Kramer: A day of Dominican Republic baseball
David Kramer | Wednesday, November 20, 2019
After nearly 30 minutes on the winding, jagged dirt road, I jump from the bed of an open-air truck and step into the searing sun. The triple-digit heat feels unbearable, somehow far more potent than the dunes of the American South.
Initial greetings from the early arrivals of a nearby batey echo as my colleagues pitch our array of bags, each brimming with 50 pounds of baseball equipment contributed by American donors, from the truck bed. A wave of fatigue floods my arms as I carefully carry two bags to a nearby shaded tree, their final destination following 12 hours of travel.
Arriving at the regional baseball practice field proved no small feat, but finding practice time for a local youth program, one that motivated our travel, remains the tallest task for us.
Hundreds of kids and coaches surround us, anxiously anticipating an open position on the field. With no set practice schedules, employment obligations or access to education, the local youths expend their entire day for even the briefest moment of training. Here, demand for what countless Americans would deem a worthless plot of land soars.
While in the shade the program’s head coach, Amaury, assembles his trainees and announces a group meeting. The batch of aspirational players congregate, masking the underlying pain of poverty with a cheerful facade. Through translation, Amaury and I co-lead a discussion on the importance of character and faith in the realm of baseball and in the broader Dominican community. In spite of my intrusion as a mere stranger, the crowd, mature beyond its years, graciously gives me undivided attention.
What happens next exceeds my wildest expectations.
To the delight of his players in need, Amaury distributes our gear following the meeting. A pair of socks to the 12-year-old already receiving scouting notices from MLB prospects. A belt to the 14-year-old with no living family members. An oversized jersey to the scrawny kid with a dream of MLB stardom. Feeling like the pros, the kids lose their former patience. No longer can they wait for an open slot on the field; they want to play.
In a flash, the kids race to the adjacent batey and scrounge materials from the trash heap that litters the settlement’s square. Feet away, a small group of teammates, with trash and tattered string in each hand, bind four “bases” of garbage with ease. Eyes smiling, they proudly declare that “estamos listos para jugar” and invite us to their neighborhood for a friendly grudge match.
Baseball consumes the lives of these young players. Locals and foreigners alike convince them that America’s pastime provides the only legitimate means of escaping the country’s immense poverty. The coercion, competition and commitment to the game stitches the very fabric of families’ viable solutions, and the resulting strain placed on society’s youngest members leaves an appalling mark on their reputation when they fail to meet MLB prospect standards.
At surface level, this harsh reality feels plain. But our socioeconomic positioning as Americans tends to blind us with the overbearing brilliance of privilege. With countless local fields left vacant and registration fees easily funded, the American baseball experience begins to resemble more of an expectation than a gift, more of a foregone conclusion than a hard-fought blessing.
During this Thanksgiving season, I remember the passion and dedication of Amaury’s kids, an almost reckless expression of devotion to the game that they love.
Today, I give thanks for the pickup games that I once took for granted. Perhaps you might find value in that gratitude, too.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.