SAN PEDRO de MACORIS, D.R.–The silver SUV slowly crawls along the dirt road past the side streets in this hallowed place of baseball’s one-time biggest hotbed—the tiny town of San Pedro de Macoris.
San Pedro, as it’s commonly known in the Dominican Republic, gave birth to the careers of Sammy Sosa and George Bell, Mariano Duncan and Pedro Guerrero, and seemingly countless others.
Poverty grips the people of San Pedro, and that can be seen immediately as the SUV rolls on through a narrow stretch of ‘road’ dodging potholes, children, dogs and sometimes even horses.
“In the States, they say ‘expect the unexpected’ ”, one international scouting director says. “In the Dominican, it’s more like ‘expect the surreal.’ ”
The four scouts allow a 12-year-old boy riding a donkey while pulling three horses behind him to cross their path and pull up to the stadium that houses the Astros’ Dominican Summer League team—which is more the norm for what clubs typically have in the D.R. currently.
It’s a cinderblock façade painted black on the outside, with hand-painted block letters spelling out “HOUSTON ASTROS” next to the club’s trademark star. Inside, it’s much like many minor league facilities in the States were built in the 1930s or 1940s.
Huge, multimillion dollar complexes like the one the Yankees have in Boca Chica or the one the Mets are currently building right down the road from their crosstown rival, those are by far the exception.
“That’s what clubs are shooting for, and pretty much every team is increasing their investment in international scouting,” says another international scout. “It’s good for the game and it’s also good for this country in particular.”
That might be true, but the people of the D.R. certainly aren’t feeling any kind of financial windfall. But that doesn’t stop them from loving the game—mind, body and spirit.
The four scouts arrive for the workout early, and players anywhere from 14-to-18 years old begin to trickle in. As the hour draws closer for the ‘showcase’ to start, so do the scouts.
Representatives from at least 12 clubs—including several assistant general managers– eventually show up, and the main feature is a 15-year-old outfielder named Ezdra Abreu, who is expected to be one of the top Dominican players once the international signing period begins on July 2.
Tall and thin but wiry strong, the price tag on Abreu will likely top $1 million. His older brother Abner signed with the Indians two years ago for $200,000, but Ezdra has bigger raw power and speed.
Though all 20-something players go through the workout—running the 60-yard dash, taking infield and batting practice before hitting again against live pitching in a game-type situation, the focus on Abreu is evident.
When he runs the 60, he is greeted by applause from the fans sitting in the bleachers behind home plate. That happens again after he makes more throws than anyone else from right field, again after he takes BP and again after he hits each time, and each time getting more reps than any other potential free agent.
“We’ve seen the rest of these guys a hundred times,” says another international scouting director. “And we don’t like any of them.”
As the workout draws to a close, two teenage boys slap sticks at a herd of steer beyond the left field wall, leading them out to pasture.
The four scouts hop back in the SUV to head to another workout. As they back up to drive away, two toddlers are playing the game barefoot in a dirt alley next to the right field side of the stadium–just a hitter with a whip-like stick and a pitcher with an empty plastic Coke bottle.
“See that? They’re playing because they love it,” one scout says. “They couldn’t be happier. You sometimes wish you could bring kids here from the States, just because a lot of them have forgotten about what a great game this really is. They don’t love it like these kids do.”