One after another, they file onto the bus. From the wide-eyed little girl holding her father’s hand, to the 84-year-old gentleman accompanying his son—they arrive dressed to the hilt in their team colours.
Caps, jerseys, t-shirts and pennants profess their fierce loyalties as they board the bus just outside of Puerto Plata.
For these 30 or so hotel employees and family members, this is the highly anticipated annual trek to Santiago for a baseball game, courtesy of an American investor who foots the bill every year.
In a country where "America’s pastime" is more like a staple of life, there is no better way to say thank you.
The Meaning of Life
In the Dominican Republic, baseball represents life, death, heaven and hell, played out across makeshift diamonds and vacant lots that truly are the fields of dreams.
Baseball is an attainable ticket out of poverty and every Dominican has a son, a nephew, a cousin or a brother who has, or has had, a shot at glory.
Consider this math: the Dominican Republic has a population less than that of metropolitan New York City, but has still produced an astonishing 517 Major League baseball players to date (more than any other non-U.S. country), with plenty more on the way.
Need more proof of the DR's status as a baseball heavy-hitter? Every Major League baseball team has a development camp on the island.
The History of Baseball
Founded in 1951, the Dominican Winter Baseball League is the product of more than a century of Dominican baseball history.
Every year, the six-team league welcomes home their native sons, including big name MLB stars and those who are well on their way.
It’s a chance for the players to give something back, feeding the dream machine of their loyal and passionate fans by appearing in the flesh.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Back on the bus, the air is abuzz with that pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for the game.
For the duration of the one-hour drive to Santiago, passengers blow horns and wave banners as the incessant beat of reggaeton converts the aisles into a rolling dance floor.
Upon arrival in Santiago, we merge into a seemingly endless procession of equally stoked fans into Estadio Cibao, home of the Aguilas Cibaeñas.
More Than Just a Game
As a journalist, I have benefited numerous times from the refreshing accessibility of players in the Winter League.
From on-field interviews with Vladimir Guerrero, to pre-game clubhouse visits with the Aguilas Cibaeñas, my experiences reflect a grass roots appreciation of the game in a country where it is still played in its purest form.
But for the average visitor, a Dominican Winter Baseball League game transcends simple sport and offers a truly unique cultural experience that has its finger on the pulse of Dominican life.
Inside Estadio Cibao, the stadium is filled with passionate cheers, interlaced with playful jabs between opposing fans.
Banners wave throughout the stadium, as cheerleaders dance exuberantly on the dugout roofs, ‘a la latina.’
In lieu of peanuts and Cracker Jack, plates of La Bandera Dominicana, a stewed dish served with rice and beans, are washed down with ice cold Presidente beer.
Vendors race up and down the aisles, selling plastic bottles of Dominican Brugal rum, consumed in large Styrofoam cups that are replenished with ice every couple of innings.
All that entertainment and more…and the game has yet to even begin. Play ball!
Where to Catch Baseball in the D.R.
The 50-game regular season runs from late October through late December.
Playoffs are held in January to determine which team will represent the D.R. in the annual Caribbean World Series, contested against the league champions of Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico.
Ticket prices range from $10 to $20.
Estadio Francisco Michelli
Location: La Romana
Home park of the Azucareros del Este, this 10,000 seat stadium is located in the tourist region of La Romana, approximately one and a half hours from Punta Cana.
Home to las Aguilas Cibaeñas, winners of 20 national titles, this state-of-the-art stadium holds up to 18,000 fans. Located in the lush Cibao Valley, the stadium is approximately one hour south of Puerto Plata.
Estadio Tetelo Vargas
Location: San Pedro de Macoris
Known as the “Cradle of Shortstops” for its uncanny production of major leaguers, the mill town of San Pedro de Macoris is approximately two hours west of Punta Cana.
The town is the birthplace of notable stars including Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa, Tony Fernandez and George Bell.
Location: Santo Domingo
Quisqueya Stadium is home to both the Leones del Escogido (13 championships) and the Tigres del Licey (20 championships).
While Santo Domingo is approximately three hours from Puerto Plata and three and a half hours from Punta Cana, an overnight stay in the capital, including a day spent in its historic Zona Colonial, is worth the effort.
Estadio Julian Javier
Location: San Francisco de Macoris
Home field of the Gigantes del Cibao, located approximately two hours from both Puerto Plata and Samana.