Backstory: Diamond Republic
SANTIAGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — Lisa Farbstein of Arlington, Va., is what you might call a baseball fanatic. Her parents took her to her first game at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium when she was 7. Admission was 85 cents. She leaned over the railing and got a baseball autographed.
Forty years later, Ms. Farbstein, who works for the Washington D.C. Metro, has a collection of 1,003 signed balls, season tickets to both the D.C. Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles, and a unique collection of stadium chairs. On this January evening, she cheers for the Santo Domingo Tigres del Licey.
Next to her in the packed stadium is Carla Palamone, a stockbroker from Fredrick, Md., who grew up spending her entire $2 weekly allowance on baseball cards. Now her collection is a library of 28,000 - including a 1909 Topps T206 - all carefully stored in plastic sleeves in a humidity-controlled room.
Though a lifelong Yankees fan, she has her heart on only one team today, as evinced by her blue Licey jersey. "That's my man! Hombre!" she calls out to infielder Luis Castillo, who plays for the Minnesota Twins during the regular season. He waves. The team mascot gives her a high-five.
Arnold Pantich, a retired professor from Boise State University in Idaho, grew up 10 blocks from Briggs Stadium in Detroit, and has visited every major-league ballpark in the country. He gets out on the field himself every week as a Little League umpire. His devotion today is to the Aguilas. "I thought I was a fan," he says. "But I have learned that this is the land of true fanaticos!"
What is going on?
Farbstein, Ms. Palamone, and Mr. Pantich, together with eight other baseball-mad Americans - or to be more accurate, six fanatics and two accommodating spouses - are on vacation in the Dominican Republic. But no beaches for these folks. For them, it's baseball season all over again.
This is the land where boys rise at dawn to practice with torn gloves, grown men spend afternoons hitting balls around dusty diamonds, and businessmen throw their bats in the car, just in case. Old men wile away evenings telling tales of the old days, when pitching impresario Pedro Martinez of the New York Mets or Chicago slugger Sammy Sosa were just Alice-in-Wonderland kids.
The Dominican Republic is the unofficial farm club of major league baseball. US teams run 30 baseball academies here, the Japanese one. And baseball has, over time, become both the national sport and one of the country's top industries.
The game came to the Dominican Republic in the late 1890s from Cuba, where, in turn, it had been introduced by US Marines. Today, roughly 11 percent of all major-leaguers and nearly 25 percent of all minor-leaguers in the US come from this Caribbean nation of 8.8 million. The two World Series teams this year fielded 12 Dominican players. Many of them, no matter how famous, come home after the US season ends, and before spring training starts, to play in their local Winter League.
And, increasingly, a small, but dedicated group of fans follows them here, where the contact with players is intimate and the passion in the stands peerless. "It's the obvious next step for a real baseball aficionado," says Palamone, in a minivan en route to a game, as she helps hold a satellite antennae out the window so they can monitor a football game back home. "The passion here for sport fires you up and holds you through the rest of the year. It's insane."
Licey and Aguilas are the country's greatest rivals. It's the last game in the playoffs leading to the championship series this week. The winner will advance to the Caribbean World Series. The Americans have been crisscrossing the country following games for four days, and, by now, have spoken to most of the players, gotten autographs on every possible article of clothing, and snapped enough photos to fill a library of albums.
The group is part of an official baseball tour that includes visits to various academies and trips to the emerald fields of dreams dotting the countryside of this poor, agricultural country. The tours were started three years ago when Rich Johnson, a fan from Indianapolis, visited an old college teammate.
"We went to a game and it was madness," says Mr. Johnson. "We got to see the players up close. We began to understand what motivated them."
So the duo started a company to show others. "Baseball is the best bet for kids here who want to improve their way of life," he says. "They don't have the distractions - video games, the Internet, other sports - that divide their time ... and their education system requires only four hours of school a day."
For many who take the tours, the players become more than a distant guy in a dugout. "These guys are no longer faces on a baseball card," says Farbstein. "I have seen how much they sweat to get to the US." From now on when she goes to games in America, she vows to lean over the railing and give a proper cheer to the Dominicans. "I will try in Spanish," she says. "I want them happy - the way their country has made me."
Palamone has spent the week thinking of how she might help out, too. "Being in this poor country and seeing these kids and their love for baseball, I have realized all over again how blessed I am," she says. She may ask to be a host family for some Dominicans in the minors, or just invite them over for dinner some evening. "Baseball unites us," she says.
Back at the game, it's the top of the fifth inning, Aguilar is ahead 2-0, and Licey is batting with two outs. Tony Batista of the Minnesota Twins prowls the infield, while all-star Miguel Tejada of the Baltimore Orioles sits in the dugout, chatting with friends. The crowd, as usual, is frenzied. A wave goes around the stadium. The next batter grounds out - a roar rises.
One woman selling refreshments does the merengue in the aisle with American Jeff Quesenberry. Children jump up and down holding hands with his wife, Michelle, one of the once-reluctant spouses on the trip. She's now transformed.
"I have never, in 25 years, seen anything like this," says Palamone. A full moon rises. Fireworks burst. Cheerleaders with orange pom poms do splits in the air. "Baseball," she concludes, "does not get any better."