In increasing numbers the ebullient athletes of the Caribbean are putting their own distinctive mark on sport. To baseball they have brought dash, to boxing passion, to horse racing daredeviltry. Since 1972 tiny Panama has produced four world boxing champions and four jockeys who rank among the top 10 in the U.S. From Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic come the ballplayers—34 of them in the major leagues last season. Jamaica, meanwhile, has contributed half a dozen international track stars. These successes seem astonishing when the background of the athletes is considered. The Dodgers' Manny Mota, who hit .314 last summer, began playing with a baseball made from paper and twine. Champion Jockey Laffit Pincay first learned to ride by sitting on a barrel, studying a Sports Illustrated instructional by Eddie Arcaro. But poverty can be a breeder of ambition and determination. As in the U.S. ghettos, sport offers an out. And athletes like world lightweight champion Roberto Duran (right) have used it well to become proud representatives of their small lands.
So delighted was Panama at having champion boxers that the four—Alfonso Frazer, Enrique Pinder, Ernesto Marcel and Duran—were voted $300-a-month pensions on retirement, whereupon Frazer and Pinder lost their titles and their following. Still heroes, however, are WBC featherweight champ Marcel (below) and Duran, whose victories are celebrated by dancing in the streets till dawn. Duran likes nothing better than sparring with Panama City children and nothing less than hard training under the stern eye of ring master Freddie Brown.
The horses in Panama are sore and seldom sure-footed, so the men who ride them must use guile and, at times, even ruder tactics to win. Expecting the worst, an ambulance follows every field. Panama's jockeys once were schooled solely by experience, but now the government subsidizes classes. In morning workouts saddles are rarely used and even at the races (left) a jockey will dispense with stirrups if an animal becomes fractious. Conditions are enough to encourage prayer in the jockey room chapel.
Jamaica has school sports (left), which few Caribbean lands do, but an athlete must be discovered by the age of 12 when most children quit classes to work. Talent is lost and found in haphazard fashion. The island has only three skilled track coaches, so world-class runners like Donald Quarrie (in yellow pants, above) and Trevor Campbell (right) accept U.S. college scholarships in order to get further instruction.
Everywhere, from the streets of Santo Domingo to the canebrakes on the Haitian border, children in the Dominican Republic play baseball with homemade bats (stripped down limbs of the guayaba tree) and gloves made of pasteboard boxes. But rough and rudimentary equipment does not hinder the sport in the Caribbean. Major-leaguers have been discovered at pickup games in plantation fields. There is a high level of amateur competition in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where clubs are sponsored by rum and cigar companies. Cesar Cedeno was a second-string first baseman on a drugstore team when he was signed by Houston. The first-string first baseman? The drugstore owner's son.
Going home to play before their people is something expected of major-leaguers. Come October, Manny Mota, Juan Marichal, Cedeno and a dozen other Latins head for the Dominican winter league. Puerto Rico draws All-Stars like Manny Sanguillen and Felix Millan. To a single club—the 1973 champion Santurce (left)—go Frank Robinson as manager, Elrod Hendricks, Orlando Cepeda, Mike Cuellar and Tony Perez. Ponce is not so lucky, with no big-name players on its roster. After 15 winters of baseball, Felipe Alou has retired to a Dominican broadcasting booth (right) where he aids TV announcer Johnny Naranjo.