The smells from the sugarcane factory and the garbage dump are playing one another in the Barrio Blanco of San Pedro de Macoris, and for now, at least, the sugar is winning. So is the pickup team that has Carlos Ramirez at shortstop. Kids, both children and goats, look on as Carlos takes his position to start the fourth inning. He carries himself like the great Cabeza—the way he stands, daring the batter to hit the ball to him, the way he wears his hat, tilted down over his head. The batter sends a grounder deep into the hole between short and third, and Carlos ranges far to his right to get his glove on it. His throw to first arrives on a bounce, too late to get the runner, and he kicks the dirt in frustration. But there is plenty of time for him to get other runners, for he is only 12 years old.
On farmland north of Santo Domingo, Epy Guerrero, the scout who signed Cabeza and so many others, runs a baseball farm, Complejo Deportivo Epy, for the Toronto Blue Jays. On this winter day, Guerrero is hitting grounders to infielders he will soon be sending to Toronto's minor league teams. Each ball stretches them to the limits of their range. "Tu eres el hombre de La Mancha," Guerrero shouts as he hits one just past the glove of a shortstop named Batista del Rosario, "íCazaro el sue‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o!' You are Don Quixote, chasing the dream.
It's the next-to-last Saturday of the '86 regular season, and the Blue Jays are playing the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Toronto pitcher Jim Clancy is working on a perfect game in the fifth inning, when, with one out, Don Baylor hits a sharp ground ball between short and third, an almost certain single. But gliding improbably far to his right is shortstop Tony Fernandez. He plucks the ball off the grass and, falling away, releases a perfect rainbow that gets Baylor by a step. Had Clancy kept his no-hitter, Fernandez's play might have left a more permanent imprint on baseball. Unfortunately, Clancy lost the game, and the moment was lost with it. Still, the 24-year-old Fernandez has made similar plays before and will make them for years to come. Nobody except Cabeza, not even Ozzie Smith, can go that deep into the hole and come out again.
The nickname Cabeza, which means "Head", had a cruel connotation when it was first given to Fernandez as a child. The size of his head is now in much better proportion to the rest of his body, but when he was one of the youngsters hanging around Estadio Tetelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris, his head was so big it appeared that he might topple over. Cabeza stuck, though today it has developed an entirely different meaning.
February 9, 1987
Fernandez is the head of an extraordinary class of shortstops from the Dominican Republic. April 27, 1986, wasn't a particularly notable date in major league history, except that nine Dominicanos played shortstop that day: Fernandez for the Jays, Rafael Santana for the Mets, Alfredo Griffin for the A's, Julio Franco for the Indians, Mariano Duncan for the Dodgers, Rafael Belliard for the Pirates, Jose Uribe for the Giants and Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas for the Braves. All of them appeared in at least 86 games at shortstop last year. Three others, Manny Lee of Toronto, Juan Castillo of Milwaukee and Domingo Ramos of Seattle, started games at shortstop during the year.
Exact figures aren't available, but at least 71 shortstops from the Dominican Republic were under contract to major league teams last season. Every team had at least one in its system; the Blue Jays had no fewer than eight, including Santiago Garcia, from the Barrio Blanco. And even as you read these words, more shortstops are being signed. "Nosotros somos la Tierra de Mediocampistas," says Felix Acosta Nunez, the sports editor of Santo Domingo's Listin Diario. "We are the Land of Shortstops."
The Land of Shorlys might be a more appropriate motto; the word shortstop comes out "shorly" when Dominican children gather for a pickup game. "Shorly! Shorly!" they'll shout to claim the position. Hundreds of games are under way at any one time in San Pedro de Macoris, the heart of Dominican baseball. San Pedro is a port city of 78,562 people, but it is also a region encompassing 150,000, with several small sugarcane communities. Thirteen Macoristas played in the majors last year, seven of them shortstops.
The players who have made it in the big leagues generously buy gear for the kids, but there is never enough to go around. Too often the youngsters must make do with a glove fashioned from a milk carton, a ball that is a sewed-up sock and a bat made from a guava tree limb. (Ironically, a baseball made in Haiti, the western tenant of the island of Hispaniola, costs $7 in the Dominican Republic and $5 in New York City.)
In the Dominican Republic, where the average family income is $1,200 a year, poverty is not an isolated problem; it's the way of life. Also, the quality of education is very low, lower than in the Caribbean's other pools of baseball talent, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. So the kids don't stay in school, not when they can be out on the streets or in the fields playing baseball. "It's very much like the United States in the '30s, during the Depression," says Art Stewart, director of scouting for the Kansas City Royals. "Those were sad times, but they produced great ballplayers because baseball was one of the only avenues of escape."
Hungry players are in endless supply in the Dominican Republic, but there's more to it than that. Rivaling the hunger is the passion for baseball. When Gollo Olivarez, the viejo who oversees games in the Barrio Blanco garbage dump, was asked why his country produces so many ballplayers, he simply pointed to his heart. Cervantes put the words, "Sing away sorrow, cast away care," in the mouth of Don Quixote, and Dominicans seem to live by that creed. There seems no better place to cast away care than on the baseball diamond.
There are other reasons for the abundance of talent. People can play ball the year-round, of course. If they're the cocolos who work in the fields, their bodies are lean and muscled and their arms are strong from cutting the cane. And they're accustomed to hard work. Epy Guerrero, for instance, subjects his players to much more demanding workouts than they would have in the States, and they never stop hustling and never start complaining. According to Paul Snyder, the director of scouting for the Atlanta Braves, another factor is the willingness of the major leaguers to come home after the season to share their knowledge with youngsters. "In the States, a player keeps to himself or goes hunting during the off-season," says Snyder. "But down in the Dominican, the players all seem to want to help out the youngsters. A word from somebody like Tony Fernandez or Alfredo Griffin has to make a big impression on a kid."
The flip side of this land of baseball opportunity is that for every player driving a Mercedes, there are countless others who never make it. They're Don Quixotes chasing a dream, and most of them are tilting at windmills. Fernandez, for instance, has a twin brother, named Jose, who signed with the Blue Jays as an outfielder and first baseman. But Jose couldn't make the grade, and now he is back in school, studying English in San Pedro.
Why so many shortstops from the Dominican Republic? One reason might be the physique of the young ballplayer. He doesn't exactly get big; the nine Dominicans who played last April 27 averaged 5'9", 169.1 pounds. If a youngster can move and has a good arm, the scouts immediately peg him as a shortstop. And the scouts are everywhere. Eighteen major league clubs have some kind of camp in the country, and 16 teams are interested in sponsoring teams in the Dominican summer leagues.
In the early part of this century, U.S. Marines were sent to the island by President Woodrow Wilson to help stabilize the Dominican government, which had been violently splintered by feuding political factions. The occupying troops brought baseball to the island, and the sport grew like the cane. In fact, the sugarcane factories sponsored the best teams and leagues. By the late 1950s, the first crop of Dominicans began playing for the Giants: Ozzie Virgil, Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou and then his brothers, Matty and Jesus. While many Macoristas believe that Rico Carty of the Braves was the first major leaguer out of San Pedro de Macoris, he was actually preceded by San Pedro native Amado Ruperto Samuel, who made the Milwaukee Braves in 1962. Samuel holds an even more important distinction: He was the very first Dominican shortstop to reach the big leagues.
It's not hard to overlook Amado Samuel. He played in only 144 major league games over three seasons for the Braves and New York Mets, batting .215 with three home runs and not one stolen base. About the only time his name comes up is when some publication lists the 78 men who have played third base for the Mets. Even the Dominican aficionados have lost track of him; some say he is living in New York City, others say he is in Santo Domingo, still others think he has passed away. They do, however, remember that he was discovered playing softball.
As it turns out, Samuel has been living in Louisville all these years, and he was discovered playing baseball at a clinic. While playing in the minors with Louisville in 1961, he met and married a Louisville girl, Aldetha Stockton. Samuel is now 48, a refrigerator repairman at the General Electric plant in Louisville, and he speaks with a distinctly Southern accent. "It seems like such a long time ago," he says. "Ted McGraw—he's dead now—signed me out of Santa Fe. I remember hitting a home run in my first professional at bat with Eau Claire. Didn't hit too many after that. I didn't play too long after the Mets 'cause I tore up my knee in Buffalo. Missed out on the big bucks, I guess, but I'm healthy, doing fine, no complaints. My son doesn't play, but my brother Manuel, who also signed with the Braves, has a son who plays football for the Kansas Jayhawks. Isn't that something, a Dominican football player? Me, I haven't played in years. I'll go to a game in Cincinnati once in a while—I said hello to Cesar Cedeno when he was with the Reds—but the Mets are still my team. I like the shortstop with the Mets, Santana. He's pretty good.
"Now that you ask, I am proud of being the majors' first Dominican shortstop. I guess there are a lot of them now. You know, one reason there might be so many is the ground they play on. You've got to have very good hands to play on those fields."
Nevertheless, it was many years after Samuel broke in that a Dominican shortstop made an impact in the majors. In 1979 three Dominicans were starting shortstops in the majors: Pepe Frias for the Braves, Nelson Norman for the Rangers and Griffin for the Blue Jays. Frias, whom many considered the finest campocortista before Griffin came into his own, proved to be too erratic in the field for the Braves, and in 1979 he was traded to the Rangers, who felt they could not carry the slick-fielding Norman's bat—he hit .222 with no power. Frias did not last the season in Texas. Griffin, though, was an immediate success with Toronto, and seven years later he is still considered one of the better all-around shortstops in the game.
If you want baseball opinion in the Dominican Republic, you go to the Lucky Seven restaurant on the Avenida Pasteur, a quiet, tree-lined street in Santo Domingo, a few blocks from the beach. The restaurant is so baseball mad that the rest rooms are labeled PELOTEROS and PELOTERAS. And a baseball radio show originates from one of the restaurant's back rooms at what seems like all hours of the day and night. Journalists and players go there after a game for good food and a cold Presidente. The proprietor of the Lucky Seven is Evelio Oliva, a transplanted Cuban, and his judgment counts. "I never thought that I would ever see a better shortstop than my old countryman Willie Miranda," says Oliva. "I was wrong. I can now say that Cabeza is better. I have a story for you. Years ago, I arranged a tryout with my friend Orlando Pena, who was scouting for the Tigers. One of the players I brought to the tryout was a skinny little kid with knock-knees—Tony Fernandez. I knew he could play, but Orlando didn't like the way he looked, and Epy Guerrero ended up taking him. I told that story to [Tigers general manager] Bill Lajoie when he was here with Orlando, and Bill said, 'Orlando, why don't you stay here and run the restaurant, and I'll hire Evelio to do my scouting.' "
Some might cling to the notion that Ozzie Smith, with his back flips and $2 million contract, or Cal Ripken Jr., with his power and consecutive-inning streak, is the best shortstop in baseball, but one can also make a very strong argument for Tony Fernandez. He has led American League shortstops in total chances in his only two full seasons, meaning he gets to more balls than any other player at his position. In '86 he made only 13 errors, to lead AL shortstops in fielding percentage (.983) and earn The Sporting News Gold Glove. But beyond statistics, you need only see him over the course of a few games to know how graceful and quick and imaginative he is. "He makes the spectacular commonplace," says Toronto infielder Garth Iorg. As for hitting, Cabeza batted .310 (.317 righthanded, .307 lefthanded) with 25 stolen bases, 10 homers and 65 RBIs—most of them from the leadoff spot in the Toronto order. His 213 hits were the most ever by a shortstop. He has played in 327 straight games. Not bad for a skinny little kid with a funny knee.
The best shortstop in baseball was born and raised behind the Bermudez scoreboard in right centerfield of Vargas Stadium. Casa de Cabeza, as it has come to be known, is a simple cement house that until recently was painted Blue Jay blue. It sits on the corner of F and N streets and is so close to the ballpark that Pirates catcher Tony Pena once hit a home run against one of the walls. In the sitting room, underneath an action picture of her brother, sits one of Cabeza's four sisters (he also has six brothers, including his twin). "Tony was a little child with a big head," says his sister Gloria. "He never said anything about the baseball, but he was always practicing it."
Fernandez lives in Santo Domingo now with his wife, Clara, and 19-month-old son, Joel. Both his parents have died, his mother only last winter. When Tony says, "My father was English and my mother was French," he is tracing their descent back to the days of slavery on the island. "My father was a chief in the sugarcane fields, a wonderful man, the kind of man I would like to be. I think he gave me his heart. He was very strong, but he never beat me. My mother, whom I also loved, worked as a vendor. She would hit me, especially if I missed Sunday school to play baseball."
Vargas Stadium is named for Tetelo Vargas, a great ballplayer who led the Dominican League in hitting when he was 50 years old. As a small boy, Tony worked on the grounds crew and in the clubhouse there. He would climb over the fence in the morning and help fix the field or shine shoes, but when somebody brought out a bat and ball, he was right there with the bigger players, trying to steal time at shortstop. He would also be stealing the moves of shortstops like Griffin, Frias and Norman.
Griffin, who is five years older than Fernandez, recalls, "He was always around, with the bad knee, taking infield. Then one day he was better than the rest. I remember Ray Knight, who played winter ball here, came up to me after Tony had grown up and said, 'Is that really Cabeza?' "
Yes it was. When Fernandez was 15, Epy Guerrero had helped the family to arrange and pay for an operation on the youngster's right knee—a chipped bone had made it painful for him to run. Actually, Guerrero had been watching Fernandez for years, trying to entice him to Santo Domingo, but Tony did not want to leave home. "Before the operation he could run 60 yards in only 7.3 seconds," says Epy. "Now he runs it in 6.5 seconds." Soon after the surgery, Guerrero signed Fernandez to a Blue Jays contract, and to this day the two remain very close.
Fernandez rose quickly through the Toronto farm system. His ascent was so swift that he presented the Jays with a major problem: What do they do with Griffin and Fernandez? They solved that by trading Griffin to the A's after the '84 season.
If there is anyone out there who thinks Joaquin Andujar is the typical Dominican ballplayer, consider that Fernandez is a Pentecostal Christian who spends much of the off-season doing missionary work. He is quiet and thoughtful, and he is sheepish about his new status. He reads the Bible, of course, but also Shakespeare and Cervantes. "Baseball was fun for me when I was growing up, and even in Class A ball, I felt the joy. But as I got closer to the majors, I felt more materialistic, more concerned with things like money and Porsches. I almost quit in Syracuse. But that's when I found Christ. Now I'm playing with joy again. Still, I would quit tomorrow if that is what I thought the Lord wanted me to do."
Once he was a skinny little kid who climbed over the wall to go to work and learn to play. Later, when his winter league team, Licey, came to San Pedro to play the Estrellas, Cabeza jumped back over the wall in his uniform to visit his family.
Griffin, too, remembers going over the top, but he would do that to get in to see the games. "We would wait for the national anthem to start playing, so the policemen would have to stand at attention, and then we would climb up and down the light tower." He was from the sugar town of Consuelo, about two miles up the road from the stadium. "I used to skip school to play ball, and my mother, Mary, would beat me with a stick if she found out. Rico Carty was my hero. He came from Consuelo, and I'll never forget what a thrill it was to play with him, first in Cleveland and then in Toronto."
As befits the dean of Dominican shortstops, Griffin lives in a magnificent house near the university in San Pedro, right next door to Andujar's big house. Griffin's house was recently featured in a Dominican magazine, and it has everything. The floor of the hallway leading from the master bedroom to the living room is tiled in clay blocks forming the letter G. Griffin lives here with his wife, Noris, daughter, Rosemary, and occasionally, his mother, who thinks the house is too big. To look at Mary Griffin, a wisp of a woman, one cannot imagine her whaling away at a future major leaguer.
Griffin, like Fernandez, has a nickname: el Brujo ("the Magician"), which is derived from his fielding wizardry. Regie Otero, a Cleveland scout, signed him out of San Esteban High School when he was 16, and within three years he was playing in the majors. The Indians traded him to Toronto for reliever Victor Cruz, a disastrous deal for Cleveland, although the Indians would soon have another shortstop from Consuelo. Griffin was the AL co-Rookie of the Year in '79, hitting .287, and though he has never matched that, he is still prized for his leadership, fielding and fearless baserunning. Last year, against the Mariners, on a bases-loaded walk with two outs, Griffin trotted over to third, and when he saw that the pitcher and catcher weren't paying attention to him, he started running for home and scored the winning run.
Griffin is particularly mindful of his responsibility to help the youngsters of San Pedro. "I see myself in them all the time," he says. He sponsors not one, but two Little League teams in Consuelo. The town is not hard to find, because guarding its entrance is an old steam locomotive, Ing. Consuelo 4, a reminder of the glory days when the train used to run through the sugar mill. Right behind the locomotive is an expanse of baseball and softball fields, which are all you need to see to understand why baseball is Consuelo's second-biggest industry.
"That's what there is in Consuelo," says shortstop Julio Franco of Consuelo and Cleveland. "Sugar and baseball. My father worked in the factory there, and so did I.I dusted the floors, worked the machines, moved the sugar from one place to the other, but I also played baseball for the factory. That's one reason to play amateur baseball, so you can get a job with the factory."
The Phillies signed Franco when he was 16, and in five minor league seasons he never hit below .300. He came to Cleveland in the big five-for-one trade for Von Hayes before the '83 season, and he has hit .273, .286, .288 and .306 since then, with 80, 79, 90 and 74 RBIs. He is clearly the most dangerous hitter among Dominican shortstops, his fielding has suffered from a lack of concentration. He can make the spectacular play but muff the routine one. In '85 the Indians tried to move him to second, but they abandoned that experiment and since then he has been much more consistent defensively. Last year he reduced his errors to 18 from 35 the season before.
The word quixotic could have been coined for Franco, who can be alternately charming and infuriating. He has been known to berate official scorers, then apologize profusely to them the next day. He spent three days in a Dominican jail in '84 after officials confiscated an unregistered gun, but then Cervantes himself spent some time in the slammer. He jumps on teammates he deems lazy, and he is very solicitous of children. In April '85 he went AWOL for a day in New York, later explaining he was ill at an old friend's house in the Bronx and overslept. He went all of last season without an incident, though, so he may be growing up." I know I get in trouble," Franco says, "but part of it is because I don't want to be just good, I want to be the best."
Angelina is a town much like Consuelo, only not so lucky. The sugar mill in Angelina has closed down, so most everybody is out of work. Angelina is where Mariano Duncan grew up, in a tin shack of a house that wasn't more than six feet high. The shack was recently torn down and, as a result, the kids in Angelina now have a little more room to play.
Mariano lived in that shack with his mother and father and 10 brothers and sisters until last year. His father, who lost his left leg while working in the cane fields many years ago, was a shoemaker, and his mother sold fruit and vegetables and poultry from a cart. Nilda, his mother, says, "Sometimes Mariano helped me sell, but most of the time, it was pelota, pelota, pelota. I said, 'Mariano, you have to work. We have to eat.' And he would say, 'Don't worry, Mother, when I become a ballplayer, we will be living well.' We didn't believe him, but here we are."
Nilda is sitting on the porch of a red two-story house in the center of San Pedro. In fact, the house belonged to Joaquin Andujar before he moved into his bigger home, and it comes complete with the tin roof cutouts Joaquin put in years ago to remind him of his own humble childhood (SI, Jan. 24, 1983). The Duncans, who moved in last winter, probably don't need reminders of their former poverty.
"I didn't play shortstop much when I was growing up," says Mariano, who's fond of the jeweled trappings of success. "Mostly centerfield. When I was 17,I had a tryout with the Dodgers, but they said I was too skinny and not fast enough. But after that, I seemed to get stronger every day, and in a few months Rafael Avila and Elvio Jimenez of the Dodgers saw me again and signed me for $5,000."
Duncan spent only two years in the minors, mostly at second base, before he made the Dodgers in spring training of '85. He played second when Steve Sax was hurt the first month of the season, and then he switched to short when Dave Anderson was injured. He turned out to be a godsend at a position he had never regularly played, showing extraordinary range. He was also new to switch-hitting, but he batted .244 with 38 stolen bases. Perhaps the surest sign that he had reached the big time was when he began dating a Los Angeles Raider cheerleader.
Last year Duncan suffered nagging injuries, and his fielding wasn't quite as sharp, but he still stole 48 bases. And his parents got to see him play for the first time in Los Angeles. "He loved baseball so much," says his mother, "that I knew I couldn't stop him anymore."
All of the shortstops have paid their dues, one way or another, but the one who paid them the longest is Santana. He is also the only one with a World Series ring. Epy Guerrero signed him out of La Romana, the city east of San Pedro de Macoris, back in 1976 when Guerrero was scouting for the Yankees. Santana languished in the Yankee farm system for a few years, and then was traded for pitcher George Frazier to the Cardinals, who kept him in the minors another three seasons. In fact, St. Louis had two Dominican shortstops who later became starters, Santana and Uribe (then Jose Gonzalez), stacked up behind Ozzie Smith. "Playing in the minors for so long taught me patience," says Santana, who eventually signed with the Mets' Tidewater team as a minor league free agent in January '84.
You can see the patience in the way he plays shortstop, the way he makes every play close. The Mets finally turned to him in the middle of the '84 season, and he has been their starter ever since.
"I am proud of my country," Santana says as he walks through the Altos de Chavon development high above the Chavon river outside of La Romana. "Look at this magnificent place. Dominican hands, people from La Romana, built this. I am proud of my town, and when people make the mistake of saying I'm from San Pedro de Macoris, I get mad, even though the cities are close. I am a proud man, proud of myself, too, because nobody ever taught me how to play baseball, and I had to work hard and wait to get to where I am."
Uribe became forever known as "the player to be named later" when he changed his name from Jose Gonzalez two years ago because he thought there were already enough Jose Gonzalezes. Actually, in the Dominican he is known as Uvita ("the Black Grape"). He's on the small side, definitely black, and he's sweet, as in friendly. He lives in the Juan Baron section of Sabana Grande de Palenque, some 30 miles west of Santo Domingo. There he has his own pawnshop, and the Jose Uribe youth league and also has plans for a restaurant. On this day at Jose Uribe Field, as a mule sprints down the first base line, Uribe watches players practice on an infield strewn with rocks. "Whoever makes a stop here could stop anything in the world," he says.
The Yankees signed Uribe when he was 18 and released him at 20, and the Cardinals picked him up. He went to the Giants in the Jack Clark trade before the '85 season. In two seasons with San Francisco he has endeared himself to the fans and manager Roger Craig, who appreciate his work around the bag. Last year he hit .223, but with 22 stolen bases and 43 RBIs.
The other diminutive Dominican shortstop is the Pirates' Rafael Belliard, 5'6", 152 pounds. Unlike the others, Belliard grew up in the northern part of the island, near Santiago. He took a bus to Santo Domingo when he was 17 to try out for the Navy team, and he made it, although 90 pesos ($82) a month is hardly making it. When the Pirates found him in 1980, he was making 150 pesos a month. A very quiet and happy guy, Belliard bounced around the Pittsburgh system for five years until manager Jim Leyland fell in like with him last spring training. He beat out Sam Khalifa for the job, and batted .233. Though he will probably be the starting shortstop again, the Pirates do worry about the beating he takes on double plays.
The Braves, like the Blue Jays three years ago, have two quality shortstops in Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas, so they may do something about that before the season starts. Thomas has the edge, but a shoulder injury suffered late in the '86 season has the club concerned. Some people in the Braves organization believe that Thomas won last year's competition simply because he's hungrier than Ramirez. Once an All-Star, Ramirez comes from a relatively well-to-do family in San Pedro de Macoris, while Thomas had a much poorer background in the seaside town of Boca Chica. Until last year, when he lost his stroke (.240), Ramirez was one of the better-hitting shortstops. A lack of concentration is the main reason he has committed 160 errors in the last five years, so he is not immensely popular in Atlanta. But he reacts to the booing by saying, "If I go to a movie, and it's no good, I boo. I understand." The talent is there, though: He led or tied the NL in double plays four years in a row (1982-85).
Boca Chica, where Thomas grew up, is a resort between the Santo Domingo airport and San Pedro, with soft white sand and more vendors and merengue musicians than anyone could ever imagine. Boca Chica has a dark past, however, for it was from the town's nearby cliffs that dictator Rafael Trujillo reportedly had his enemies thrown to the sharks. But Thomas grew up in the years after Trujillo, playing basketball and then baseball. His father was a foreman in the local sugar mill's machine shop, and Thomas says that if he hadn't become a baseball player, he probably would have become a mechanical engineer. Like Ramirez, he was signed by Braves scout Pedro Gonzales, and like Ramirez, Thomas seldom walks—last year he had one unintentional walk for every 53.8 at bats. Dominican players have long held reputations as free swingers, but it wasn't until last year that an adequate reason was given, and that explanation was put forth by Ramirez. "You cannot walk off the island," he said.
Six of the shortstops have gathered by invitation in the town square of San Pedro de Macoris. When asked who they think is the best among them, almost to a man they say, "Cabeza." The only two dissenting votes come from Fernandez himself, who still bows to Griffin, and Griffin, who insists that Norman is a better fielder. Griffin and Norman, though, are very good friends, so that might have something to do with it.
Never before have there been so many of them together. Santana and Griffin, the elder statesmen, lead the banter. Uribe, the least sophisticated and the most excited, can't stop smiling. Franco gets in some jokes, but he remains just off to the side. Fernandez, who is with his wife and a friend, says very little, but all eyes seem drawn to him. Duncan arrives a little late, but nobody would ever get mad at him.
A table is waiting for them at El Piano, a restaurant on the square, and when they take their seats, who should find himself at the head of the table but Cabeza. During lunch, baseballs are passed around the table for each short-stop to autograph and save for himself. They're expert jugglers, tossing the balls back and forth and signing them. At one point, Duncan, sitting at one end, wings a ball the length of the table toward Fernandez. If someone had leaned over at that moment for the salt, there might have been a serious injury. Fernandez, his head down over the plate, his fork in his right hand, suddenly brings up his glove hand and catches the ball cleanly at his left ear. It's an almost magical play, and everyone's eyes widen.
Hanging around the fringes of the table are two of the more or less regular beggars in San Pedro, an older man and a boy everyone calls Cumplea‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o ("Birthday") because it seems every day is his birthday. Nobody shoos them away; in fact, the two pull up chairs and join in the conversation. When the lunch is over, Griffin says a few words to the old man and slips him some money. "He was a fine ballplayer once," says Griffin. Then the shortstops leave the restaurant and slide into their new cars, which are zealously guarded by young boys.
The next time you see Cabeza or any of the other Dominican shortstops go into the hole, and you hear the announcer say something like, "Boy, he had to go a long way for that one," just think how far he really did go.