I've lived in the United States for nearly 15 years. But baseball--America's national pastime--always baffled me. Overstuffing yourself with hot dogs, so many games (162 per season) that each seems meaningless individually, depressingly few hits--I just couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Amazingly, all it took to change my view from the stands was a visit to the Dominican Republic. More specifically, all it took was one spring afternoon in the city of Santo Domingo.
On one side of a 300-yard stretch of Calle Venezuela, people overflowed from a dozen little open-front mini-markets called colmados. On the other side, eight discotheques stared back. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they were already packed. Both the discos and the colmados relentlessly blasted merengue at each other.
My friend Jose and I began our afternoon in the colmados. In each store, several televisions blared out the broadcasts in duet with the merengue: A's vs. Mariners, Red Sox vs. Orioles, Braves vs. Mets, Cubs vs. Pirates... almost every U.S. major-league game was on one screen or another. Men and women, young and old, sat drinking their sodas and Presidente beer, chatting among themselves when the action paused, or dancing a quick turn between innings.
Suddenly, local hero Sammy Sosa was up to bat, and everyone turned to watch. Swing and a miss! Strike one, and the crowd let out a low murmur. Pitch two: Crack! Before the sound even reached my ears, the colmados were rocking under a tremor of jubilant baseball fanatics.
My surprise at their proud passion really shows how little I had cared for baseball. Apparently, Dominicans are the best baseball players in the world. Ever since a group of Cuban refugees brought the game over in the 1870s, baseball has been part of the Dominican way of life. Leagues were formed in the early 1900s, and today more than 20 U.S. major-league teams have Dominican training camps for prospective players.
The list of Dominican superstars in the United States is endless: Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Bartolo Colon, Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Manny Ramirez... "They're all dominicanos," boasted Jose. And there they all were, up on the TV screens in this little shop on the island of Hispaniola in the middle of the Caribbean. No sooner had Sosa's plate appearance ended with a deep fly ball to left field than the crowd swiveled to watch Alex Rodriguez. Next it was Tejada. When Jose and I had finally had enough of beer and baseball, we crossed the street to the discos for a bit of dancing. "We can always come back for the last innings," he said. Hey, when in Rome... after all, most everyone else was doing the same. Unlike the cars, jam-packed and stationary up and down the street, the human traffic was flowing freely back and forth across it. "This is how we spend a day of baseball," said Jose with a smile. "We drink and watch baseball over there, then we dance and live over here," he explained. "Then, more baseball."
So, we danced for about two hours, the hypnotizing, energetic merengue driving the blood through our bodies and the disco's big-screen TV keeping us in touch with Sosa and Co. When we could dance no more, we crossed the street again. In the colmados, beer was still being imbibed, merengue was still roaring and yes, all eyes were still glued to baseball. On that Sunday, I learned why people love baseball. My American friends had always tried to explain that a combination of factors made the game so special. On Calle Venezuela, I found passion, pride, Presidente, a pounding pulse and the common denominator--baseball. Now that's a great combo. Thank you, Dominican Republic; now I get it.