There are other reasons for the abundance of talent. People can play ball the year-round, of course. If they're the cocolos who work in the fields, their bodies are lean and muscled and their arms are strong from cutting the cane. And they're accustomed to hard work. Epy Guerrero, for instance, subjects his players to much more demanding workouts than they would have in the States, and they never stop hustling and never start complaining. According to Paul Snyder, the director of scouting for the Atlanta Braves, another factor is the willingness of the major leaguers to come home after the season to share their knowledge with youngsters. "In the States, a player keeps to himself or goes hunting during the off-season," says Snyder. "But down in the Dominican, the players all seem to want to help out the youngsters. A word from somebody like Tony Fernandez or Alfredo Griffin has to make a big impression on a kid."
The flip side of this land of baseball opportunity is that for every player driving a Mercedes, there are countless others who never make it. They're Don Quixotes chasing a dream, and most of them are tilting at windmills. Fernandez, for instance, has a twin brother, named Jose, who signed with the Blue Jays as an outfielder and first baseman. But Jose couldn't make the grade, and now he is back in school, studying English in San Pedro.
Why so many shortstops from the Dominican Republic? One reason might be the physique of the young ballplayer. He doesn't exactly get big; the nine Dominicans who played last April 27 averaged 5'9", 169.1 pounds. If a youngster can move and has a good arm, the scouts immediately peg him as a shortstop. And the scouts are everywhere. Eighteen major league clubs have some kind of camp in the country, and 16 teams are interested in sponsoring teams in the Dominican summer leagues.
In the early part of this century, U.S. Marines were sent to the island by President Woodrow Wilson to help stabilize the Dominican government, which had been violently splintered by feuding political factions. The occupying troops brought baseball to the island, and the sport grew like the cane. In fact, the sugarcane factories sponsored the best teams and leagues. By the late 1950s, the first crop of Dominicans began playing for the Giants: Ozzie Virgil, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and then his brothers, Matty and Jesus. While many Macoristas believe that Rico Carty of the Braves was the first major leaguer out of San Pedro de Macoris, he was actually preceded by San Pedro native Amado Ruperto Samuel, who made the Milwaukee Braves in 1962. Samuel holds an even more important distinction: He was the very first Dominican shortstop to reach the big leagues.
It's not hard to overlook Amado Samuel. He played in only 144 major league games over three seasons for the Braves and New York Mets, batting .215 with three home runs and not one stolen base. About the only time his name comes up is when some publication lists the 78 men who have played third base for the Mets. Even the Dominican aficionados have lost track of him; some say he is living in New York City, others say he is in Santo Domingo, still others think he has passed away. They do, however, remember that he was discovered playing softball.
As it turns out, Samuel has been living in Louisville all these years, and he was discovered playing baseball at a clinic. While playing in the minors with Louisville in 1961, he met and married a Louisville girl, Aldetha Stockton. Samuel is now 48, a refrigerator repairman at the General Electric plant in Louisville, and he speaks with a distinctly Southern accent. "It seems like such a long time ago," he says. "Ted McGraw—he's dead now—signed me out of Santa Fe. I remember hitting a home run in my first professional at bat with Eau Claire. Didn't hit too many after that. I didn't play too long after the Mets 'cause I tore up my knee in Buffalo. Missed out on the big bucks, I guess, but I'm healthy, doing fine, no complaints. My son doesn't play, but my brother Manuel, who also signed with the Braves, has a son who plays football for the Kansas Jayhawks. Isn't that something, a Dominican football player? Me, I haven't played in years. I'll go to a game in Cincinnati once in a while—I said hello to Cesar Cedeno when he was with the Reds—but the Mets are still my team. I like the shortstop with the Mets, Santana. He's pretty good.
"Now that you ask, I am proud of being the majors' first Dominican shortstop. I guess there are a lot of them now. You know, one reason there might be so many is the ground they play on. You've got to have very good hands to play on those fields."
Nevertheless, it was many years after Samuel broke in that a Dominican shortstop made an impact in the majors. In 1979 three Dominicans were starting shortstops in the majors: Pepe Frias for the Braves, Nelson Norman for the Rangers and Griffin for the Blue Jays. Frias, whom many considered the finest campocortista before Griffin came into his own, proved to be too erratic in the field for the Braves, and in 1979 he was traded to the Rangers, who felt they could not carry the slick-fielding Norman's bat—he hit .222 with no power. Frias did not last the season in Texas. Griffin, though, was an immediate success with Toronto, and seven years later he is still considered one of the better all-around shortstops in the game.
If you want baseball opinion in the Dominican Republic, you go to the Lucky Seven restaurant on the Avenida Pasteur, a quiet, tree-lined street in Santo Domingo, a few blocks from the beach. The restaurant is so baseball mad that the rest rooms are labeled PELOTEROS and PELOTERAS. And a baseball radio show originates from one of the restaurant's back rooms at what seems like all hours of the day and night. Journalists and players go there after a game for good food and a cold Presidente. The proprietor of the Lucky Seven is Evelio Oliva, a transplanted Cuban, and his judgment counts. "I never thought that I would ever see a better shortstop than my old countryman Willie Miranda," says Oliva. "I was wrong. I can now say that Cabeza is better. I have a story for you. Years ago, I arranged a tryout with my friend Orlando Pena, who was scouting for the Tigers. One of the players I brought to the tryout was a skinny little kid with knock-knees—Tony Fernandez. I knew he could play, but Orlando didn't like the way he looked, and Epy Guerrero ended up taking him. I told that story to [Tigers general manager] Bill Lajoie when he was here with Orlando, and Bill said, ' Orlando, why don't you stay here and run the restaurant, and I'll hire Evelio to do my scouting.' "
Some might cling to the notion that Ozzie Smith, with his back flips and $2 million contract, or Cal Ripken Jr., with his power and consecutive-inning streak, is the best shortstop in baseball, but one can also make a very strong argument for Tony Fernandez. He has led American League shortstops in total chances in his only two full seasons, meaning he gets to more balls than any other player at his position. In '86 he made only 13 errors, to lead AL shortstops in fielding percentage (.983) and earn The Sporting News Gold Glove. But beyond statistics, you need only see him over the course of a few games to know how graceful and quick and imaginative he is. "He makes the spectacular commonplace," says Toronto infielder Garth Iorg. As for hitting, Cabeza batted .310 (.317 righthanded, .307 lefthanded) with 25 stolen bases, 10 homers and 65 RBIs—most of them from the leadoff spot in the Toronto order. His 213 hits were the most ever by a shortstop. He has played in 327 straight games. Not bad for a skinny little kid with a funny knee.