SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – In this land of baseball, in its season of baseball, that a young man could hit and smile and aw-shucks his way into the hearts of the people is as common as the three-man motor scooter.
Which is to say quite common, no matter how crazy it might look.
That the young man would look straight out of Kansas (which he is), and deliver in the biggest moments of the Dominican winter league playoffs (which he did), and acquire the street name "Ondy-der" (which he gladly answers to) is something else.
As American sightings this late in the winter season and into the Caribbean Series grow rare, it is with some distinction that Andy Dirks – translated from "Ondy-der," and generally sung over the tops of bottles of Presidente beer from the street cafes as he passes – is, affectionately, "El Gringo."
The greater feat is to become Gringo Star.
"Andy Dirks could run for president right now," said Gary Ruby, pitching coach for Leones del Escogido, the Dominican team for which Dirks plays.
Though why he'd take a demotion is beyond me.
Many of Dirks' countrymen come and go. Some wash out by their own lack of conviction in a winter league so far from home, one without the comforts of the U.S. major leagues. Others surrender to conditions that don't spoil them with bloated paychecks, air-conditioned dugouts, doting attendants and massage therapists. They've been known to acquire a mystery knee ailment and rush back to the states for assessment, only to spend the rest of the winter hunting and playing golf.
Baseball in the DR – life in the DR, even for a few months – is not for everyone. By big league standards, the fields are rough, the quarters are rougher, and the fans roughest of all. For players with receptive minds and hearts, however, it can be a meaningful experience, both for the thrill of it and the getting-your-butt-off-the-couch of it.
Generally, two types of American players report to the Dominican: those who come to get a few at-bats and appease their general managers, and those who come to play the game.
Andy Dirks, a 26-year-old outfielder who got his first 224 big league at-bats last season with the Detroit Tigers and appeared in the American League Championship Series, showed up to play. He batted .315 for Toros del Este during the regular season, was the first pick of the import draft by Escogido come playoff time (the Toros did not make the playoffs, meaning their players were redistributed by draft to qualifying teams), and delivered the kinds of hits in the kinds of moments that make Santo Domingo's Estadio Quisqueya tremble.
In the course of five days, Dirks had the winning hits in Game 9 – yes, Game 9 – of the league finals and in a Caribbean Series game against Venezuela. The Dominicans won the series with ease.
So, in a place where the music doesn't stop and the cheerleaders show more skin than an entire convention of dermatology seminars and the beer never runs out, it's saying something when the whole place burst into chants for "Ondy" when it's his turn to hit.
"A lot of American players go into a shell," Ruby said. "Not Andy. That's why it's been just awesome. They're wonderful people here. They have a passion for the game like nowhere else."
In a small clubhouse on the first-base side before a Caribbean Series game, Dirks dressed in a locker beside Francisco Liriano, the Minnesota Twins left-handed pitcher. He said he’s lived for weeks in a hotel, gotten by with sketchy Spanish and "hand signals," and to simplify the process eats lunch in the same spot almost every day.
His teammates adore him, especially when he adds a little Latin flair to his game – snatching at a lazy fly ball with his glove, shyly pimping a big hit, grinning at all the clamor in the stands.
"Hey," Escogido second baseman Julio Lugo said, "that's the way we play down here in the Dominican. In the states, you're going to get hit for stuff like that."
Besides, he said, nobody could ever be mad at Ondy-der.
"He is a little goofy," Lugo said.
It plays here, because the people want effort, and the people want results, because it reflects on them. Play like Dirks, it says you respects their game, their league and their country. Play it like you'd rather be someplace else and, well, they can arrange that, too.
"It's fun and it's exciting," Dirks said. "That's what we do. We're baseball players. The more you hit, the more you learn. This is awesome."
So he shows up, waves to the folks up there, grins like he can't stand the attention, and then, as often than not, rakes. When he's on the streets ("I've never had one thought I was in danger," he said. "Never one thought I wasn't safe."), well, he waves there, too, and tests out the few Spanish words he's picked up over the past two winters, many of which delight his teammates.
"We appreciate it," Lugo said, speaking more as a Dominican than as a player. "The Dominican people, they're very grateful to the players. Somebody like him, quiet and fiery at the same time? And then he tries to talk to people. They love that."
Dirks shrugs at the notion it's more than it is, that he's more than who he is. "Diminished celebrity, I guess," he said. But his regard for the people here and their game is real, as real as his single that brought down the house in Game 9, as real as those championship flags they hoisted over their heads, in part because of the guy who stood out for not standing off.
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- Dominican Republic