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Standing Tall at Short
Steve Wulf
February 09, 1987
With more than 70 shortstops in organized baseball, the tiny, impoverished Dominican Republic has emerged as the world's leading exporter of mediocampistas
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February 09, 1987

Standing Tall At Short

With more than 70 shortstops in organized baseball, the tiny, impoverished Dominican Republic has emerged as the world's leading exporter of mediocampistas

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The smells from the sugarcane factory and the garbage dump are playing one another in the Barrio Blanco of San Pedro de Macoris, and for now, at least, the sugar is winning. So is the pickup team that has Carlos Ramirez at shortstop. Kids, both children and goats, look on as Carlos takes his position to start the fourth inning. He carries himself like the great Cabeza—the way he stands, daring the batter to hit the ball to him, the way he wears his hat, tilted down over his head. The batter sends a grounder deep into the hole between short and third, and Carlos ranges far to his right to get his glove on it. His throw to first arrives on a bounce, too late to get the runner, and he kicks the dirt in frustration. But there is plenty of time for him to get other runners, for he is only 12 years old.

On farmland north of Santo Domingo, Epy Guerrero, the scout who signed Cabeza and so many others, runs a baseball farm, Complejo Deportivo Epy, for the Toronto Blue Jays. On this winter day, Guerrero is hitting grounders to infielders he will soon be sending to Toronto's minor league teams. Each ball stretches them to the limits of their range. "Tu eres el hombre de La Mancha," Guerrero shouts as he hits one just past the glove of a shortstop named Batista del Rosario, "�Cazaro el sue�o!' You are Don Quixote, chasing the dream.

It's the next-to-last Saturday of the '86 regular season, and the Blue Jays are playing the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Toronto pitcher Jim Clancy is working on a perfect game in the fifth inning, when, with one out, Don Baylor hits a sharp ground ball between short and third, an almost certain single. But gliding improbably far to his right is shortstop Tony Fernandez. He plucks the ball off the grass and, falling away, releases a perfect rainbow that gets Baylor by a step. Had Clancy kept his no-hitter, Fernandez's play might have left a more permanent imprint on baseball. Unfortunately, Clancy lost the game, and the moment was lost with it. Still, the 24-year-old Fernandez has made similar plays before and will make them for years to come. Nobody except Cabeza, not even Ozzie Smith, can go that deep into the hole and come out again.

The nickname Cabeza, which means "Head", had a cruel connotation when it was first given to Fernandez as a child. The size of his head is now in much better proportion to the rest of his body, but when he was one of the youngsters hanging around Estadio Tetelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris, his head was so big it appeared that he might topple over. Cabeza stuck, though today it has developed an entirely different meaning.

Fernandez is the head of an extraordinary class of shortstops from the Dominican Republic. April 27, 1986, wasn't a particularly notable date in major league history, except that nine Dominicanos played shortstop that day: Fernandez for the Jays, Rafael Santana for the Mets, Alfredo Griffin for the A's, Julio Franco for the Indians, Mariano Duncan for the Dodgers, Rafael Belliard for the Pirates, Jose Uribe for the Giants and Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas for the Braves. All of them appeared in at least 86 games at shortstop last year. Three others, Manny Lee of Toronto, Juan Castillo of Milwaukee and Domingo Ramos of Seattle, started games at shortstop during the year.

Exact figures aren't available, but at least 71 shortstops from the Dominican Republic were under contract to major league teams last season. Every team had at least one in its system; the Blue Jays had no fewer than eight, including Santiago Garcia, from the Barrio Blanco. And even as you read these words, more shortstops are being signed. "Nosotros somos la Tierra de Mediocampistas," says Felix Acosta Nunez, the sports editor of Santo Domingo's Listin Diario. "We are the Land of Shortstops."

The Land of Shorlys might be a more appropriate motto; the word shortstop comes out "shorly" when Dominican children gather for a pickup game. "Shorly! Shorly!" they'll shout to claim the position. Hundreds of games are under way at any one time in San Pedro de Macoris, the heart of Dominican baseball. San Pedro is a port city of 78,562 people, but it is also a region encompassing 150,000, with several small sugarcane communities. Thirteen Macoristas played in the majors last year, seven of them shortstops.

The players who have made it in the big leagues generously buy gear for the kids, but there is never enough to go around. Too often the youngsters must make do with a glove fashioned from a milk carton, a ball that is a sewed-up sock and a bat made from a guava tree limb. (Ironically, a baseball made in Haiti, the western tenant of the island of Hispaniola, costs $7 in the Dominican Republic and $5 in New York City.)

In the Dominican Republic, where the average family income is $1,200 a year, poverty is not an isolated problem; it's the way of life. Also, the quality of education is very low, lower than in the Caribbean's other pools of baseball talent, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. So the kids don't stay in school, not when they can be out on the streets or in the fields playing baseball. "It's very much like the United States in the '30s, during the Depression," says Art Stewart, director of scouting for the Kansas City Royals. "Those were sad times, but they produced great ballplayers because baseball was one of the only avenues of escape."

Hungry players are in endless supply in the Dominican Republic, but there's more to it than that. Rivaling the hunger is the passion for baseball. When Gollo Olivarez, the viejo who oversees games in the Barrio Blanco garbage dump, was asked why his country produces so many ballplayers, he simply pointed to his heart. Cervantes put the words, "Sing away sorrow, cast away care," in the mouth of Don Quixote, and Dominicans seem to live by that creed. There seems no better place to cast away care than on the baseball diamond.

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