January 5, 2007 National Pastime

Photo Caption: On the grounds of the San Francisco Monastery ruins, immediately opposite the cockfight rehearsal, Dominican boys play baseball where cloistered monks prayed 400 years ago. As it is in Cuba and Nicaragua, baseball, not soccer, is the national pastime of the Dominican Republic. Visions of playing on the major league diamonds sparkle in the eyes of most Dominican boys.

History: Once upon a time there was a poor Dominican shoeshine boy who picked up a baseball bat at the age of fourteen and hit his way to fame and fortune. Today, almost every teenager hopes to follow in the footsteps of Sammy Sosa. Introduced to baseball by Americans in the 1860s, Cuban sugar plantation owners brought the game to the Dominican Republic a decade later.

Founded in 1907, Santo Domingo’s Licey Tigers, the nation’s most popular baseball team, lost the 1936 national title to San Pedro. To ensure victory for his city’s team next year, egocentric Rafael Trujillo took his totalitarian rule to heart by combining the rival teams of Escogido and Licey to form the Dragons of Trujillo City, formerly and presently known as Santo Domingo. The despot had already christened the capital city with his name. In a desperate attempt to retain its crown, San Pedro recruited Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, legends of the Negro League. Not to be outdone, Trujillo took the black stars into custody as they disembarked and clothed them in his team’s uniform. As a result of the competitive spending, the league went bust and didn’t recover for another decade. Trujillo’s Dragons did capture the 1937 title from San Pedro’s Eastern Stars.

Journal Entry: Since it was Friday night, Yuri and I walked around the corner from the house to a neighborhood mini-market where he introduced me to his friends and challenged them to a game of dominoes. Sitting at the table battleground on the sidewalk, I soon realized that this was not the same game played by my parents and grandparents. Here the popular pastime is played by macho men who drink Brugal rum and Presidente beer as they swear and slam down their pieces ruthlessly trying to block the other team. Many nights we would play dominoes as we watched local baseball or cockfights on the small color television hanging above our heads. Despite the fact that most of my new amigos spoke little English and I understood even less Spanish, I was readily accepted as “one of the boys.” My friendly opponents included: Leonardo, a house painter as big as a house; Renaldo, a doctor who humbled me in several games of chess; Bantroy, called Russo (Russian) because of his white skin; the gray-haired men who have lived in New York; and the delivery riders who slept on bunk beds in the back of the store when they weren’t transporting groceries via their motorcycles. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning, we stacked the plastic chairs, placed the folded table between two Presidente beer refrigerators, and walked the block back home. Yuri shouted to Farah’s mother, who was sleeping in the flickering light of the television, to let us in.

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