The American, Sean Pierce, grew up middle-class in Southern
California and is close to graduating from college. He's a bona
fide surfer dude who spent his childhood riding the waves at
Newport Beach. He wants to make his parents proud, and he wants a
house by the ocean. He owns a silver Mustang, but at the moment
what he drives means nothing. He is too busy to think about much
besides baseball. Even girls don't matter--not a lot. He's trying
to make the big leagues.
This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2001 issue
The Dominican, Andres Astacio, grew up on the edge of Third World
poverty and never made it past the eighth grade. His Latin
teammates call him Flaco, the Spanish word for skinny. He came to
the U.S. on a work visa, determined to provide a better life for
his large, financially strapped family back home. His father
works in a sugar mill. His mother is an unemployed seamstress. He
has five younger sisters. He also has an 18-year-old girlfriend,
the mother of his infant son. Every day that he plays well is a
day closer to changing the lives of everyone he loves.
Pierce and Astacio have never been formally introduced, but
they're teammates this summer, playing for the Dodgers of Great
Falls, Mont., a rookie league team in the Los Angeles Dodgers'
farm system. Although the two men look different, come from
different parts of the world and speak different languages, their
dreams and the game of baseball have conspired to make them
brothers. "Do you know who Sean Pierce is?" someone asks Astacio,
a 6'2", 154-pound righthanded pitcher from a coastal town in the
Dominican Republic's province of La Romana.
"Sean Pierce?" says Astacio, looking around as if for a clue. It
takes a while for the name to register. "Ah, si. Sean Pierce."
"Who is Andres Astacio?" the same person asks Pierce, a
centerfielder who a few months ago was a senior at San Diego
"Andres Astacio?" replies Pierce, having to dig for a moment.
"Oh, yeah. He's the pitcher...the tall, skinny one, right?"
Pull out a map, and have a look at Great Falls. On summer nights,
daylight holds the sky past 10:30 p.m. and comes creeping out
again at 5 a.m. Due west are the Rocky Mountains, and to the east
wide open plains run clear to North Dakota. The Missouri River
meanders through town and climbs past parched bluffs and
railyards to the spot where some 60 years ago city fathers built
a baseball field. That's Legion Park, home of the Dodgers. Up
there a hot, dry wind blows incessantly, carrying a sour smell
from a nearby pasta factory and wrecking many a hairdo. In April
1999 the wind knocked over one of the billboards above the
outfield fence. Imagine what it does to a pop-up.
"In games you'll see me waving my glove a lot," Pierce says.
"That's because I'm swatting at mosquitoes. Every single mosquito
in Great Falls lives in centerfield."
On this night in early July the park is hosting a game between
the Dodgers and the Provo (Utah) Angels, both of the Pioneer
League. Pierce, 22, is starting in centerfield, a job he's owned
since the organization made him its ninth-round pick in last
spring's amateur draft and gave him a $61,000 signing bonus.
Pierce is the second fastest man on the team (he will end the
season with 29 stolen bases in 72 games, second best on the
Dodgers), and girls scream whenever he taps the orange dirt from
his spikes, squeezes his batting helmet down on his head and
steps up to the plate.
"Tell you the truth, I never bothered to learn the names of the
players ahead of me in the organization," says Pierce. "They have
to do something for me to move up--someone has to be injured or
traded or something. I do know that the starter in Los Angeles is
Marquis Grissom. And who's that other guy? Goodwin? I don't
follow their stats. I don't even follow mine. Every day all I try
to do is get two hits. Two hits and I know I'm raising my
Astacio, 21, isn't starting the game tonight, but he is scheduled
to pitch later, perhaps as early as the fifth inning. Like other
rookie teams, whose aim is to assess and develop talent, the
Dodgers employ a piggyback rotation and limit each appearance by
a pitcher to 75 throws. When Astacio was discovered by a buscon,
or Latin American scout, and signed by Los Angeles two years ago,
he received barely one tenth of what Pierce got, but you won't
hear him complain about the disparity.
"The scout gave me some money and said, 'Go buy yourself some
clothes, some T-shirts. Go eat whatever you want, because we are
going to sign you,'" Astacio says through an interpreter. "My
family was there, and they all hugged me. I was ecstatic, mainly
because my father, who makes about $50 a week, had been shelling
out money while I tried to get with an American team. This is my
chance to take my family out of the cesspool. It is on my
Astacio and Pierce are typical of the young men who populate the
game's minor leagues. If Astacio doesn't succeed in baseball, he
will be sent back to the Dominican Republic and the barrio he
came from. He'll have to find work, probably of the menial,
backbreaking sort his father has known. If Pierce doesn't make
it, he'll return to San Diego State and the life of privilege
that belongs to every big man on campus.
"Out of 30 players on our roster we might have two who make it to
the big leagues," says Jim Keough, the club's general manager.
"Some years we might have only one, and then others we might have
three or four, but the average is lower than 10 percent. On the
major league roster you have 31, 32 players, but in the whole
L.A. organization we have 179 active players. If you're a high
draft choice and the club has a lot of money invested in you,
you'll have three or four years to prove yourself. If the club
doesn't have a lot invested in you and you don't look good,
At least Pierce and Astacio aren't at the bottom rung of Los
Angeles's tall ladder. Players in need of instruction begin in
Vero Beach, Fla., as members of the Gulf Coast Dodgers. However,
the organization also has a Class A team, the Vero Beach Dodgers,
in the same town. When a Great Falls player learns that he's
being assigned to "Vero," the team's skipper must be careful to
specify whether it's the rookie club or the A team, because one
move is a step closer to oblivion while the other is a step up
the ladder. As a player climbs each rung, the competition is
keener and more cutthroat. Pierce's closest friend in Great Falls
might turn out to be his worst enemy, for players at each
position are competing for a finite number of roster slots. Today
Astacio's best buddy might be the kid from his home country with
whom he spends 14 hours a day throwing in the bullpen, running,
training with weights and taking the mandatory English classes
for Latin players, but tomorrow that same kid might get called up
and Astacio sent home.
"Minor league baseball is a lot like the TV show Survivor," says
Keough. "You want to root for the guy next to you, but deep down
you're thinking, Gosh, I hope he strikes out four times today."
Pierce started his pro career in Great Falls, five steps down
from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Astacio has faced an even longer
journey, beginning in the Dominican Republic in 1999 at Campo Las
Palmas, the Dodgers' baseball academy for the talented sons of
Latin America who dream of immigrating to the U.S. and repeating
the heroics of former and current stars such as George Bell, Juan
Guzman, Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi and Sammy Sosa.
In 1990, long before he would win the first of his three Cy Young
Awards, with the Montreal Expos, Martinez played in Great Falls.
His roommate at the time was Mondesi, the outfielder who would
become an All-Star with the Dodgers. That Astacio bears a
striking resemblance to Martinez is a source of pride to him, but
he is even prouder when his ability is compared with that of the
veteran pitcher, now with the Boston Red Sox. "Pedro is my idol,"
Astacio says. "He was also skinny and poor. I want to do what he
"In Astacio I see a potential ace," says Dave Silvestri, the
Great Falls manager. "I really like this kid. He's got Pedro's
body. I played with Pedro in Montreal, and Andres reminds me of
him. Just the way they act, how they are in the clubhouse. Andres
has that superstar mentality, that demeanor."
What he doesn't have is much more in his pitching arsenal than a
fastball and a changeup. Moreover, unless he puts on weight, he
can't expect to advance very far. "If Andres stays at 154 pounds,
he's not going to make it," says Butch Hughes, the team's
pitching coach. "You can go to any major league clubhouse, and
you won't find a 154-pound pitcher. They just don't exist. In one
of my reports I wrote that Andres is special, but I also wrote
that we need to make sure his diet is good because he's got to
get stronger. I've asked him how big his mother and his father
are. If they're big, thick people, then maybe his size will come.
That's what we're hoping for."
The first time Silvestri met Sean Pierce, not long before the
season began on June 16, the kid impressed him by saying, "I
don't know much about the game. Any information that you could
give me would be welcome." Pierce was a two-year starter in
football at San Diego State. He played wide receiver and returned
kicks, and people told him he resembled Wayne Chrebet of the New
York Jets because, as a possession receiver, he hauled in every
pass thrown his way and because his heart helped him overcome his
lack of size. Pierce is 5'9" and weighs 190 pounds, but already
Silvestri likes him so much that he's given him an extra two
inches. "Five-eleven," says the manager. "He's not that small."
Pierce landed his deal with the Dodgers after starting only half
a season on his college baseball team. His speed and toughness
impressed the scouts, who also liked the fact that he hadn't
played the game long enough to develop bad habits. Pierce never
sulks when Silvestri lectures him on how to correct stupid
mistakes. "The other night he pulled up at home plate when he
should have run through and knocked the catcher into the nickel
seats," says Silvestri. "I said, 'Sean, it's clean to hit him;
that's good, clean baseball. Hey,' I said, 'you're a football
player. I want to see some contact.'"
Because of the language barrier, Silvestri has had much less to
say to Astacio, although his displays of enthusiasm communicate
how he feels about the pitcher. Of the 30 players on the club's
roster this year, 13 are Latinos--from Mexico, Venezuela and the
Dominican Republic. Silvestri's assistants (pitching coach
Hughes, hitting coach Brian Traxler and strength coach Brent
Trosclair) speak "baseball Spanglish" only, and the team doesn't
employ an interpreter. One day in July, Silvestri tried to
express to Astacio, whose fastball is consistently clocked at 92
mph, how pleased he was with the kid's progress. "I think you
have a good chance to be a big league pitcher," Silvestri said.
Astacio's eyes betrayed only the vaguest comprehension. "My job
is to get the most out of these guys and to make them believe in
themselves," the manager says, "but he might not understand a
damned word I'm telling him."
Tonight a Mexican pitcher named Edgar Lizarraga starts the game
for the Dodgers. After only four innings he's given up five runs
on eight hits. Had things gone better, Hughes might have put in
Astacio at this point, but instead he pads the next two innings
with relievers in need of work. The Dodgers' only run has come
from Pierce, in the bottom of the first. After drawing a leadoff
walk, Pierce scored when rightfielder Jose Garcia doubled.
Whenever the game's focus shifts to Pierce, the loudest cheers
come from Staci Ferradas, wife of Mike Ferradas, a former Great
Falls Dodger from Miami. Today Mike runs the U-Bet Casino in
town, and he helps coach an American Legion team, the Stallions.
He decided to make Great Falls his home after he fell for Staci
and his days as a minor league catcher came to an end in 1988.
They have two children: son Taylor, 12, and daughter Nikki,
eight. For the three months Pierce will play for the Dodgers,
Mike and Staci have volunteered to be his host family and provide
him a place to live. Like every first-year player on the team,
Pierce makes $850 a month in salary. He gives Mike and Staci $150
a month for the unfinished bedroom in their basement apartment.
"I feel like Sean's my little boy," says Staci. "I don't know any
of the other players, but I come to yell for him. He's part of
our family now. We spoil him as best we can. Every morning my two
kids say, 'Mom, can we go wake up Sean? Can we go talk to Sean?'
He's real shy. We haven't had any wild women over yet. But from
what I can tell, all the girls in town are hot for him. I've
never seen anyone run faster to first base than he does. He says
it's because he's trying to get out his aggression, but I just
think he's fast."
After home games Pierce and Mike Ferradas stay up late talking
baseball. The house stands on a hill, the site of a former Indian
reservation, and from the back deck you can see the Highwood
Mountains in the distance and the jumble of rooftops that make up
Great Falls, a city of 65,000. Pierce rarely goes out. He eats
many of his meals at his locker in Legion Park's rinky-dink
clubhouse, and when that's not enough, he snacks on
chocolate-chip energy bars. "I'm going to play this game as long
as I can and as long as it lets me--and then, no regrets," he
says. "I like to dream about how it's going to be in the big
leagues, but I don't see myself as a superstar. I'm going to be
the guy who does whatever he can to help his team win."
Pierce's dad, Kevin, told him that when he named Sean and his
older brother, Brett (a former minor leaguer in the Atlanta
Braves' system), he wanted names that sounded good issuing from
loudspeakers in a ballpark. Sean, though, is indifferent to the
notion of being famous. Each day that he steps out on the field,
he says, he knows how lucky he is just to be playing the game. He
likes to remember a boy he knew, a kid named Robert Spratt, who
lived in the same apartment complex as Sean and his family in
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Robert was 10, six years older than Sean, but he always took time
to teach Sean things about baseball: how to throw, how to catch,
how to swing a bat, how to run the bases. Robert was the only
black kid in their neighborhood, and Sean thought being black
meant having black hair. He used to pray to God that his hair
would turn from blond to black so he could be black like Robert.
Then one day Robert told Sean that he was going to visit
relatives in a place called Boley, Okla. Not long after, Robert's
mother was standing at the Pierces' door with tears rolling down
her face. Robert had died when his cousin accidentally shot him
in the back with a rifle. His mother was carrying all of Robert's
uniforms and baseball gloves, holding them out for Sean's mom to
take. "He would want your boys to have these," Sharon Kaye Spratt
told Kathleen Pierce.
"My brother and I wore those uniforms for a while," Pierce says.
"If I make it to the big leagues, I will always have time for
little kids. Because I will always remember Robert--how he was
One day in his college dorm Pierce logged on to the Internet,
entered the name Spratt into a search engine and, after making
several calls, located Robert's father in Vacaville, Calif., near
San Francisco. "The phone rings, and it's a young man telling me
he's Sean Pierce, my son Robert's friend, and he's wondering if I
remember him," says Robert Spratt Sr., a buyer for a technology
company. "I tell him sure I remember him, he was the little kid
Robert used to play Wiffle ball with. He says he just wants me to
know he and his brother Brett are still playing sports and that
he thinks about Robert. He was playing football at San Diego
State. I saw him once on TV. And now he's in pro baseball, is he?
Playing in the minor leagues? What would Robert think of that!"
Tonight at Legion Park, Andres Astacio isn't without a rooting
section of his own. His host family is actually one person, Mary
Lynn Wojtowick, a widow who earns a modest income playing the
organ and serving as a pastoral associate for St. Luke the
Evangelist Catholic Church in Great Falls. As part of her
personal ministry, Mary Lynn takes in Latin American players with
big league dreams. While Pierce is the lone Dodger living with
Mike and Staci Ferradas, Astacio is one of five players living
with Mary Lynn in her Coyote Lane town house. Astacio sleeps on a
sofa bed in one of the two bedrooms on the second floor. Hanging
over the curtain covering the window next to his bed is a little
kid's Dodgers baseball uniform. It's for his 10-month-old son,
Andelson, and it's a gift from Mary Lynn, who also bought a
stereo system for Astacio's father, Leonardo.
"Sometimes I feel bad because she buys us so much," says Jose
Diaz, a Dominican catcher who also lives in Mary Lynn's house.
"If I mention that I want something, she'll go out and buy it for
me. We don't want her to spend all her money on us. When I go to
sleep at night, I think, How can I ever repay her?"
The first time Astacio saw the place where he would be staying
over the summer, he was riding with Mary Lynn as she drove her
Buick LeSabre into the two-car garage. His eyes opened wide.
Astacio's father makes about $2,600 a year, decent wages in a
Caribbean republic of eight million where the annual per capita
income is about $1,300. The Astacios, all eight of them, occupy
a four-room house. When Andres was growing up, his parents
couldn't afford to buy him baseball equipment. He learned to
pitch by throwing hard, green fruit picked from the trees. His
glove was fashioned from a cardboard box, his bat from a branch.
At Mary Lynn's, as Astacio stepped out of the car onto the
cement floor, the smile on his face suggested unspeakable joy.
"It is beautiful," he said.
"But, Andres, this is the garage," replied Mary Lynn, who speaks
just a little Spanish.
"It is the most beautiful home I have ever seen," he said.
Mary Lynn doesn't accept rent because she can't square taking
money from young men who come from such impoverished
backgrounds. She also buys the players' food and, on occasion,
clothing, so her houseguests are free to send their paychecks
home. The Latin players often struggle with the U.S. diet,
becoming sick as they try to adjust to such staples as pizza and
hamburgers. On road trips they bring Crock-Pots to prepare
chicken and rice in their hotel rooms. In Mary Lynn's kitchen,
pots containing Latin American dishes are forever bubbling on
the stove. Her refrigerator is stocked with canned soft drinks
made from exotic fruits. From a local market she gets special
orders of plantains, yuca and avocados.
"I miss the food from home, mostly the fish," says Astacio. "I
didn't get sick and throw up when I first ate American cooking,
but I didn't like it at all. I didn't like the taste, so I would
have to put a lot of salt on it. The meat was too undercooked,
and it was too thick. The chicken here was rubbery. I would have
to go to a Chinese restaurant and get the fried rice. It was one
of the few things I could eat."
When one of the Latin players celebrates a birthday, as the
Venezuelan second baseman Ricardo Cordova did in July, Mary Lynn
throws him a party. Most of the Latin players don't like American
cakes; nevertheless, when Cordova turned 20, Mary Lynn had a
baker prepare a large sheet cake made with coconut. She hoped
Cordova would appreciate a dessert featuring an ingredient common
to his homeland. She held a party at a video arcade owned by her
son-in-law and gave each player a plastic cup filled with
quarters to pump into the machines. Astacio spent most of the
night seated before a game called Cruis'n Exotica, which
simulates an auto race.
No American players were at the party; the two groups rarely mix
socially. On bus trips to away games in outposts like Provo (11
hours away), Idaho Falls (six hours) and Medicine Hat, Alberta
(five hours), the Americans sit with their own, and so do the
Latinos. The primary reason for this is the difficulty one group
has communicating with the other. Even during drills in practice,
the Americans generally go first and the Latinos follow. Without
an interpreter to tell the foreign players what the coaches want,
the Latinos inevitably imitate their American teammates. At
meetings Astacio has sat and listened to his coach for half an
hour without understanding a word.
"The American players have made a lot more money than I have, and
I need to move up and go on top of them," Astacio says. "We have
a huge competition, and the best man goes forward. I refuse to be
bitter or to envy the Americans who sign richer contracts,
because they are my teammates. When we're on the field, we're a
team. But in the clubhouse sometimes I become angry because I
feel like they think they are superior because they're from the
States and I'm from the D.R., and because they signed for big
money and I did not."
Several of the foreign players express resentment at the way some
of their American teammates treat them. On a recent road trip an
American player said to a Dominican, "You're in my seat," then
told him to move to a different part of the bus. Another
Dominican found his travel bag removed from the bus's luggage
compartment and tossed outside because an American wanted the
space for his bag. Taken individually, the incidents might seem
minor, but the mistreatment takes a toll, say the Latinos.
Last summer a promising Great Falls pitcher from the Dominican
Republic, Ramon Martinez, was arrested after he allegedly held a
kitchen knife to the neck of the adult daughter of one of the
club's host families. The woman was not injured, but prosecutors
brought a felony assault charge against him.
Six weeks after the incident a bomb exploded in Mary Lynn's
mailbox at around 3 a.m., sending fragments as far as 80 yards
from the house. "It was like toothpicks all over the street,"
says Mary Lynn. The perpetrator left no note and didn't call.
Perhaps the explosion was a teenage prank, but Mary Lynn believes
that the act was connected to anti-Latino sentiment in that part
of Great Falls. "You don't want to think that way," she says,
"but the Latin players were very visible in our neighborhood."
After spending nearly eight months in jail, Martinez was
acquitted at trial. Then, because his work visa had expired, he
was deported. His ordeal remains a topic of discussion among the
Latin players on this year's Dodgers team. Like them, he had come
to the U.S. with plans to excel at baseball and to make money for
his family back home. Instead he faced a nightmare. His dream was
destroyed. "I say to my teammates, 'Remember Ramon,'" says Diaz,
the catcher, now in his second summer in Great Falls and the
established leader among the Latin players. "'Be careful with the
girls. We don't want it to happen again.'"
"When we go out in this country, we must think of our families
first," says Diaz. "We try to be careful and make sure nothing
happens. The thing that helps calm us when we're feeling stressed
is thoughts of home. We protect each other."
As for Astacio, "I've behaved like a man in Great Falls," he
says. He has given his father every reason to be proud of him,
working hard and staying out of trouble. When he makes it to the
big leagues, he says, he will build a house for his mother,
Anatasia, and one for Diomeris Rosario, his girlfriend, and their
son. His sisters will never again have to worry. He will spread
his good fortune among the needy of his country and make gifts of
baseballs, bats and gloves to children in the streets. He will be
more than a hero on the field; he will be an example of how far
dreams and hard work can take a son of Latin America. Astacio
calls home three days a week, always at the same time, the rare
exception being those days when he plays well and feels compelled
to share the news right away.
It is the top of the seventh before he's summoned to pitch
against the Angels. The score is 8-1, and Provo has piled up 12
hits while Great Falls has two. By now most of the 1,900
spectators have gone home. As Astacio trots to the mound, his
movements resemble those of an exotic marshland bird whose legs
are too long for the rest of its body. As he warms up, it is
clear that he does not have his best stuff. He throws hard but
without his usual control. He hits the second batter he faces
with a pitch that gets away from him. Somehow he recovers and
escapes the inning without giving up a run. However, in the
eighth things deteriorate further: Astacio gives up a run-scoring
triple. In the ninth he hits another batter, and the batter
glares at him as he walks to first base.
The Dodgers lose 9-1. In the dugout someone approaches Astacio
and softly speaks to him in English. It is the American
outfielder, Pierce. "Thank you for protecting me," Pierce says
in his polite, humble way. "It shows character, what you did."
Astacio doesn't understand a word he's hearing, but he listens
and tries to interpret Pierce's meaning from his tone and body
language. Late in the game, Pierce is saying, he was
intentionally hit by a pitch. "Then you hit their guy to protect
me," he says to Astacio. "Clean baseball. Good, clean baseball."
In fact Astacio hit the man in retaliation for another incident:
One of the Angels had banged Astacio's arm when he was covering
the bag on a grounder to first base in the seventh inning. Pierce
looks into the eyes of the Dominican and smiles. Astacio nods
because he thinks he should.
Such misunderstandings are no more common in Great Falls than in
any other rookie league town where young men from different
worlds come together to play baseball. In the end Pierce and
Astacio file into the clubhouse and remove their Dodgers
uniforms, one day closer to whoever it is they are destined to be.
By season's end, two months from that night, Astacio's 2-6
record and 5.01 ERA will reflect how far he has to go to meet
his skipper's expectations and become an ace, even as a
low-ranking minor leaguer. Rather than win a promotion in the
Dodgers' farm system, he will be sent to Vero Beach for six
weeks in the instructional league. The assignment means the club
still believes he can develop into a big leaguer, but his poor
performance late in the year didn't help his chances. "When
Andres pitched, the opposing team hit for a .282 batting
average," says Keough. "That's pretty high for rookie ball.
Andres has a lot of talent, but he still has a long way to go."
As for Pierce, the odds of his making it greatly improved. He
ended up batting .311, leading the team in on-base percentage
(.414) and triples (seven), while stealing 29 bases and driving
in 43 runs, both second best on the team. Fans of the 37-39
Dodgers, who failed to advance to postseason play, would vote
him the team's MVP, and on the morning of the Dodgers' last home
game Pierce would find Mike Ferradas standing at his bedroom
door. "They're moving you up," Ferradas told him. "You're going
Pierce had been asleep, and for a moment he thought he was
dreaming. Did Mike just say he was being sent to North Carolina,
to the Dodgers' Class A team, the Wilmington Waves?
In fact, Pierce was one of only four players on the team who
were moving up. Even as he slept, the Dodgers had been making
arrangements for Pierce to fly to North Carolina later that day.
"Maybe when I wake up and have time to think about it, I'll get
happy and feel proud of myself," Pierce says. "Right now I just
want to play some more baseball."
"Anything that you can teach me would be welcome."
home," says Diaz. "We must think of our families first."
don't look good," say Keough, "you're done."
"but they may not understand a word I'm saying."
for the next guy, but deep down you don't."
doesn't, he'll likely return to a life of menial labor.