February 25, 2018
Quisqueya Stadium Juan Marichal
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Baseball in the Dominican Republic isn’t a national sport. It’s a national obsession. Combine sport, soap opera, zealous conviction, tribal membership, and you begin to understand how embedded the game is in the national psyche.
January marks the end of the regular baseball season and the beginning of the playoffs to determine which of island’s 6 teams will represent the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean World Series. The rivalries are intense. The fault lines in allegiances are known to fracture family gatherings.
Teams from Santo Domingo (Tigres del Licey/Tigers) and Santiago (the Águilas/Eagles), the second largest city in the Dominican Republic are duking it out in a best of seven series. The winning team will head to Mexico to joust with winning teams from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. This is a heavyweight bout. Pride, loyalty, family honor, bragging rights, ride on the results.
Our host, Alex Martinez, used every connection he has to get great tickets to the fourth game in the best of seven series. The Santiago Eagles (Áigules) are up two games to one.
Walking up the ramp into the stadium feels like entering an alternate universe. Yes, I see lush green grass, the clay colored base paths and the pitchers mound and coaches boxes and dugouts and players in different uniforms so it’s a baseball game but, if I close my eyes, I would swear I was at a World Cup soccer match. The energy, cheering, and singing are awesome and unrelenting.
A run scores! Fans from the Tigers or the Eagles are on their feet. The stands become an open-air discotheque as 15,000 partisans stand up and joyously dance, hip-shaking Latin moves that look more at home on a sweat-filled dance club than a baseball park. I am smack in the middle of a sublime cultural experience.
Vendors selling hats, pennants and flags lined the streets on the way to the ballpark. Our host buys us hats and pennants, blue for the hometown team Tigers and, since his wife is from Santiago, yellow for the Santiago Eagles. We have become partisans. The stadium is jammed with them, a sea of blue with dots of yellow, like buoys floating on the Caribbean Sea’s surface, in perpetual motion.
Fervent energy in every row from top to bottom, joy on faces one moment then disappointment and heartbreak on the next. The game is a virtual roller caster ride with emotions rising and plummeting, people living and dying with each pitch and each hit.
Spectators rooting for opposing teams sometime sit side-by-side. The banter is non-stop after a hit, a walk, an error, a disputed call by the home plate umpire.The fans sitting in front of us are perfect examples. When a good play is made they leap up, wave their pennants and shoot "We're gonna win!" looks at their friends.
A sporting event creates instant kinships between strangers. Rooting for the same team, we are comrades in arms. Frank has brought his own sign that he unfurls at every moment of glory for the hometown team Licey Tigers.
“Please show me your sign,”says I.
“Boston, “I reply after he asks me where I’m from.
“Pedro Martinez!” Frank shouts after extending his hand to greet me.
“Just elected to the Hall of Fame,” says I.
“And Vladimir Guerrero, too!” says he.
Don’t think for a minute that everyone in the stadium does not know the names of every Dominican player in the big leagues.
A team makes a good play? Sections of the park look like scenes from Sir Walter Scott novel. Yellow or blue pennants are boisterously hoisted as if readying for battle.
You remember the word fanatic? Well, the word fan is in there somewhere and inside this ballpark we are in a world of fans and fanatics. The announcer introduces each player to come to bat in the same sonorous tones in which you would hear a prizefighter introduced a boxing match. Drama. Relentless. Drama. I love this!
This is the fourth game of the championship series. The Eagles from Santiago have won two games. The Tigers have won one in a seven game series.
The series rotates back-and-forth between the cities of Santiago and Santo Domingo. It is hard to estimate how much alcohol will be consumed, how many yellow and blue flags and baseball caps and other paraphernalia will be sold, how many friendly conversations and arguments will take place, how many newspaper stories will be written, and how many hearts will be broken.
Fathers and mothers bring their kids. Games like this germinate bonding experiences that could last a lifetime.
The Eagles hold onto a lead for the first part of the game and to the delirium of their fans, the Tigers tie the game in the ninth-inning. Extra innings. Fans are at the edge of their seats with every pitch, every play, every out. I can practically hear their hearts beating. At the end of the 10th inning the Tigers break through and score the winning run
Bedlam in the stands. Players from the Tigers swarm onto the field, a conga line of victors.
We say goodbye to Frank and our fellow baseball fans and head for the car. The Dugout and First Base (of course), two open-air bars on opposite corners are rockin’ with fans who watched on TV. The scene feels more like New Year’s Eve.
To define this as a baseball game would do no justice to what we just experienced: a cultural event of seismic proportions. History, heritage and honor on a baseball diamond.
Edwin Encanation, Bartolo Colon, Dellin Betances, Melky Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Cleveland manager Terry Francona are former Santiago Eagles players. There are dozens more who play in the American and National Leagues.
The Quisqueya Stadium Juan Marichal was re-named in 2014 after the Dominican pitcher, one of the first Dominican players to play in the big leagues in the US and the first elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983.
Oh, also cheerleaders who vault onto the field between innings. And karaoke at the seventh inning when a fan is invited to take the mic and, to the delight of thousands, belt out a popular song. I had to see this to believe it.
Photos and videos by Paul A.Tamburello,Jr.