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The road wound for hours, from one end of the island to the other, disclosing a countryside that had a postcard look: lush, green-on-green, burros idly switching along, full-breasted women balancing parcels on their heads, naked little boys scampering at play. But what was picturesque out in the palms of the Dominican Republic was merely squalid in the towns. The charm had long since been sweated out of those places.
Under tin roofs, Puerto Plata winced in the high midsummer sun, and on the ball field, burned to gray dirt, barefoot kids kicked up thin dust as they scurried out of the way of the townspeople who swirled around Howie Haak (left). His bad knee, pummeled in some forgotten minor league plate collision years ago, had been hurting again, but he had taken some pills and now strode purposefully across the diamond, releasing a spray of tobacco juice that dampened the infield. The local teen-agers there to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates huddled in the shade of the dugout and eyed the stranger, who was the liege lord of their hopes. Perhaps none of the boys would admit it flat out, but if this man rejected them this afternoon they might never again have an honest chance to dream.
In his Spanish, imperfect but clear, Haak had 60 yards measured out from home plate, stood next to the spot with his stopwatch and summoned the candidates to sprint.
Latin Americans have played baseball in the U.S. much of this century, but as late as 1948 only three were in the majors. Today about 10% of the big-leaguers are Latins, with the National League having a disproportionate number. Almost all clubs scout the Caribbean now, but few have done as well as Pittsburgh, which has succeeded mostly because of Haak. He has been making regular trips through the area since 1954, when he went to Puerto Rico to watch a Dodger minor-leaguer named Roberto Clemente.
Haak (rhymes with cake) was thus present at the creation, and everywhere after, too. Because of his astonishing memory, he does not converse so much as debrief. A composite recollection would go something like this: "Here's how we signed Jones the year he hit .337 with 42 home runs and only 16 strikeouts. I was in Savannah, in the old Wayward Hotel on River Street, where you could get a good room for $3 a night, watching a big left-handed-hitting outfielder named Ted Harris. He had an average arm, but the guy could do 6.8, and he had good power to the opposite field. That night he went two for four off a good little curve-ball pitcher named Kenny Wilson, and he was robbed of a double off the left-field wall by one Harry Smith. You may remember him; he hit .362 at Toledo the year after the Braves left him unprotected, although a lot of that was because Connie Taylor was swinging after him against righthanders.
"So the next day I get a call from Ellen, Mr. Rickey's secretary, and she says the old man wants to see you right away in Mobile. I said, you tell him Ellen, I've still got to see Carter pitch, and the way Jacksonville is stocked with lefthanders, I'm pretty sure he'll go tonight, so I'll drive to Mobile after the game.
"Well, it was a good thing I stayed, because Carter still couldn't get the ball down and in against left-handed hitters and they had to bring in this little pitcher who was just up from C, and damned if that didn't turn out to be Wally Green, and we took him that winter, and later traded him for Bud Polk (with $7,500 thrown in), which was just what we needed. Well, I got in at six the next morning to the Magnolia Arms, where the old man always stayed in the Blue Suite overlooking the gardens at six and a half for him. I checked in and went right up to his room, and he said, 'Come in, Howie, and let me get you a cup of coffee. How do you....' "
Haak's recollections include the Latins that got away: Felipe Alou (and then his brothers), steered to the Giants by Trujillo; Horace Clarke in the Virgin Islands; Juan Marichal, who lived down the road from Puerto Plata ("Hell, he was only 5'10" and a curveballer," Haak protests); and the one baseball men now think might be the finest of them all, young Cesar Cedeno, assuming his career is not eclipsed by last week's tragic shooting in Santo Domingo.
Otherwise, Haak's Latin mine has helped keep Pittsburgh a contender for most of the past 16 years. He has signed Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, Julian Javier (who was traded to the Cardinals for a man who had a part in winning the 1960 pennant for the Pirates, Reliever Vinegar Bend Mizell), Ramon Hernandez, Al McBean, Diomedes Olivo (at age 41) and a bunch of others, and conceived the trade that brought them Manny Mota. Even Haak's leftover Latins have brought Pittsburgh a good chunk of money in sales to other clubs. At 62, Haak is reputed to be the highest-paid scout in the majors, and he has so many contacts throughout the Caribbean that hardly a day passes when somebody does not sidle up to him and say, " Howie, I got a good one I'm saving for you. The boy's only 15, and the mother will only let him go where I tell her."
Haak will reply, "Good, I'll see the kid next time I'm through." And then he spits. His mouth droops and he talks out of the side because he has been chewing for so long. In one special traveling bag Haak carries only a catcher's mitt and his chewing-tobacco supply.