View Full Version : JoPo: Baseball in the islands wild and crazy

01-20-2003, 02:35 PM

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Allard Baird is on the phone. Again. As you will see, Royals general manager Allard Baird is always on the phone. He always has this serious look on his face too, as if he's on the verge of pulling off some major trade or signing some enormous free agent. Something big anyway.

"Any news?" you ask him.

"Nope," he says. "Not yet."

We are in Latin America. For baseball. While back home, it's all Rich Gannon and Chucky and Dick Vitale right now. Here, baseball constantly rages. It's playoff time in Puerto Rico. And, in the Dominican Republic, for the first time, a baseball team holds a major-league training camp. That team, of course, is the Dominican Republic's favorite team, the Kansas City Royals, managed by the Dominican's favorite son, Tony Pena.

"He's like the president there," Allard says as we get off the plane in San Juan. "You'll see."

Then, Allard proceeds to get on the phone to passionately work on a deal that doesn't work out. Our whole trip will be like that. You'll see.


MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico -- It took us three rather precarious hours to get from San Juan to here, the West Coast of Puerto Rico, but it was worth it if only to hear Allard bluntly tell an agent, "Thank you for calling, but we are not interested in your player." That is one of eight agents Allard talks to just on our little car trip. It's a light day.

We have come -- we being Allard, Tony Pena and legendary Puerto Rican scout Johnny Ramos -- to see a playoff game featuring Royals pitcher Chris George, who, according to reports, has been consistently dazzling down here.

"I believe the reports," Allard says, "but I want to see it for myself."

Trouble is, you never really know what you're going to see when you come to Puerto Rico, especially when you come to Mayaguez. Everything looks normal early. George pitches a rather unremarkable first two innings. Then suddenly, a batter decides it's time to offer a forearm to the head of Doug Linton, the opposing pitcher. Benches clear. There's the usual combination of threats and non-action that form a baseball fight.

Only the fans in Mayaguez want more. They often do. So, many of them start to stomp on top of the visitors' clubhouse. At that point, several players from Bayamon, the visiting team, decide to go into the stands, a dodgy decision best exemplified by major-leaguer Tony Valentin, who once decided to go after a fan in the Mayaguez stands only to have the fan pull a gun on him.

Now, the fans get really angry, and they begin throwing stuff at the Bayamon players. The Bayamon players, who clearly have better arms, throw the stuff back and even harder. The police really don't start pouring in until the firecrackers start going off.

"The only thing this needs," I say to Allard, "is John Rocker."

"Look," Allard says, and he points, and -- I swear this is true -- there is John Rocker in the middle of it all. It's like a Woody Allen movie.

Here's the best part of the story. Chris George is on his honeymoon here. He and Brandi, Chris' high school sweetheart, got married in November and they chose a baseball honeymoon. So now, George is on the mound trying to throw warmup pitches, you've got fans chanting "Chris George, Chris George," because they want him to plunk the next guy up, you've got others stomping on the dugout, you've got the president of the Puerto Rican League with a microphone in his hand begging the crowd to quiet down, you've got policemen with berets on their heads looking about ready to unleash some significant violence.

And you've got Brandi, scared out of her wits, crying her eyes out.

"I begged him not to go out there," she would say. "I mean, I didn't know what was going to happen. Did you?"

No. But here's the thing about Puerto Rico: Players do face challenges that they will never have to face in the United States. It's pretty unlikely that Chris George will ever be in a game during a near riot, with a tearful new wife, helpless umpires, opposing players in the stands and John Rocker.

When some semblance of order resumes, George retires the next seven batters in a row and does not give up a run the rest of the way. In its own way, it is as impressive a performance as you will ever see.

"A good day," Allard would say at the Mayaguez Burger King. "A very good day."


CAROLINA, Puerto Rico -- Rey Sanchez looks good. The ball still sticks to his glove, like Velcro, even on bad hops. He still throws that soft throw to first. To me, he's as good a defensive shortstop as any in baseball. Love the guy. But I sometimes wonder how Rey sleeps. You might remember that a couple of years ago, the Royals offered Rey a two-year, $7.4 million deal. Rey said no. He wanted a three-year deal. In all his years of baseball, Rey had never gotten more than a two-year deal.

The man wanted a little security. His agent, Scott Boras, said he could get a three-year deal somewhere else.

His agent was way wrong. The Royals traded Rey, and he signed a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox, made the team, played well, expected to re-sign, was told they didn't want him anymore, looked for a job, and this off-season he signed with the New York Mets. He lost roughly $5 million by not signing with the Royals. He also lost a town that liked him.

"Look," he says as he works out on the bumpy field at Roberto Clemente Sports City. He points to his shorts. They are Kansas City Royals shorts.

"Maybe I'll come back, huh?" he asks. "Write that."

Later, I mention to Allard that we saw Rey Sanchez. He smiles. "I love Rey," Allard says. Then he shakes his head sadly. And he goes back to the phone to try to sign a pitcher.


BAYAMON, Puerto Rico -- The Chicago White Sox trade for Bartolo Colon today, a rather jarring blow to the Royals. It's always daunting when a team in your division trades for a star pitcher, especially when you know that pitcher will throw against you on Opening Day.

"Bartolo Colon," Allard tells Tony as we ride toward another game.

"What about Bartolo Colon?" Tony asks.

"The White Sox got him."

Tony thinks about this for a few seconds. Tony Pena is a relentlessly positive guy. But for the moment, he looks beaten. Everybody's picking the Royals to lose 100 games. Everybody's saying they have no talent and no plan and no future. And now, they face Bartolo Colon on Opening Day.

Then, Tony suddenly smiles real big.

"Bartolo Colon on Opening Day!" he shouts. "Let's go get them."

"We're a fastball-hitting team!" Allard shouts.

"Let's get this thing started!" Pena shouts. "Shock the world!"

And Pena hits Allard in the shoulder, and the two chat happily for the next 30 miles while chomping away on Burger King food.


PONCE, Puerto Rico -- Joe Garagiola, or someone an awful lot like him, used to say that the great thing about baseball is that every game you will likely see something you have never seen before.

Here's what they mean. In Ponce, the baseball field is surrounded by a running track. That means there are approximately 17 miles of foul ground surrounding the field. Barry Bonds couldn't hit a foul ball into the stands here. Anyway, first inning, former Royals catcher Hector Ortiz is on second, and the batter foul tips the ball. It rolls way back.

Now, everybody in the ballpark understands it is a foul tip. Everybody, that is, except two people. One is Hector Ortiz. He is convinced that it is a wild pitch, so he starts to run. Umpires jump in front of him, holding up their hands. Ortiz runs right by them. Umpires do not get much respect in Puerto Rico. Batters routinely throw helmets toward them then jump up and down and scream. Managers bump them continuously. When I ask a baseball writer here what you would have to do to an umpire to actually get thrown out of a game, he says something that, loosely translated, means "aggravated assault."

Anyway, Ortiz completely ignores the umpires and keeps running. Trouble is, the only other person who thinks it's a wild pitch is the catcher. So, this guy runs and runs and runs to chase down the ball. Then, for reasons only he seems to understand, he throws the ball as hard as he can toward, well, nobody, because everybody else grasps the relatively simple concept that this is just a foul ball.

His throw, impressively, hits Hector Ortiz in the head, who is knocked out for the next five minutes.

"Ever seen that one before?" I ask Allard, who has been to Puerto Rico several dozen times.

"No," he concedes. "That's a definite first for me."


COAMO, Puerto Rico -- We're back at Burger King. Again. Allard is not exactly what you would call a food explorer. Convicts have more variety in their diet. This is the third or fourth straight meal at Burger King -- who can keep track? -- which means Tony has had to order "Dos Whoppers," over and over.

Allard is happy. He feels close to signing two players. He has been working on them pretty much nonstop for two days. "They're not big-print signings," he says. "But they're part of the puzzle."

He works at this day and night. People can question his judgment. Trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez was a fiasco. Signing Chuck Knoblauch and other veterans last year turned out to be a wild miscalculation.

But no one can question his passion for the job and his unrelenting loyalty to the organization. Here is a guy with extremely limited resources who took over a team that had been without an owner for years. He offers no excuses. He never complains. He works 20 hours a day, every day, to make the Royals better. He would sleep less than four hours if he could.

"We're going to surprise some people," he says as Tony brings over the Whoppers. And then, naturally, his phone rings.

"Excuse me," Allard says.


SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic -- Tony Pena is a legendarily frightening driver. Back in Puerto Rico, Johnny Ramos would pass trucks on the shoulder of the highway and nearly kill us every 15 to 20 minutes or so. Allard explained that Johnny is like an 80-year-old grandmother driving to church compared to Tony Pena.

Let's just say: The legend is true. Before leaving the airport, Tony nearly runs over two people and a dog. This, apparently, is just to prepare us. Driving in the Dominican Republic is already some sort of funhouse ride because the roads twist and turn, and there are hundreds of mopeds on the road, each popping up out of nowhere, some with families of four riding.

Let's say that Tony Pena, in his Land Rover, is a very dangerous person.

But he is also something bigger than life here. This island has given the major leagues Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa and Miguel Tejada just to start, but none is quite as popular as Pena, who always smiled, always played hard and always came home to play in the winter.

Which leads to this: On one road, Tony Pena just about runs into a van filled with teen-age kids. There are "near-accidents" and "very near-accidents" and "I-have-no-idea-how-we-got-out-of-that-one accidents." This is the last kind, and the teen-agers look angrily at the Land Rover. They look as if they want to rumble.

And then, all of a sudden, their faces loosen.

And then their faces brighten.

And then they start pointing and waving and shouting, "Hey! Tony Pena!"

Tony smiles and waves back and drives off to his next near-miss.


SALCEDO, Dominican Republic -- This is new. No team has ever before gathered some of its best players in the Dominican Republic for a major-league camp. But the Royals have a decidedly Dominican flavor this year. Runelvys Hernandez looks to be the Opening Day starter. The double-play combination, right now, is Angel Berroa and Carlos Febles, both Dominicans. Gifted outfielder Alexis Gomez figures into the future and maybe the immediate future if the Royals trade Carlos Beltran.

So, they're here. And nobody knows what to expect. Here at the Royals Academy, there are workers trying to build a well so they can water the field. There are other workers finishing up a batting cage. It's loud. The sun beats down hard. And Tony Pena hits a few grounders to Angel Berroa.

"Go Angel," he says as he hits a ball down the third-base line. Berroa runs after it and makes a backhand stop.

"Go Angel," Tony says again, as he hits a ball toward second, and Berroa runs across the infield to go get it.

"Go Angel," Tony says again, and he hits another ball down the third-base line. Berroa gets it, picks it up, but by then Tony has hit one toward second, and Angel runs for that, gets it, and there's another ball down the third-base line, which he runs for, and this goes on and on until Angel looks ready to keel over, at which point Pena hits another ball, and screams, "Go Angel." Angel tries to go get it but instead comes close to losing his breakfast.

"I never saw that drill before," Angel huffs after pouring bottled water on his head and slumping into a heap.

"You will see it again," Tony says. "We're going to make a man out of you. We're going to make a baseball team, I promise you that."


SAN FRANCISCO de MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- Allard is frustrated. His cell phone doesn't work here in the Dominican. He did manage to capture Tony's phone for a couple of hours and make calls, but now he's phoneless, which means helpless. We watch a relatively meaningless game -- no playoff implications here -- but it does feature American League MVP Miguel Tejada, who hits a long home run, and a very long line of people who want to shake hands with Tony Pena.

"It's amazing the passion people here have for the game of baseball," Allard says. "It's not about money. It's not about agents and general managers. It's not about any of that. It's just about the game.

"Look at all those people who just want to meet Tony Pena. Right now, in the Dominican Republic, there are kids who are in bed dreaming about being the next Tony Pena. You know, that's a powerful thing. Dreams."

It's not like Allard to drift off into dream talk. He's a no-nonsense guy who deals with hard numbers and preposterous challenges and trying to turn around a Kansas City Royals team that has not been a baseball factor in eight years, all the while still cutting payroll.

But there's something about watching baseball in the Dominican Republic, where people pin so many of their dreams on baseball. Most don't make it, of course. Most find that they weren't good enough, and then they find themselves searching. Many of them go to work for the minimum 2,800 pesos, less than $150 a month. There are many sad stories in the Dominican Republic.

Still, on baseball nights, they are here, in the stadiums, under starry skies, listening to the pounding music between innings, eating sausages of some kind, pointing out things to children, watching their heroes, and you can't help but feel something like hope.

"I wish everybody could watch a baseball game in the Dominican," Allard says. "You know, we think we have problems. And then, you come here, and you see what people are dealing with, they're so poor, they're hungry. And yet, they keep going. They have such a passion for the game."

Allard looks out and watches Ryan Bukvich, a young Royals reliever, throw his curveball. It looks better. Who knows? Kid might be getting it.

"Excuse me," Allard says, and he goes to borrow Tony Pena's phone again. Then Allard goes off, slipping past the concession stand and out into the parking lot, to make a few more phone calls.

01-21-2003, 12:37 AM
Originally posted by BigOlChiefsfan

"The only thing this needs," I say to Allard, "is John Rocker."

"Look," Allard says, and he points, and -- I swear this is true -- there is John Rocker in the middle of it all. It's like a Woody Allen movie.


02-06-2003, 12:12 AM
I'd love, just one time, to watch a baseball game in the DR. Bet it would be a hell of a lot of fun.