Lizahio Báez calls it la meta, the goal.
Making it to the big show is what it’s all about for four young men from the Dominican Republic here in Spokane this summer playing for the Spokane Indians. Becoming a major league baseball player is their life’s dream.
Báez, a catcher, and pitchers Juan Carlos García and Juan Maldonado, and infielder Julio Santana are taking steps to achieve their meta. But the road to fame and riches is not an easy one. The players are expected to mature quickly, adjust to a new culture, learn a new language and, in many cases, take care of their families while developing their baseball skills.
The first time García, 22, came to the United States to play baseball, the experience tested him. An 18-year-old at the time, Garcia missed meals because he was not able to read or speak English.
“I remember if I wanted to buy something, or I if was hungry, I couldn’t do it,” said García, who, like all the players interviewed, spoke in Spanish. “Many times I didn’t eat because I didn’t know how to order a sandwich.”
Maldonado, 24, called that first year a rough one.
“Last year I was desperate,” said Maldonado, who is in his second year in the United States. “I had never left home for that long of a time, but I’m beginning to adapt, thank God. That first year is rough, but that happens. I’m beginning to get used to it. I’m waiting for the day I get to go home, but I’m not desperate this time.”
Indians manager Gregg Riddoch said that he told the other Spokane players about the Dominicans at the beginning of the season.
“I told them that many of them will probably be sending half, or more, of their paychecks back home,” Riddoch said. “I wanted them to realize what they were doing. I can tell you that none of the American kids are doing that.”
Currently, 25 percent of the population of the Dominican Republic lives below the poverty line. That’s more than 2 million in a country that is smaller in land size than the state of Washington. By comparison, 12 percent of the U.S. population falls in that category. The unemployment rate in the Dominican is 17 percent; it’s 5.5 percent in the U.S.
One thing, however, holds the country together. Baseball.
“It’s a passion. Dominicans like baseball. They like baseball!” said Santana. “The Dominican depends on it. It’s the only way they have to get ahead in life.”
The four Dominican players are making an average of $900 a month – about half what the average Dominican makes in a year.
Santana sends about $200 home from the $456 he is paid every two weeks.
“Papa” George Moore, the host parent for all four Dominican players, drives them to the Western Union office at Tidyman’s on Argonne Road so they can wire money home.
“Every time they get paid, I’m down at Western Union,” said Moore, 73.
Last month, Moore drove Báez, 21, there twice in one week, once in the middle of the night. When he asked Báez why he had to send money home, Báez replied that an uncle’s car had broken down.
“Most of those kids, not all of them, are working out of poverty,” said Moore. “Baseball provides that.”
Obstacles to success
The Texas Rangers, Spokane’s parent club, is one of a few baseball organizations to offer English classes to minor league players during the season. The classes in Spokane are taught by Michelle Galey, an adjunct English instructor at Spokane Community College. The informal classroom is in the concourse picnic area of Avista Stadium on Tuesdays and Saturdays prior to home games.
“Some of them have goals to move up,” said Galey. “The goal is, if you want to move up, the more you communicate the better off you will be. The better you will communicate with coaches and players.”
Elvin Puello of the Boise Hawks (an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs) hails from the same town as Santana. He said his team does not offer English classes. “But I would want to do it,” said Puello. “It wouldn’t be an inconvenience to have classes before the game.” He said he has only taken classes during spring training and in the Dominican.
“I like the classes,” said García. “You develop better.”
Báez, the Northwest League home run leader, knows that besides learning a new language there are other obstacles to clear before making it to the big leagues.
Báez, 23, lives in Palenque, a small town in the province of San Cristóbal in the southern part of the country, which major leaguers Jose Uribe of the Chicago White Sox and Yhancey Brazobán of the Los Angeles Dodgers also call home.
“There are still a lot of players that didn’t make it because they couldn’t learn the language or had problems with women,” said Baez.
“We, in the Dominican, we whistle at women,” said García. “And say, ‘Hey you,’ not necessarily their name. The rules are different here. You don’t whistle at women here. It’s like an insult.”
In Arizona, Santana was on his way to the baseball field with a Dominican teammate when they spotted a woman walking toward them on the other side of the fence.
“He grabbed onto the fence, as if to relax and did like this ‘whew’ sound,” said Santana. “He was trying to get a better look at her, but when he did this she got scared.”
The frightened woman called the police “and caused a huge uproar,” said Santana.
“If one doesn’t come prepared, and someone doesn’t tell you, then you will screw up easily,” he said. “The Dominican culture and the culture here is so different.”
Another example of the cultural differences is how a player reacts when he is being chewed out by a coach. When being screamed at, looking at the person who is doing the screaming is viewed as a sign of respect in the United States. It lets the person know he’s being listened to. In the Dominican culture, however, respect is given by bowing the head and averting the eyes to the ground.
“Some coaches don’t know it and they’ll say that those players are being disrespectful, that they don’t care. But in fact what’s happening is the opposite,” said Riddoch, who has taught the game in various Latin American countries.
The long road
Every major league team has a baseball academy in the Dominican, and the Rangers have theirs in La Romana.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” said Maldonado. “First, before you come here, you have to play there.”
“There” is the Dominican Summer League, which consists of the academies playing each other in a three-month season from June to September.
“And you have to do a good job,” said Maldonado. “Because it depends on what you do there whether you come here. But what you did there is forgotten, once you get here. I’m starting fresh here. I played three years over there and two years here, and everything I did over there has been forgotten.”
At the beginning of the season, 1,537 Dominicans had contracts with a major league team. Dominicanos represent 23 percent of the players in the minor leagues.
The Rangers have three scouts covering the 48,484 square miles of the Dominican Republic; one in the north, one in the east and another in the south.
Once a scout spots, or is alerted by buscones (searchers), to a talent, he then schedules a tryout with the player or invites the player to a tryout.
“If they like you, they will sign you,” said García.
Players are not allowed to sign until the age of 16. García, after impressing the Florida Marlins in a tryout, waited 12 months before signing. He could have signed with another team once he turned 16 if he wanted to, but he liked the Marlins.
“I almost cried when I signed my contract,” said Garcia with a huge smile. “You get nervous when you are going to sign.”
García said that teams usually have players practice their signature on a clean sheet before they sign to avoid ruining the contract.
“I didn’t ruin it, though,” he said. “I got it on the first try.”
Miguel Tejada, the 2002 Most Valuable Player in the American League, didn’t own a glove until he was 19, when his first U.S. minor league team gave him one. His received a $2,000 signing bonus with the Oakland A’s in 1993 when he was 17. Last year he signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles.
“I’ve seen kids use a milk carton as a glove,” said Riddoch. “They grab the handle, tear off the bottom and they have their glove.”
Santana, 19, the youngest of the four Dominicans with the Indians, began playing baseball at the age of 12 in the streets of La Romana, in the baseball-rich eastern part of the country. Santana and his friends would play with their bare hands and a rubber ball. There were some lucky days when someone had a bat to use. A closed fist sufficed the other days.
Santana lived within five minutes of the Rangers’ academy.
Two years after beginning to play pelota, the Spanish word for ball and what the Dominican players call the game, Santana was stopped on the street by a man on his way to play with his friends. The man, Ramon Ruiz, was opening a program to help Dominicans reach the majors. He asked him if he wanted to play pelota.
Santana told Ruiz he wanted to play, but he didn’t know how. “I will teach you,” Ruiz told him.
An inexperienced 14-year-old at the time, Santana felt out of place. He was, as he said, the youngest and the least experienced in Ruiz’s school.
“Everyone else knew how to play,” he said. “I didn’t know how to do anything. I was only 14, but I learned how to bat, how to field and how to throw.”
While at the school, he was scouted by the Rangers and invited to the academy. At age 16, the Rangers gave him a $42,500 signing bonus.
The first thing Santana did was buy a piece of land where he hopes to one day build a house.
Eye on the prize
Adapting to a new culture, learning a new language and being away from home is hard, but it’s something players from Latin America have to get used to, said García.
After getting cut by the Marlins, García was out of baseball for two years before signing with the Rangers for nothing prior to the start of Indians’ training camp.
“I realized that being a free agent was worse than being here,” said García, who misses his girlfriend of six months, Yariz. “You miss out on a lot of things, like parties. But you get used to it. You have a job to do. Mentally you prepare yourself for it.”
As of opening day this year, Dominicans made up 11 percent of major league rosters. Since Osvaldo “Ozzie” Virgil became the first player from the Dominican to play in the majors in 1956, 408 other Dominicans have followed. Today, some of the highest paid players are Dominicans, including Pedro Martínez, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz and Tejada.
However, for every Dominican who makes it, there are hundreds who don’t. Báez knows this all too well. His brother, Immeer Báez, two years older, had been a part of the New York Yankees organization until shoulder problems ended his big league dreams.
“He is studying now,” said Báez. “He is going to finish school.”
None of the four Spokane players finished the Dominican equivalent of high school. In their situation, few do.
If they make it to the majors, most players put money back into their community. Tejada for example, donated equipment and built a baseball complex in his hometown of Bani.
“They look out for the kids in their hometown,” said Maldonado. “They always support the sport. Tejada built that complex in Bani so the kids in Bani would get excited about baseball. He built that stadium and gave all those gloves and bats so they would play more comfortably.
The act is not lost on the players, even when they are just starting out at the academy.
“It is something you talk about,” said Maldonado. “We always ask, ‘What are you going to do near your home when you make it?’”
Ten years ago, Bajo de Haina, Maldonado’s hometown, was all dirt roads. Maldonado plans on building a park with a basketball court.
“Something like a sports complex,” he said. “So kids can have fun.”
Báez, when he was young, would receive baseball equipment from Vladimir Guerrero, a friend of the family. Guerrero lives in Nissau, the town next to Báez’s.
“He is just a humble guy,” said Báez of last year’s American League Most Valuable Player.
If they don’t make it, forced to choose between going home or staying in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, many players choose to stay.
“They get on the plane, get off at the next city and just never get back on the plane,” said Riddoch. “They make more money here than they would there. Would you go back?”
Santana, who left school one year from graduating from Preparatoria Dibursio Millan Lopez, said that if he doesn’t make it to the majors he will go back to school.
“It’s my dream and if it doesn’t happen I’ll be sad, but I’ll try to move on,” he said. “I’ll go back to (finish high school) and become a professional in something else. Right now I’m not thinking about that, however. All I’m thinking is pelota, pelota, pelota.”