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The Dominican Republic's baseball magic

How a little Caribbean island exports stars to the major leagues.

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic — On a dusty field in Barrio Lindo, kids shout in a mixture of Spanish and English as they chase down fly balls: “Oye, I got it, I got it!”

The outfield is framed by a burning trash heap, a few stray dogs, a handful of goats and a wandering horse. The ragtag players are wearing sandals, not cleats.

You would never know this is the Mecca of Dominican baseball, but it is.

And despite the dilapidated field and the lack of uniforms, baseball is king here. It is the place of big dreams of the big leagues and the pride of a nation that has made baseball a lucrative commodity for export.
Starting today and into this summer, we will be documenting for GlobalPost the pursuit of the dream among teenage prospects battling for a spot in the coveted baseball academies here, seasoned trainers vying for a percentage of future signing bonuses, and hard-ball agents representing the corporate interests of Major League Baseball. We will be following the action with video portraits and written reports in a series titled “Dominican dreams: El barrio to the big leagues."

Though the focus of much attention in recent years, Dominican baseball is largely misunderstood. The classic image of impoverished children playing street-ball with cardboard gloves and wound-up sock balls has recently been overtaken by reports of scandals and corruption. Neither portrayal adequately depicts the whole story.    

What defines Dominican baseball today is a system of multi-million dollar training compounds owned by MLB teams. While these academies may dominate the landscape, the structure of the industry is actually much more complex. Without the traditional track to the majors provided by high school and college baseball, these facilities rely on independent and virtually unregulated trainers to supply their talent.

The number of Dominicans playing professional ball in the United States is staggering.  At the start of the 2008 season, slightly more than 10 percent of the 855 players in MLB were from the Dominican Republic (see map below), making them the single largest minority in the game. In addition, approximately one-fourth of all players in the minor leagues are from the Dominican. The city of San Pedro alone has produced more professional baseball players per capita than any city on earth — including such stars as Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and former MVPs George Bell and Julian Javier.

“San Pedro is like the Mecca of baseball,” says Astin Jacobo Jr., a new type of Dominican baseball professional.