biography Big Papi. "It is something to look forward to. And something to forget about everything else."
The bonds between Dominican ballplayers past, present and future are forged with national pride, responsibility and respect. Martinez tried to give his 1997 Cy Young Award to Marichal because Marichal had never won one. Marichal refused. The Red Sox baseball academy is run by Jesus Alou, who briefly played in the same San Francisco Giants outfield with his brothers Felipe and Matty in 1963.
When the Red Sox signed free-agent Hanley Ramirez this week, along with Venezuelan native Pablo Sandoval, aka that Panda guy, Ortiz took to Twitter to voice his approval.
Ramirez, meanwhile, was both jovial and appreciative when discussing Ortiz's support.
"David, he's like my big brother," Ramirez said at his introductory press conference Tuesday. "He's texting me pretty much every day and telling me what I've got to do, what I've got to change. I think he's part of my success in the big leagues. He has a big heart. ... I can't wait to be on the same team with him. It's going to be great."
The Dominican Republic has a population of approximately 10.4 million people, with roughly a third living in and around Santo Domingo. The country's workers make anywhere between $150 a month for a police officer, to about $600 a month for a salaried, government bureaucrat or nurse. The nation's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in 2013 was estimated at $9,400. And the average monthly wage, based on current exchange rates, is about $441. It takes about $600 or so monthly to comfortably support a family of five.
Clearly, the Dominican Republic produces more major-league ballplayers per capita than any other country in the world. Sammy Sosa hails from San Pedro de Macoris, which is located about 40 miles east of Santo Domingo. It has produced 76 major-league ballplayers, short of the 106 that are from Santo Domingo. The town, however, has just six percent of Santo Domingo's population. It does however boast a rarity in this country - a McDonald's.
Dogs roam freely here. People routinely walk down the median of the main highway in the south, Route 3, to get from one place to another. But it's not a place of poverty and desperation.
There's a permanent sense of optimism that can been seen within many of the people here. There's no doubt an ulterior motive in being gracious and hospitable to American visitors with American dollars [about 43 Dominican pesos to the dollar]. But the smiles extended to children coming home from school in their uniforms. And they weren't asking for anything.
It is a country you want to root for.
The linkage of PED's to Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and others is an undeniable part of the Dominican's baseball legacy.
Manny's multiple run-ins with PEDs will likely keep him out of Cooperstown indefinitely despite the fact that he had the sweetest right-handed swing since Hank Aaron, pounded 555 home runs and produced a career OPS of .996 and won the first-ever World Series MVP for the Red Sox. [The award was not given until 1955, nice try though.]
Ortiz tested positive in a pilot program back in 2003. But whatever he tested for hadn't been banned yet. And he has yet to test positive since, as far as we know. Crazed conspiracy theories aside, it will take real evidence of substantive use since then to permanently tarnish his legacy and block his entrance into Cooperstown.
A visit to anywhere in the Dominican away from the resort areas of the east coast and La Romana makes one understand, albeit not excuse, ballplayers trying to "enhance" their performance in any way possible to get a ticket to the majors. The six-team Liga de Biesbol Profesional de la Republica Dominicana plays during the winter months. Unfortunately, there weren't any games on our schedule. Las Estrellas Orientales hold a 2.5-game lead. Considered the "Chicago Cubs" of the Dominican pro league, this team out of San Pedro de Macoris was established in 1910 but has only won two league titles.
Of the 241 players born outside the U.S. on MLB rosters on Opening Day 2013, 89 were from the Dominican Republic. They included Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Cruz, Cano, Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Alfonso Soriano.
All this major-league talent coming from a country that's about half the size of Maine and has fewer people than New England.
It's clearly not just something in the water.
The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address. Thanks always for reading.
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