Parade Magazine: "Where Champions Begin"

Some of America’s best baseball players come from a place far away. This is the town...

Where Champions Begin

By Mark Kurlansky
published: 07/22/2007

In San Pedro de Macorís, American baseball scouts are wandering the sandlots and parks, looking for the next superstar. Finding a champion happens often in this provincial sugar port in the southeastern Dominican Republic. Here, in one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, baseball is a boy’s best hope—often his only hope.

Major League Baseball has developed a gargantuan hunger for Dominican baseball players. This year alone, at least 171 young Dominicans have been signed by pro teams. About a third of these prospects came from San Pedro de Macorís.   

What set off this frenzy? For one thing, the 78 major league players San Pedro has produced since the ’50s. Among the current stars from San Pedro are Sammy Sosa, the outfielder and designated hitter for the Texas Rangers, who hit his 600th career home run in June; Alfonso Soriano, the Chicago Cubs outfielder who last year had 46 home runs and 41 stolen bases with the Washington Nationals; and New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.

All of this has led people to ask, “What is in the water there?” Probably a lot of things, but none of them help with baseball.

As soon as I entered the town this spring, passing steel sculptures of ballplayers, it became apparent that San Pedro had baseball on the mind. On every sandlot and in every open space, boys were playing baseball.

Only the main streets are paved, and there still are a few horse-drawn carts on streets lined with one-story concrete buildings painted all the colors of Popsicles. Were it not for baseball, San Pedro might be a forgotten town, a relic of the faded sugar industry.

Some of the early San Pedro major leaguers came from the cane fields and started playing with balls made from sugar syrup. Boys still begin playing at the age of 5, improvising balls from wet, tightly rolled socks—which work well, though the ball becomes oblong with use.

“It’s a lot different now,” says Pedro González, who signed in 1958 with the Yankees, one of the first Macorisanos, as they call themselves, to make it to the majors. González had little organized training at the time he was signed. To him and other old-time San Pedro players, the big difference today is that their town is full of youth leagues and corporate-sponsored programs.

Rogelio Candalario, a left-handed San Pedro pitcher who never got beyond Class AA ball because of a broken arm, coaches a leading local youth program that has had six players signed by major league teams in its three years in existence.

When I ask who the hottest new kid is, Candalario shakes his head and looks down at his 18-man roster. He thinks most of his players are serious major league prospects. His best starting pitcher, 16-year-old Jersey Santana, already throws a fastball up to 89 m.p.h.
But for Arturo D’Oleo, coordinator of this program, there’s no doubt. “Absolutely, no question about it, the best prospect here is Esdra Abreu,” he says.

Abreu is a 15-year-old outfielder playing on a team for 16- to 18-year-olds. He is over 6 feet tall, with long arms and legs, and he is respected for his work ethic and seriousness. Says former major league scout Herman Martínez, who has been working with Abreu since he was 7 years old: “Last year he was the top young player in the country. He comes from a good family—well-educated people. And his throwing arm has power.”

Esdra’s older brother, Abner, 17, a shortstop, already has signed with the Cleveland Indians for $350,000. (A signing bonus like $60,000 may be more common, but there is considerable excitement over him.) This summer, the Indians organization is giving Abner English lessons and teaching him about American food. In contrast, Pedro González told me that when the Yankees first brought him to America, he ate only ham and eggs, or chicken with French fries, because they were the only dishes he knew how to order.

The Abreus are from the all-too-rare Dominican middle class, struggling to stay above poverty. Their father, Enrique, is a construction worker who tries to find regular employment. Their mother, Senovia, is a school principal.

The Abreus live in Barrio Buenos Aires, one of the many neighborhoods where dirt roads lined with little turquoise wooden houses crisscross fields on the edge of town. Their house has a corrugated tin roof—and a steel gate with the Indians logo hand-painted on it. Inside, their little living room is cooled by wall-mounted fans—when the barrio has electricity. What’s most striking are the pictures of Abner and Esdra in caps and gowns, and an academic award earned by Abner.

Abner had finished high school and was studying at the local college when Cleveland made its offer, and he dropped out. His mother says that she was sorry he did, but she smiles and adds: “It is his big dream.” Enrique says, “We thought our children would be doctors or engineers, but they always wanted baseball.”

There is a third son, Gabriel, who is an 11-year-old fan of Dominican-born Albert Pujols, star first baseman for the World Series champs, the St. Louis Cardinals. Gabriel is a little chunkier than his brothers, which could be an advantage. Another advantage: He already has learned English in anticipation of his major league career.

But for the three Abreus and for all the aspiring young ballplayers of San Pedro, it is far easier to be signed than to make the major leagues. Some baseball officials say that fewer than one of every 10 players signed ever plays in a big league game.

Esdra says, “I am not worried about America or the major leagues. I’m ready.” But he still has a long way to go. Though scouts from several teams, including Cleveland, already have spoken to him, Esdra does not turn 16 until next March, and he cannot be signed until the second half of 2008.

Even Abner has a way to go before becoming a pro. He will spend the next few months in the Dominican Summer League, where major league franchises have their recruits play private games in guarded complexes. If he does well, he might get to try out in spring training. 

It was hard for me not to think that these kids were trading in their education for a very slim shot at the major leagues. But in San Pedro, where they know their baseball, there is a lot of confidence that we will be hearing from an Abreu or two—Abner, Esdra or Gabriel—in a few years.

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