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He went over, gave Serrata a few tips on how to hit better and told him to switch over to left-handed. "I'll give him $500, take it or leave it, if he can hit any better left-handed." One pitch, it was obvious he couldn't. For the first time in a while, Haak's bad leg began hurting again.
The success of Clemente encouraged Rickey to send Haak looking for new Caribbean talent. There was another incentive; the Pirates were nearly broke and could not compete in the big-money American bonus market. Haak worked Puerto Rico first, then branched out, and today has native bird dogs in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and the Virgin Islands. "In the big places like Cuba before Castro, I wasn't any big deal," he says, "but I'd come into the Dominican Republic and the Trujillo people treated me like a king. Sometimes I wouldn't have to buy a meal or pay for a hotel room the whole time. People were fighting to drive me around." It was no piece of cake, though. A luxury hotel was one with mosquito netting.
It is fairly accurate to say that Latin America is so mad for baseball that revolutions and coups never take place during the season, but there have always been a few fellows around who misplace their schedules. "Even before you could check into a hotel, some guy would come up and tell you they were going to blow up that particular place that night," Haak says. He remembers the mosquitoes being particularly troublesome in one hotel because of the artillery holes in the wall.
In Santiago in the Dominican Republic, Haak and some players tried to drive through to the capital shortly after the dictator was shot down. The citizens took umbrage at anyone going anyplace, and 50 people surrounded the car. When the player heroes were recognized, the group was allowed to return to the hotel.
There they stayed for several days. "We were down to the canned wieners," Haak says. At this point they tried to bribe someone to fly in an army plane, and when that failed they risked another bustout, which did succeed except for an ugly interlude in the city of Moca when the car was peppered with rocks. Romantic incidents of this variety have not occurred in some time.
Limping noticeably now, Haak broke a path through the crowd to where the driver was waiting with his car. He paused long enough in the melee—everybody clamoring for bats and balls Julio wouldn't let them have—to tell Serrata to change his stance and work on his hitting. He would be back through Puerto Plata in four months, and he would sign him if he improved enough. He promised that, so at least the one boy could take some hope away.
Then Howie Haak hobbled the rest of the way and climbed into the car. It was the only car there. At very few tryout camps anywhere does Howie sign anyone, but the difference is that in the U.S. the candidates just rev up and drive away when they are rejected. In the Caribbean they can only wait and watch the car pull out, seeing their dreams recede down the road while they stand rooted to the ball field, because there is no place else for them to go and no way for them to get there.