The book: “The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris”
The author: Mark Kurlansky
The vital stats: Riverhead Books, 282 pages, $25.95
Find it: At Barnes and Noble (linked here)
The pitch: Pedro Guerrero, Adrian Beltre and Alfredo Griffin. Rico Carty, Joaquin Andjuar and Rafael Ramirez. George Bell, Julio Franco and Juan Samuel. Mariano Duncan, Jose Offerman and Guillermo Mota.
And Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano.
Seventy nine players have emerged from this tiny town in the Dominican Republic to play in the U.S. major leagues, several familiar to Dodgers fans who recall how Vin Scully still says the city’s name like some song lyric whenever he sees it next to someone’s bio.
The first was Samuel Amando, a shortstop who played with the Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets in the early ’60s. Carty was the most famous, until Sosa came along. Cano, the son of another big-league ballplayer from the city, could be the next big thing as the Yankees’ hot-hitting second baseman.
How has this pipeline been established? Jose Cano, Robinson’s dad, says in the book: “Because we don’t have anything else here and we aren’t tall enough for basketball.”
Kurlansky, writing his first sports book after several historial tomes on such thing as the evolution of cod fish, salt and oysters (seriously), did a piece on this fabled connection between the Dominican and the U.S. for Parade magazine in 2007, “and the magazine received more than 100 leters from readers,” he writes in this book. “Most complained there were too many foreigners, too many Latins, or too many Dominicans in (U.S.) baseball … must of the criticism comes from African Americans.”
Those who also think that they’ve been outsourced in trying to get high-paying roster spots in the big-leagues.
With Kurlansky’s expertise in life in the Carribean, he traces the history of the country, and this tiny former fishing village that now specializes in sugar cane, all the way back to Columbus, Sir Frances Drake and Napoleon staked their claim.
While Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican to make it to the U.S. major leagues in 1956, Kurlansky finds that the first accepted date of baseball in the country was 1886, introduced by Cuban sugar makers.
But while baseball players may be the region’s biggest export — one of every six Dominican players in the pros are from San Pedro de Marcoris — this is really about how the culture hasn’t changed much despite its success. It’s one of poverty and survival, colonialization and ethnic diversity.
As the city’s major Tony Echavaria says: “Baseball gives an activity to the poorest children and it changes their lives and the lives of their families.”
But there’s the flip side of that — mostly with how a player like Sosa is depicted as not really giving back as much as he claims to have during his days of multi-million riches. Kurlansky writes that as Sosa has found out, “no matter how rich you are, you are even richer in the minds of the poor, and he was constantly criticized for not giving enough” — even by his grandmother, who lives in the city in a three-story cinderblock house who continues to ask for money to survive.
Still, Kurlansky points out with some irony, Sosa may be the only person in the world who has a shopping center named after one of his statistics.
The other dark side of this town is trying to get out from under the suspicion of steroid use by its players. Kurlansky writes that the most easily obtained steroids are ones designed to be used by vets on animals, primarily horses. With Sosa’s association to the region, it is further tainted.
How it goes down in the scorebook: As long as the children there snap off brances of sugar cane to use as a baseball bat, wacking rocks around on the street, San Pedro de Macoris will continue to be a destination spot for professional talent.
The MLB estimates it has spent more than $14 million on 30 academies in the area, leading to 2,100 jobs. It also guesses that more than $200 million a year goes back to the citizens some how from the players who came from there — but you’d never know it by seeing how its used. This is not a travel guide to lure you into visiting San Pedro de Marcoris, but more of a human guide to connect readers more to the region and culture, a better understanding about the lack of choices these people have to make a better life for themselves.
And another reason to rend the DVD “Sugar” to see a dramatization about how once a player does leave the island and come to America, how tough it is to adjust.