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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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Last year Duncan suffered nagging injuries, and his fielding wasn't quite as sharp, but he still stole 48 bases. And his parents got to see him play for the first time in Los Angeles. "He loved baseball so much," says his mother, "that I knew I couldn't stop him anymore."

All of the shortstops have paid their dues, one way or another, but the one who paid them the longest is Santana. He is also the only one with a World Series ring. Epy Guerrero signed him out of La Romana, the city east of San Pedro de Macoris, back in 1976 when Guerrero was scouting for the Yankees. Santana languished in the Yankee farm system for a few years, and then was traded for pitcher George Frazier to the Cardinals, who kept him in the minors another three seasons. In fact, St. Louis had two Dominican shortstops who later became starters, Santana and Uribe (then Jose Gonzalez), stacked up behind Ozzie Smith. "Playing in the minors for so long taught me patience," says Santana, who eventually signed with the Mets' Tidewater team as a minor league free agent in January '84.

You can see the patience in the way he plays shortstop, the way he makes every play close. The Mets finally turned to him in the middle of the '84 season, and he has been their starter ever since.

"I am proud of my country," Santana says as he walks through the Altos de Chavon development high above the Chavon river outside of La Romana. "Look at this magnificent place. Dominican hands, people from La Romana, built this. I am proud of my town, and when people make the mistake of saying I'm from San Pedro de Macoris, I get mad, even though the cities are close. I am a proud man, proud of myself, too, because nobody ever taught me how to play baseball, and I had to work hard and wait to get to where I am."

Uribe became forever known as "the player to be named later" when he changed his name from Jose Gonzalez two years ago because he thought there were already enough Jose Gonzalezes. Actually, in the Dominican he is known as Uvita ("the Black Grape"). He's on the small side, definitely black, and he's sweet, as in friendly. He lives in the Juan Baron section of Sabana Grande de Palenque, some 30 miles west of Santo Domingo. There he has his own pawnshop, and the Jose Uribe youth league and also has plans for a restaurant. On this day at Jose Uribe Field, as a mule sprints down the first base line, Uribe watches players practice on an infield strewn with rocks. "Whoever makes a stop here could stop anything in the world," he says.

The Yankees signed Uribe when he was 18 and released him at 20, and the Cardinals picked him up. He went to the Giants in the Jack Clark trade before the '85 season. In two seasons with San Francisco he has endeared himself to the fans and manager Roger Craig, who appreciate his work around the bag. Last year he hit .223, but with 22 stolen bases and 43 RBIs.

The other diminutive Dominican shortstop is the Pirates' Rafael Belliard, 5'6", 152 pounds. Unlike the others, Belliard grew up in the northern part of the island, near Santiago. He took a bus to Santo Domingo when he was 17 to try out for the Navy team, and he made it, although 90 pesos ($82) a month is hardly making it. When the Pirates found him in 1980, he was making 150 pesos a month. A very quiet and happy guy, Belliard bounced around the Pittsburgh system for five years until manager Jim Leyland fell in like with him last spring training. He beat out Sam Khalifa for the job, and batted .233. Though he will probably be the starting shortstop again, the Pirates do worry about the beating he takes on double plays.

The Braves, like the Blue Jays three years ago, have two quality shortstops in Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas, so they may do something about that before the season starts. Thomas has the edge, but a shoulder injury suffered late in the '86 season has the club concerned. Some people in the Braves organization believe that Thomas won last year's competition simply because he's hungrier than Ramirez. Once an All-Star, Ramirez comes from a relatively well-to-do family in San Pedro de Macoris, while Thomas had a much poorer background in the seaside town of Boca Chica. Until last year, when he lost his stroke (.240), Ramirez was one of the better-hitting shortstops. A lack of concentration is the main reason he has committed 160 errors in the last five years, so he is not immensely popular in Atlanta. But he reacts to the booing by saying, "If I go to a movie, and it's no good, I boo. I understand." The talent is there, though: He led or tied the NL in double plays four years in a row (1982-85).

Boca Chica, where Thomas grew up, is a resort between the Santo Domingo airport and San Pedro, with soft white sand and more vendors and merengue musicians than anyone could ever imagine. Boca Chica has a dark past, however, for it was from the town's nearby cliffs that dictator Rafael Trujillo reportedly had his enemies thrown to the sharks. But Thomas grew up in the years after Trujillo, playing basketball and then baseball. His father was a foreman in the local sugar mill's machine shop, and Thomas says that if he hadn't become a baseball player, he probably would have become a mechanical engineer. Like Ramirez, he was signed by Braves scout Pedro Gonzales, and like Ramirez, Thomas seldom walks—last year he had one unintentional walk for every 53.8 at bats. Dominican players have long held reputations as free swingers, but it wasn't until last year that an adequate reason was given, and that explanation was put forth by Ramirez. "You cannot walk off the island," he said.

Six of the shortstops have gathered by invitation in the town square of San Pedro de Macoris. When asked who they think is the best among them, almost to a man they say, "Cabeza." The only two dissenting votes come from Fernandez himself, who still bows to Griffin, and Griffin, who insists that Norman is a better fielder. Griffin and Norman, though, are very good friends, so that might have something to do with it.

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