Play ball!

Or, what’s in the Dominican water?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 27, 2010

1004_kurlansky_amin

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís | by Mark Kurlansky | Riverhead Books | 288 pages | $25.95
Red Sox fans are well versed in the creation myths of the team’s Dominican stars. There’s Pedro Martínez, “sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus.” And David Ortiz, promising that anyone administering a steroid test is going to find only “a lot of rice and beans.” And the (ahem) “sick grandmother” Manny Ramírez visited in the Dominican Republic at about the same time each spring.

But what about the lesser lights from the local nine? What about José Offerman and Manny Alexander and Rudy Pemberton? Where did they come from? They came from San Pedro de Macorís, on the Dominican Republic’s south coast. They and about 75 other major leaguers over the past 50 years or so. And that absurdly disproportional contribution to the game is the latest subject to pique the curiosity of Mark Kurlansky, whose new The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís is a worthy addition to his catalogue of “microhistories.”

Kurlansky is known for books in which intense study of small things reveals larger sociological and geopolitical truths, the best-known examples being Salt and Cod. Here, he turns his focus to sugar and marlin.

Well, and baseball. He writes masterfully of San Pedro de Macorís, a city smelling of “overripe fruit and burning charcoal,” where dirt-poor kids play the game with balls made from socks stuffed inside of socks (though “Socks, too, were hard to come by”), with bats fashioned from sugar cane or slates of wood, and gloves improvised using folded milk cartons.

But in tracing the evolution of the game in the Dominican Republic — from its beginnings in 1870s, when “baseball-loving Cuban independentistas and American baseball enthusiasts met to develop a sugar industry” there, to the current era, where signing bonuses can change entire families’ lives — Kurlansky also trains his erudition on a number of semi-related topical side trips. We’re treated to a digressive disquisition on anthropology, with unsettling details about Columbus’s first encounters with the Taino people of Hispaniola. And one on economics and labor, with more about the rise and fall of the Dominican sugar industry than you realized you needed to know. We get a primer on the identity politics of the island — the “morenos, indios, chabins, people with African hair (commonly known as ‘bad hair’) and green eyes, people with ‘good hair’ but bad noses.” We get aromatic recipes for “crab in coconut” and “English steamed fish.” And a reflection on colonialism: “After the U.S. invasion [of 1916] the interest in baseball increased, not from a love of things American, but from a strong desire to beat the Americans at their own game.”

Sports fans will find plenty, of course. Kurlansky focuses on the Estrellas Orientales, who for much of their history have been “a heartbreaking club, much like the twentieth-century Red Sox, with a history of collapsing just before victory.” Famous faces appear, from 19th-century Hall of Famer Cap Anson (“so influential in baseball that his racism infected the entire game”) to Ozzie Virgil, the first Dominican in the majors, to George Bell, the archetypal “Loco Latin” hothead. And pages are devoted to San Pedro’s Sammy Sosa — from inauspicious beginnings (“only five feet, nine inches tall, and very thin”) to tragic dénouement (“his T-shirt was so unpopular . . . that it had been marked down 30 percent”).

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