Diamonds in the Rough ; as Baseball Season Opens This Weekend, One-Fourth of America's Pro Players Come from One Caribbean Nation, the Dominican Republic

Article excerpt

This is where the day begins, on a rocky beach by the Caribbean Sea, as the sun rises above the water and the wind whips into the small shops that line the seawall.

The boys are like drones, silent, their heads lowered as they sprint toward the west. With each burst of speed, they pump their fists furiously and kick up brown sand. Some are barefoot; others wear tube socks to protect their feet from broken glass.

The smallest in the group is Angel Nova. He is 15, but looks 13. He comes here every morning at 6 a.m., dressed in the same soiled yellow shorts and wearing the same black ski cap, which he pulls down almost to his eyes. His dream is to become a professional baseball player, and for that reason he will run sprints this morning until he nearly drops from exhaustion.

He probably shouldn't be here. Not if you ask the scouts, who can tell you how long the odds are for an undersized middle infielder. Not if you ask his parents, who can barely afford the equip- ment, food, and support it takes to raise an aspiring athlete. But it's not so easy to tell these things to a kid.

Like everyone else he knows, Angel is poor. And like all his friends, Angel thinks baseball is his ticket off the island. "I'm getting better every day," he says, cocking his head to the side and flashing a weak smile. He is woefully shy. "Now I take baseball very seriously, like a job."

After his workout, Angel will go home for some rest. Then he will go to school for a few hours. In the late afternoon he will go to the shabby diamond near where he lives. There he will field grounders off the dirt until the sun goes down.

For now, though, it is time to run - to get faster, he says. And with that, he is off for another sprint, trying to catch the other boys, who are inevitably two steps ahead.

This is the land of baseball, where it seems as if every able- bodied boy and man is a player. There are players on the street, players behind the front desk of the hotel, players dancing the merengue in the cafes late at night. Mention the word beisbol, and people here smile.

Deep talent pool

As baseball becomes more and more of a global sport, the Dominican Republic, a poor country of 8.5 million, continues to be the greatest supplier of talent to the United States. What once was a trickle - beginning in the 1950s with players like Juan Marichal and Felipe Alou - has become a downpour. And the numbers are only growing.

Currently, 89 Dominicans have major-league contracts and 1,561 are signed for the US minor leagues. Add it all up, and nearly 1 in every 4 professional players under contract is Dominican.

The Dominican Republic claims Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox, who, when healthy, is arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs - among the greatest sluggers in the history of the game - is one of theirs. So is Vladimir Guerrero, a young outfielder for the Montreal Expos who has as much talent as anyone.

"Athleticism, hunger, drive, and determination - these are the four characteristics that Dominican players have more than anywhere else in the world," says Rafael Perez, the Major League Baseball representative in the capital, Santo Domingo.

"If you are a kid, and you play baseball, and you start showing some talent, you're going to be picked up by a scout and signed to a professional squad. It's a way out."

With so much talent on such a small island, major-league teams invest millions of dollars in the Dominican Republic each year, in the hope of finding the next gem who can turn a franchise around. In all there are 30 baseball academies run by US teams, plus one owned by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan. Baseball is among the country's top five industries, with Major League Baseball sinking $40 million to $50 million into the economy each year - not including players' contracts. …