Back In The Game: Part 1

In part one of this series, author Kate Kilpatrick of Philadelphia Weekly delves into the surroundings of baseball in the Dominican Republic and how the Phillies wound up there.

SANTO DOMINGO, D.R. — A subway construction project has turned the Avenida Máximo Gómez into a dusty, congested, humid whirlpool of car horns, exhaust fumes and human enterprise.

A swarm of motorbikes swerves between bumpers, dodging uprooted chunks of roadway that are spilling into the lanes. Merengue horns and reggaeton bass blare from car radios as desperate young entrepreneurs emerge from all directions to hawk phone cards, cell phone chargers and leopard-print steering wheel covers.

Heading north to the city's outskirts, the road ends and traffic veers left onto the Carretera Yamasa, where the grime-coated pandemonium yields to grassy patches spotted with wooden homes painted in faded pastel shades of turquoise, pink and canary yellow.

The trusty colmados (grocery shops) and cabanas (sex motels) start to drift off the panorama, and the countryside turns lush and green. Palm trees shoot up high, surrounded by fields of overgrown weeds, clusters of banana trees and stretches of sugar cane.

Poking out from the shrubs is a sign marking the Complejo J.R. Juniors, home to the youngest players in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Inside, between the complex's two manicured fields, young uniformed players with names like "PAULINO," "SOTO," "ALVAREZ", "CASTILLO" and "CASTRO" stitched across their backs take their licks in the batting cages. The rhythmic crack of bats is interrupted only by instructions from the hitting coach and field coordinator Manny Amador.

Keep your front leg straight, he tells them in Spanish. If a house is falling, you need a straight beam to prop it up. So don't bend your knee or chase the ball. Wait for the ball to come to you.

The boys — ranging in age from 16 to 20 — take the instructions seriously. Listen and learn, and they just might be the next Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero or David Ortiz. Mess up, and they'll be released, sent home, and maybe have to find a job hustling prepaid phone cards instead.

It's approximately 1,518 miles from the stadium in Via Mella, Dominican Republic, to Citizens Bank Park at Broad and Pattison, where Phils assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has his office.

Amaro, in the midst of trade deadline talks, is taking time from his busy morning to discuss the Phillies' Latin legacy.

It's a subject he knows firsthand. He played for the Phillies, and his father Ruben Amaro Sr., a shortstop for the Phillies in the '60s and the team's first Latin American coordinator, was responsible for signing such Dominican legends as Julio Franco, George Bell and Juan Samuel in the late '70s and early '80s.

But Amaro Jr. says the Phillies' interest in spending and scouting in Latin America waned in the '80s.

Carlos Valenzuela recently got $200,000 from the Phillies and is considered to be the center piece of the Phillies Dominican program. (Photo by Cheryl Serpentine/Philadelphia Weekly)
"We went through an era in the late '80s and early '90s when our involvement in Latin America diminished quite a bit," Amaro Jr. explains.

"There were five to 10 years when we stopped any involvement in Latin America. The feeling was that it wasn't financially viable. It set us back quite a bit."

Amaro Jr. says the energy and passion for baseball that once existed in the United States is now surpassed by Latin countries. "With Dominicans, there may be even greater passion because of their socioeconomic situation," he says.

The Dominican Republic ("the Dominican" or simply "the D.R.")—a Caribbean nation of 9.4 million, shares the island of Hispaniola (between Puerto Rico and Cuba) with Haiti. The average annual Dominican income is $2,400. But it's typically much less for the families of baseball players, who tend to weigh in at the bottom of the country's socioeconomic scale.

The big catch: The Phillies recently signed shortstop Carlos Valenzuela for $200,000. The Dominican is also sometimes called the "Republic of Baseball" — a patronizing assessment of the culture-rich country as little more than a baseball factory efficient in producing an extraordinary number of poor young players with "quick hands," a "plus arm" or a "pop in the bat," valuable raw skills that can be stripmined on the cheap and exported to the U.S. minor-league system to be manufactured into big-league star power.

We would like to thank the editors of Philadelphia Weekly for allowing us to bring this story to our readers. Special thanks to writer Kate Kilpatrick and photographer Cheryl Serpentine.

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