SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – In a crowded restaurant where pop music drowned out the nighttime television broadcast of the Caribbean Series, where David Ortiz's belly laughs outworked the pop music, and where a presidential candidate's rolling speakers outdid them all from the streets outside, perhaps the best young baseball prospect in the country buried his hands deeper into his pockets and stared at his puppy dog feet.
I'd been here for two days, I told him, and though I spoke a language he didn't yet understand, he looked up with curiosity.
I'd watched him take batting practice, watched him in two games, and while admittedly might have missed an inning or two wandering the grounds of the New York Mets academy in Boca Chica, I told him I'd never seen him make an out. The Venezuelans pitched around him or he hit a line drive that bored through a relentless wind.
Do you ever make an out?, I asked. Grinning, a translator turned and rephrased the question for Jairo Beras, who laughed.
He is 6-foot-5, a spidery 175 pounds and, according to a roster of Dominican players that comes with the warning, "Birth dates have not been confirmed by MLB," turned 16 on Christmas Day.
Beras considered the question only briefly. Do you ever make an out?
"Hardly ever," he said with a crooked smile.
Waiting a moment, he added, "I thank God for this opportunity. It's been great. Now I'm focused on working every day."
Forty-eight other boys filed past on their way to a waiting bus. They constituted the first class of what Major League Baseball expects to be a regular event, a Venezuela-Dominican Republic showcase that brings together freshly eligible signees and their opportunity from the north.
For dozens of stopwatches and radar guns, they'd run and hit and thrown. Their trainers watched from shady spots beneath trees. Some of their parents sat on concrete bleachers, shouting "Attaboy!" when their grounders escaped the infield.
The boys gathered Thursday night to watch "Moneyball," then Friday night on the field at Estadio Quisqueya before a game between their native countries, and on Saturday night for a dinner whose guest was Ortiz. Waving a squeaky microphone, he'd told them to prepare for a life in baseball, and to pursue their schooling, because they must also prepare for a life without baseball. He'd pleaded that they learn English, the language of the country that waited for them.
"I just wanted to be sure all of them understood their priorities," Ortiz said later. "I wanted them to make sure they worked hard to be a prospect. You gotta work extra hard to maintain it."
He'd made a special point midway through his speech, that being, "Trabajo, trabajo, trabajo, trabajo, mucho trabajo."
Work, work, work, work, a lot of work.
Sitting 15 feet to Ortiz's left, a Texas Rangers cap pushed back on his head, Jairo Beras snapped a photograph with his phone. Ortiz is royalty here, and dressed like it: black sport coat, blood-red shirt, diamonds in his ears, around his neck, and lashed across both wrists. His laugh made Beras laugh, and his pointed advice made Beras nod.
Ortiz represents the way out. He killed a couple hours on a Saturday night among them, too, shaking each hand at the door of the restaurant, visiting each table between courses of Albondiguitas de Tuna and Culotte de Res a Caballo.
Beras, who watched Ortiz leave with a grand smile and wave, is from San Pedro de Macoris, a town near the eastern tip of the island known for its sugar cane and shortstops. He is an outfielder with a body that begs for calories and a swing that promises power.
"My dream," Beras said, "is to get to the majors and be as good and famous as David Ortiz, my hero."
Nearby, Franklin Barreto nodded. Standing eight inches shorter than Beras, the Venezuelan center fielder wore a navy and white baseball cap. He, too, called Ortiz his idol.
And yet, I said, you wear the cap of the New York Yankees. He cringed at the incongruity. This was his third trip to the Dominican Republic, enough perhaps to be romanced by the game and its heroes here, certainly while in the presence of both.
In many ways, Barreto, who will turn 16 at the end of February, represented the difference between the teenaged Dominicans and Venezuelans. They grow them bigger and stronger in the Dominican Republic, lower to the ground and speedier in Venezuela. Here, according to scouts, players are bred for tryouts so they represent well on clipboards. There, the scouts said, players are game tested and instinctual.
Barreto is that. He leans into the game, plays it at the far end of his skills to a controlled recklessness. He leads off first until the pitcher and catcher grow wary, then takes one more step. And another.
Standing near the door at the restaurant Lolita, his gaze strong and confident, Barreto confessed, "I have no words to say how grateful I am for this."
He is a few months from the opening of the international signing period and played well in perhaps the most important two days leading to it. Now he would return home to Petare, a city near Caracas stricken by terrible poverty, but to baseball, too. Of the conditions Barreto was raised under, a Venezuelan newspaper reporter sighed and said, "Unfortunately, it's rare when you find a player who isn't living in that."
Indeed, by the end of their time here, the Dominicans and Venezuelans mixed without suspicion. They live similar lives, seek similar relief, and hold to the same game. Most wore ball caps, new ones, stamped by an MLB logo.
His father, Barreto said, had played baseball as a young man. He shrugged, implying his father had to stop there, for whatever reason, and that they'd both wished otherwise.
The bus idled, 48 other players waited, and Barreto considered one final question.
Who, I asked, was most proud of you today, standing with the best in a place that produces greatness, standing on the edge of maybe something great for himself?
"Mi familia," he said. "Mi familia."
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