In the beginning, I thought of baseball as soon as Val told me we were going to the Dominican Republic, the offshore home of two great American pastimes – baseball and colonialism – that meld in a steamy stew of cultural imperialism.
My wife, Val, works for a software firm that each summer takes its distributed workforce out for a retreat. Celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary, the founder this year hosted employees’ families, too. About 80 of us from the U.S., South America and Europe met at Dreams-Punta Cana, an all-inclusive resort on the Dominican Republic’s east coast.
Where some folks’ fantasies run toward sun and sand, mine turn to bat and ball. I mentally unwrapped a pack of Dominican all-star baseball cards: Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Marichal, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Rico Carty, the euphoniously named Julian Javier, and those two tragic figures from my beloved Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.
I started plotting how to find the heart of Dominican baseball, knowing that the company’s retreat agenda left little time for side-trips, especially when the destination was “I’ll know it when I see it.” It would be the mythic rock-strewn lot full of skinny shoeless boys fielding bad hops with ragged gloves (or none) and rocketing line drives off nailed-together bats, because, as the local saying goes in explaining Dominican players’ aggressiveness at the plate, “You can’t walk your way off the island.”
Weeks before our trip, I location-scouted by phone, first with my friend and former sports-business colleague, Valerin Lopez, a Dominican native raised in New York, who occasionally returned to the island. Then I checked in with my baseball guru Terry Shapiro, whose expertise lies in Colombia, but who knows everyone. I emailed Gene Corr, whom I met on a discussion panel at a screening of his film — “Ghost Town to Havana” — about a baseball coach from inner-city Oakland taking his team to play in Cuba. Gene connected me with Tommy Goodman of the Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation. None offered specifics on when and where I might see my vision.
So I just started looking as soon as our flight landed. On the half-hour ride to the resort, the airport shuttle bus windows showed mostly a concrete landscape of strip malls and cell-phone towers. If not for the Spanish on the billboards, we could have been 10 miles outside of any U.S. city.
But the view changed inside the gate that swings open at the front of Dreams-Punta Cana to swallow whole busloads of tourists and in the high-ceilinged lobby of the main building, where fans whir over wicker furniture that invites your already-heat-and-humidity-weary self to rest and wait for the waitress to bring whatever you drink and as much as you want of it or more. From there a wide marble spiral staircase leads down to a disco, a casino, a theatrical stage that hosts a nightly revue of stereotype island entertainment, a gift shop, several restaurants, and a cigar stand.
Outside the building is an amusement area with a video game arcade, pool table, foosball, ping-pong, a climbing wall, an archery range, basketball and tennis courts and a batting cage. Within the one-mile circumference of the perimeter road, another dozen three-story guestroom buildings surround the half-mile long central swimming pool and other amenities, including a massage and hydrotherapy spa, a flamingo pond, lawn patches, foot bridges, a waterfall, and a bar or restaurant about every 50 yards, including that holy grail, the swim-up bar. The whole complex dead-ends into a plush beach and calm turquoise water.
Val and I, along with our “millennial” children, Eleni and Sam, headed out from our suite ready for lunch at the restaurant nearest the beach followed by tossing a baseball around on the sand. Playing catch on our walk to lunch, we started hearing “Beisbol!” from waiters at the other poolside bars and restaurants.
One of them held up his hands in the international “throw-it-here” sign. His return throw showed enough control, break and style that we stopped to exchange tips on grips and other pitching tricks in his broken English and Sam’s broken Spanish. One of my knuckleball experiments landed in a thick hedge. Our new friend, Francisco, waded right in, nevermind his server’s jacket, and found the ball.
It was the first of many humble acts of service from the resort staff, who make Dreams-Punta Cana so special. Later in our stay, I thanked a waiter for the quality of the coffee and asked where to buy two pounds. He did not know, but 10 minutes later brought the ground coffee in bags and said there would be no charge. On my way out, I gave him $20 to cover the cost of the coffee and a tip. His eyes widened like he’d seen a ghost.
I could only imagine his life, presumably poor like most everyone on the island (thus, the baseball players’ commitment to swing their way “off the island”) and feeling forced to meet the whims of, mostly, descendants of the colonialists that created that poverty. Then my white-guilt moment faded into an easy weekend rhythm of eating, drinking, pool lounging, and an occasional run or Frisbee game or baseball catch on the beach followed by an ocean dip and hitting the indoor bars to watch World Cup soccer.
That weekend, Sam told me he’d planned with Francisco to get a few of his colleagues to commandeer a resort shuttle on Tuesday and drive us all to a ballfield in Higuey. It seemed we would have something even better than that baseball moment I’d envisioned, actually playing with the locals.
But first, on Monday, Eleni and I joined about 10 of Val’s co-workers for a kayaking trip in Parque Nacional Los Haitises led by Explora Ecotour. Our shuttle left painfully early in the morning, but I was jolted from self-pity after about 45 minutes at first glimpse of the island’s tragic poverty.
Some highway stretches just showed a blur of misery. Other times, traffic slow-rolled through whole towns of crumbling buildings, missing walls or roofs or both, skeletal elders seated on concrete floors in the hope-sapping heat and humidity, decrepit fume-spitting motorcycles with children perched precariously on handle bars, and cave-chested, rib-bare boys on horseback.
Some towns’ commercial centers consisted of a school surrounded by razor wire, a barber shop, a restaurant, a bar with a sign for “no menores/no armes de fuegos.” The best-dressed wore NBA team t-shirts commemorating championships never-won – the ultimate hand-me-down U.S. cultural detritus — answering the question of what happens to the pre-printed championship t-shirts for the teams that don’t win a game seven and confirming to those wearing the disposable losing-team shirts that the dominant U.S. culture also treats them as disposable losers.
Beyond some of these town centers lay scenic backdrops of forests layered in every shade of green imaginable, sloping toward the ocean that displayed just as many blues. When the road rose you could see both heaven and hell.
The final stretch to the national park was a pitted, unpaved path. Our Explora Ecotour guide, Eloisa, started pointing out features of plant and animal life, including the cattle egret, a bird that lives symbiotically by eating insects off the cattle that the insects otherwise would eat. Eloisa, a biology student from Venezuela (and therefore now practically a refugee), knew her stuff.
She hired local on-water guides at the kayak launch and led our easy paddle on the brackish green river, usually no wider than 20 feet, beneath a mangrove canopy. Several times she directed us to the river banks to let local power boats pass, and she alerted us to sights we could have missed, such as a blue heron picking off the tiny crabs that scuttled up the mangrove root.
Where the river emptied into a bay, our paddle power picked up. Eloisa led us for about a mile across the bay toward a cliff she described as a bite of cheese. The frigatebirds that soared above us with their distinct scissors-tails she called “air pirates” for their practice of stealing prey mid-air from other birds. An armada of pelicans flew past, low and large.
We nestled up to the cheese-bite cliff, felt it, eyed it from all angles to find patterns, forms and faces like you do when looking at clouds. We paddled around some smaller outcroppings of rock and coral for about 15 minutes until it was time to turn back across the bay, working hard in the heat, and then cooling again under the mangrove canopy.
Back up the pitted path in the town of Sabana de la Mar, lunch was fried fish and plantains and rice and beans beneath the thatched roof of Restaurant Jhonson. Wondering about the poverty, I asked Eloisa, probably less delicately than I hoped, how she felt about Explora Ecotour contributing to the economy but also potentially opening the region to further exploitation.
Her calm answer stressed the positive impact of any outside money, even the portion of our fees that bought us lunch. Eloisa detailed the exploitation wrought by Brazilian construction and engineering company Odebrecht SA, whose corruption scandal forced it to abandon a local project, and then she showed us the fallout on a walk of the town’s battered pier, another foreground of want against a beautiful backdrop.
Tuesday morning we trained for the baseball game Sam had planned with Francisco. Sam, Eleni and I visited the batting cage and its gleeful old coach who yelled “hola!” each time he fed a ball into the pitching machine. Carlos, the husband of one of Val’s colleagues, joined us in the cage. A Venezuelan now playing pro baseball in Italy, Carlos proved that he was our best chance against the stuff Francisco showed us on day one outside the restaurant.
At the appointed hour, we waited for Francisco on the wicker chairs at the front of the resort, but he no-showed. The next day we learned that Francisco’s broken English and Sam’s broken Spanish had left us waiting for Francisco to bring the shuttle while he had spent the whole day at the stadium in Higuey, wondering when we were going to show up on that same shuttle. My baseball dream was dashed.
For our last full day in country, Eleni and I joined a group taking the tour bus to Santo Domingo. Our guide this time was “Nacho,” who sounded like Garrett Morris’ Chico Escuela character and looked like Godfrey Cambridge, circa “Watermelon Man.” Nacho was in his sixties, a retired educator, now earning money and perhaps peace of mind by setting some historical records straight for tourists.
His quasi-minstrel comedy act strained to keep us entertained enough to listen to the not-funny truth. His speech ranged from “fasten your seat belt” to “don’t engage street vendors” to “stay with our group so you don’t miss the bus and pay for a $250 taxi home” to “Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, when the island was home to 600,000 native Tainos, and 13 years later they were all dead.”
Throughout most of the three-hour ride, Nacho bantered with the driver, Enrique, and raised his voice to a feminine tone when joking about the local MamaJuana aphrodisiac elixir of rum, red wine, honey and herbs. Mid-act Nacho started working us for positive reviews and tips.
Unlike the local roads of our kayaking trip, the interstate-type highway kept us more distant from the worst views of poverty. Nacho still made his points about the sugar cane industry growing on the backs of slaves and who held power and land at what point in history, dropping the names of property owners, such as Beyonce, Robert Redford, Liza Minelli, Oscar de la Renta, and Donald Trump.
At our pit stop, Nacho warned us to be back on the bus in 15 American minutes, because 15 Dominican minutes would be more like three weeks. Re-boarding, Nacho counted each of us as we passed him in the aisle and said “Forty-four” as he tapped my shoulder. I said, “Just like Hank Aaron.”
He smiled wide and said, “Ricardo Carty’s old teammate!” When I recited Rico Carty’s .366 batting average that won him the 1970 National League batting title, Nacho said, “I use be berry berry good beisbol.”
His schtick stayed just this side of revealing a minstrel’s self-hate, which could have had me hating him and myself for complicity in his loss of dignity. But he knew when to quit that act. The skies darkened and sprinkled as we neared Santo Domingo. Enrique slowed the bus and Nacho directed attention to the Christopher Columbus Lighthouse, an ambitious and expensive piece of architecture that had drawn disdain for seeming to celebrate the genocide its namesake started.
Our three hours walking along cobblestones in Santo Domingo centered on Columbus: a palace, a museum, whips, chains, cuffs, branding irons, Bibles, canons. Another stop was a 4-D movie complete with slamming theater seats and sea spray to depict the 1586 conquest of the city by Sir Francis Drake. We visited the National Pantheon where an honor guard stands silent and still amid the crypts of national heroes.
Our lunch stop was Buche Perico, a beautiful restaurant with an indoor waterfall that tumbled behind our table and was later drowned out by a bachata dancing demonstration. Nacho ended the formal, educational part of our tour solemnly at the oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor.
There was a shopping stop afterward. Along with the normal trove of souvenir kitsch, the place sold a great collection of local food, drink and cigars, plus jewelry of the unique native gems, amber and larimar. I was disappointed to find no baseball memorabilia worth buying, not even a Dominican national team t-shirt.
On the way back to Punta Cana, I stared out the window, feeling fatigue from heat and humidity, feeling depression from seeing too much oppression. Learning about history is interesting but not always uplifting. I started dreading the three-hour ride beneath gray skies back through sugar cane country, where Nacho would tell us more horror stories.
But around a bend in the road, outside a nameless town downhill from the highway appeared a patch of dirt and a bunch of boys chasing a ball and others running in the rough shape of a diamond and many more waiting for their chance to swing their way off the island.