SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic – The second half of the drive to Batey Margarita, maybe seven miles of it, is over a rutted dirt road that carves through impossibly vast and dense fields of sugarcane.
We follow a white pickup truck, near enough to steer left when it steers left, jerk right when it jerks right, and disappear with it into gullies when there is nowhere to steer or jerk to.
Carlos Pimentel, my host, guide and translator, nods to the truck ahead as it bucks around a bend and brushes through a tangle of sugarcane leaves.
"These roads," he says, "they're passable when they're dry. But when it rains …"
I still can't believe a village is somewhere up ahead, over one of these knolls, at the end of one of these long curls that seem to be taking us not toward people and structures and something like civilization, but far away from them.
I'd been put on this road to somewhere by my own curiosity. For the many Dominican-born major-league ballplayers I'd met over two decades of sportswriting, for their stories of aching hardship, for their paths from dirt floors to clubhouse doors, I wanted to see. I'd been put here by Dave and Victoria Valle, a former major leaguer and his wife who'd thrown themselves at a problem that didn't have to be theirs, and by former Mets general manager and Dominican native Omar Minaya, who understood what I was looking for, and finally by Carlos, who took the wheel and narrated my journey to understand.
The heart of the Dominican ballplayer was out there somewhere, I knew. A hopelessly lost gringo, I just didn't know how to find it.
The first show of life is a gray dog, skinny as a young sugarcane stalk, its head low, frantically sniffing the roadside for crumbs. Ahead, forcing a clearing in the fields, two long, narrow, one-story buildings appear, one on each side of the road. There are people in the yards, women holding babies, men gathered in threes or fours. Silently, they watch the two cars pass. Children stop chasing each other and join them.
I'd come all this way and now I'm not sure I want to look, that I'd embarrass them by looking, that I'd embarrass myself. When Dominicans cite the millions of countrymen living on less than $2 a day, this is them. It's the young man out in front of his family's one-room home; he's sitting on a plastic chair, his head in his hands. It's the lady on the cement slab outside her front door; she's rocking her child while gazing across the top of the rustling sugarcane.
It's the darkness in their eyes and the heaviness in their shoulders, worn like suits of lead.
Carlos comes to the bateys often. It is his job – his mission, actually – to help these people. He returns each evening to his home in Santo Domingo. I ask him if he does so encouraged by the progress or frustrated by the pace of it.
"You know," he says, "I go back thankful. Because I try, I try to understand the problems and the limitations and how big the problem is. On the other hand, it is not in my hands to solve every individual problem. I am not God, and I cannot. If we're moving forward, I continue to be reassured."
Still behind the white pickup truck, he veers right, past a crumbling community center that has no roof but does have a small pig tied to a stake near the door. A 20-foot post in the road's fork holds Margarita's hopes for electricity, jerry-rigged connections sprouting wires in every direction. The government recently installed above-ground water tanks.
"That drinking water?" I ask Carlos.
"Oh, no," he says, as though I'd asked if those reservoirs held liquid gold.
He's brought me to see a part of the Dominican Republic I wouldn't experience in Santo Domingo, or in a tourist's itinerary, or perhaps even find on a map.
But, as he pulls onto a small grassy strip and kills the engine, I discover what I came to see.
To our right, carved into the thickets of sugarcane, is a baseball field. A horse, accompanied by two goats, grazes in short right field. Home plate appears to be a truck's mud flap. But, the field is eminently playable. The grass is trimmed and the basepaths are well marked. There is a pitching mound.
A chain-link backstop is mounted atop a short cinder-block wall, on which, painted in blue and red, is "E' Pa' Lante Que Vamos."
I look at Carlos, who grins as though it is a familiar phrase here.
"Basically, it says, 'Moving forward is where we're going.'"
The message is of empowerment.
From the mound, I look across the rows of homes, and a small school that appears somewhat new, and at townspeople who gaze back at the stranger standing alone in the middle of their baseball field, clearly wondering what this could be about.
There is a church with a single aisle, men on one side, women on the other. Town legend has it that Sammy Sosa, from nearby Consuelo, helped fund parts of it. Another ballplayer – no one could remember his name, "A big guy," the pastor says, "very tall." – bought the church a generator.
The message is of dreams.
Two days earlier, I'd sat on the third-base side of a ball field in Boca Chica, where the New York Mets have their academy for young Dominican players.
There, a team of 15- and 16-year-old Dominican players hosted a team of Venezuelans, all of whom would be eligible to sign professional contracts this summer. Sponsored by Major League Baseball, the showcase was not only a significant event for the boys, but began to soften decades-old distrust between the lords of American baseball and the peddlers of Dominican talent. Scouts and front-office personnel from 30 major-league teams endured the beating sun, passing rainstorms and hard winds for a look. Buscones, or local trainers of the young men, mingled with scouts and parents.
The kids, they played ball. And the games were good. The Dominicans wielded a size and strength advantage over the Venezuelans, who countered with greater speed and instincts. The theater of it was enthralling.
From my seat, I eyed Jairo Beras in the on-deck circle only a few feet away. An outfielder, the best prospect of the showcase and a native of San Pedro de Macoris, Beras wore new spikes, two supple batting gloves, a shiny red helmet and a red jersey so fresh it carried the folds from its box.
The field on which he played was raked before and during the game. The infield and outfield grass was thick and even. His at-bats were broadcast over the little ballpark's speakers. There were bats to choose from in a rack in a covered dugout.
These were, of course, Dominican ballplayers. The best of the best for their age. But, I knew, this was not the typical experience of the young Dominican ballplayer.
"How're you liking it?" asked Minaya, the former New York Mets GM and current senior vice president of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres.
Born in Valverde Mao, Dominican Republic, in 1958, Minaya has deep ties to the country and its people.
I told him it was wonderful. I said I'd seen a game the night before at Estadio Quisqueya, where the Caribbean Series was being played, and that I'd never witnessed such enthusiasm for the game. And I told him I was still looking for the soul of the game here.
"You know," Minaya said, "there's always been a passion for the game here, for the competition and recreation of it. But, you really get down to it, the game fits the lifestyle. There's a slowness to the game. The lifestyle here is not back and forth, like in basketball or soccer or football. It's in spurts. And baseball works in spurts. It's the Caribbean lifestyle."
So, I asked, where would I find that? He took my pad and pen.
"Here's a number," he said. "Call it. The guy's name is Carlos. He'll show you what you want to see. You can decide how baseball fits."
Carlos, he said, was president of an organization called Esperanza International. I'd never heard of it.
Dave Valle, born and raised in Bayside, New York, was seven years into pro ball, parts of two in the big leagues, when he played in the Dominican winter league for the first time. A catcher, he'd spent previous offseasons in Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, amassing at-bats, laying the groundwork for what would become a 13-year major-league career with Seattle, Boston, Milwaukee and Texas.
So, he was playing in the winter of 1985 and busing to games through barrios when he began to see through a different prism. His wife, Victoria, had four months earlier given birth to their first child, a boy named Philip.
With a son, a family, there came a new responsibility.
"I began to look differently at the world," he said.
The children came to Dave and Victoria and the other players and their wives after a night game. They were 5 years old, 6, maybe 7. And they hadn't come for autographs, like children in the U.S. might have. As the lights flickered off in the ballpark, and the bus idled, and the streets turned more dangerous, the boys and girls had come looking for food.
Nearby, a woman had set up a small grill in the parking lot. She cooked pieces of chicken and warmed rice and beans. She'd sell a plate to the fans and players on their way home.
Victoria, of Cuban descent and conversant in Spanish, offered the woman a handful of cash and asked her to prepare her entire inventory. With Philip in his arms, Dave passed food to the children.
As they drove away from the parking lot, Victoria turned to Dave and said, "That felt good, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it did," he said.
"You know," Victoria said, "when they wake up tomorrow, they'll be hungry again. We didn't solve anything."
Five years later as Dave's career neared its mid-point, the Valles believed it was time to return to the Dominican Republic, to re-engage with the people and their lives, to help the next generation of hungry children. Eventually they founded Esperanza, a non-profit organization that granted small loans to women who needed more inventory for their new and used clothing shops, to men who needed a new pushcart from which to sell bottled water, to hopeful, hard-working and desperate Dominicans who had children to feed and educate and vaccinate.
Minaya became an advisor for Esperanza. Pimentel became a director, and then its president. As Esperanza's system of making small business loans to individuals grew, and the charitable donations from private individuals and corporations grew with it, so did its reach. With partners, it helped build or renovate schools, clinics and baseball fields in the poorest barrios. It began to provide for its members a form of health insurance, along with access to dentists, clean water and computers.
In a nation where the poverty and illiteracy rates are systematically third world, Pimentel said, "We are trying to contribute to the creation of a middle class."
In 17 years, Esperanza has made more than 132,000 loans of more than $30 million, an average of about $225 per loan. The repayment rate is nearly 98 percent, Carlos said.
"I'm not the smartest guy in the room," Dave Valle said, "but this makes sense."
"Esperanza," in English, is "hope."
At 24, a woman named Milan fled her home in La Victoria, west of Santo Domingo. There had been a man, she said. He wanted to marry her. She refused.
"I left my town," Milan said, "to prevent bloodshed."
She found a small house in San Pedro de Macoris, in the barrio Restauración. She paid her rent and bought food by embroidering blankets, clothing and furniture. Alone, Milan watched as gangs of boys circled the neighborhood preying on the weak, wasting their youths on crime and drugs. She watched girls fall into lives of prostitution.
In 1999, she invited 12 neighborhood children into her home. She would feed them breakfast, teach them to read and write, for the cost of their weapons.
They traded their knives for pencils.
"When God is in the business and in our lives, there is a spirit of conviction to motivate other people," Milan said. "I asked them to 'Come with me. I want to talk to you about the life of Jesus.' … I was giving them anything I had. And they exchanged the tools they used for fighting for books, pencils and food."
She called the school Your Christian Home.
To cover the cost of the school, she'd need more supplies for her embroidery business, which she'd expanded to include basic tailoring. From Esperanza, Milan borrowed $200. Every 15 days, she paid back a few dollars.
The business of educating the children of the streets of San Pedro de Macoris grew. Milan moved to a larger home. Her student body of 12, which had met on the floor of her living room, became a school of more than 200, half attending in the mornings and half in the afternoons. She bought used desks and chairs, and jammed them into every open space of her house.
"It was amazing," Pimentel said. "You couldn't believe it. Kids were everyplace."
Minaya visited the school and bought two blankets.
"The world needs more Milans," he said.
In Milan's original class of 12, most still live in San Pedro de Macoris. Some went to college. One became an engineer. None, she said, are back on the streets.
Meantime, Milan returned to classes, starting over in the 8th grade at an adult night school. Her teacher was a kind man named Alberto, who'd grown up playing baseball with George Bell, Pedro Guerrero and their brothers in the sugarcane fields, or the bateys. Alberto was a right-handed pitcher. Milan finished high school in 2006, and then she married Alberto.
Today, she is director of Centro Pedagógico Infantil, a real school in a real building with real classrooms constructed by Esperanza and its partners, and run by an organization called Edify. It opened in 2008.
On a warm Monday morning, children arrived wearing backpacks of The Little Mermaid and Winnie the Pooh. They wore yellow or white polo shirts. The girls wore their hair in braids and bows. In a courtyard, they chased bubbles blown from plastic bottles.
On her way to class, a little girl took my hand.
"Hola," I said.
Milan sat behind her desk. A young man served coffee, heavy on the sugar. Alberto sat nearby, behind a second desk in the small office. He is director of academics. He is a New York Yankee fan, and plays softball now instead of baseball, with, he said with a smile, "The rest of the old people." Robinson Cano's father, Jose, is among his teammates. She is, she said, "For the team Omar is with."
More than 300 children pass the office door each morning and afternoon, their families paying $14 a month. There are plans to expand the computer lab and to make it public, charging a small fee for the access, and helping to make the school self-sufficient.
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"The beautiful thing is," Carlos said, "it was not Esperanza's vision. It was her vision."
The building, its students, and its impact on the community rose from a $200 loan going on 15 years ago.
"It's a miracle from God," Milan said. "Many of the students here would not be attending any school. There are public schools in the area, but they are overpopulated."
I asked if she ever tires of life in the barrio, where every inch of progress comes with such a fight.
"I enjoy every day," she said. "I can see that the children are growing. So I don't get tired. You can't, if you put your heart in everything you do."
In six months, Milan will graduate from college with a degree in education.
With our coffee cups, we toasted her achievement. To Milan. To more like her.
The Clínica Esperanza y Caridad – the Hope and Charity Clinic – is in the barrio Miramar, by the Caribbean in the southeast section of San Pedro de Macoris.
In an upstairs office, framed in silver, there is a photo of Dave Valle in a Texas Rangers uniform.
"Yeah," Valle said with a laugh. "I keep asking them to take that down."
Following a tour of the facilities, all clean and orderly, Carlos entered the clinic's HIV unit. He greets the women with hugs. Fifteen years ago, Esperanza donated $10,000 for the renovation of the building, and its support continues in the areas of HIV treatment, programs and outreach.
In this office, the people of the barrio learn to live with HIV. Outside this office, those afflicted often are shunned, separated from society because of their illness and lack of understanding for it.
The men and women here – doctors, counselors, nurses and administrators – tend to some 350 patients and their families, and to a community that requires education in prevention and treatment.
"Our patients," a woman named Esther explained, "have a high quality of life. We're their extended family."
Esperanza has aligned itself with many such clinics in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The organization charges 1 percent of a client's loan for the services. The notion to provide health care came at a time when loan repayments had dipped, and an analysis showed people were using their savings not to pay their debts, but to send their children to hospitals, or to buy them medicine.
So, Valle said, they tend to a person at a time, even when the afflicted are in the millions.
"You've heard the starfish story, of course," he said.
There'd been a storm, he said, and tens of thousands of starfish had been washed onto a beach. A man walked the beach, saddened to see all the dying creatures. Up ahead, he saw another man. The man was tossing starfish back into the ocean.
"You can't save all these starfish," the first man said. "What does it matter?"
The second man turned to the first. He leaned over, picked up a starfish, and cast it into the sea.
"Well," he told the first man, "it mattered to that one."
Twenty-seven years after passing out plates of chicken, rice and beans to children in a stadium parking lot, and 17 after first financing a woman's dream that became a school, Valle said, "That's all you can do, right?"
I sit in a dark schoolroom with a metal roof. I am joined by 18 women and two men. Alejandro, the charismatic field officer for Esperanza and the man from the white pickup truck, reads the roll.
I eye a spider the size of a coaster overhead.
The people around me count and recount their pesos. There is the crinkling of bills, the jangle of coins.
Silence. Alejandro raises an eyebrow and scans the room.
They are here to make payments on the loans they took to launch small businesses. One woman, the wife of the church pastor, mixes juice in her home, loads it onto the back of her motorbike, and sells it to the workers in the sugarcane fields. Another mends clothing. Another grows vegetables in a garden.
The children of Batey Margarita are in the school across the yard. We hear them recite passages. The pastor stands at the door, his bible in his hand.
He'd delivered a short sermon. Then they'd sung a song, a favorite for the village. They'd recited their goals of commitment, investment, hard work and saving.
Alejandro, on cue, had responded, "For that, we will be here."
He asks that they believe in the process, in themselves, and in the community. He asks that they believe in their savings, to let them grow, even at 10 or 15 pesos a day. The pact is the basis of their relationship, to save instead of betting the profits on horses or cocks, to believe instead of surrender.
In the shadow of that little ball field, "E' Pa' Lante Que Vamos."
Moving forward is where we're going.
Mid-afternoon, Carlos backs his SUV away from the schoolhouse.
"I have a place for you," he says, and we return to the dirt roads between the sugarcane.
We wave to little boys and girls on our way from Margarita. We skirt three pigs in the road. We stop at a fork and Carlos asks a man leading two horses which way to the highway. He points to the left.
After 40 minutes or so, we reach a town called Consuelo. The sugar mill used to be here, Carlos says. People had jobs. They had a plan. That was decades ago.
He stops in a field. There is a small green building with Alfredo Griffin's picture on it. A sign reads, "ImpACTA Kids." A yellow trashcan is painted with the words, "Liga Manny Acta."
Acta, manager of the Cleveland Indians, grew up here. His house is a two-minute walk from these fields. He was raised on the names of long-retired ballplayers who learned the game on the ground on which we stand – Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Manny Mota.
The fields are teeming with boys. The grass is browned and flattened, the games spirited. Sammy Sosa played here, as did Juan Samuel and Pepe Frias and Griffin.
Several years ago, Acta returned to the field. It was overgrown and unplayable. He asked the Dominican government for permission to build here, and soon there was a little green building, and soon in that building will be computers for the children. Nearly 200 boys play in Liga Manny Acta, ages 6 to 15.
As important, late on a Monday afternoon, there are kids and no adults, just balls in the gap that kick up 180 feet of dust, and games that run until dusk, and laughter that fills the neighborhood.
They dream of being Tony Fernandez, or Albert Pujols, or Vladimir Guerrero, or Miguel Tejada, or Pedro Martinez. They'll put concrete floors under their family's feet, and put food in the icebox, and bring pride to the neighborhood.
"They believe, 'I can be the next one,' " Acta says. "I know I did. And it'll never stop."
For every one of them that makes it, of course, thousands – tens of thousands – do not, and return to the barrios with little more than a tattered glove and a lifetime ahead.
But the ones who do make it, Acta says, "Those guys are going to need accountants and doctors and teachers."
Perhaps they'll come from these fields, too. Those odds might be just as long.
"We need to understand," Carlos says, looking out across a rough diamond, "that school is better than hitting the ball."
Baseball cannot solve what ails the Dominican Republic. The people here must know that. But, perhaps, that is the very heart of baseball on this island.
It is the opportunity, no matter how small, baseball offers. It is as small as three hours lost in a single game on a hidden field in Batey Margarita, and as expansive as a career in the big leagues at Yankee Stadium.
It is desperate, and it is all but impossible, but it is real.
It is hope.
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