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Dominican Republic: Baseball is King

The setting couldn't be more idyllic, a manicured baseball field bordered by acres of swaying sugar cane leaves. However, the 15-year old boy with a ragged blue T-shirt stepping up to bat is looking far beyond the cane field. He pauses to make the sign of the cross and issue a silent prayer before taking his stance.

He knows two major league scouts are in the stands today, visiting his poor rural town to see who has the talent to join their training camp just outside Santo Domingo.

Just one good swing of the bat could open the door for him to join dozens of fellow Dominicans who play pro baseball in the States, Canada and Japan.

On the other hand, one bad performance and his career might be reduced to swinging a machete in a cane field.

The pressure and the opportunity to make it to the majors are something almost every Dominican boy grows up with.

Starting as young as five with a stick of sugar cane for a bat and rolled up socks for a ball, many Dominican youngsters from humble backgrounds try to follow in the footsteps of Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal, Manny Mota and the greatest of all, Sammy Sosa.

The boys can count on plenty of places for practice. Every community, no matter how small or how poor, always has a neatly manicured baseball field for its aspiring all stars.

Although certainly a long shot, an impressive number of Dominican youngsters do graduate from poverty to the big leagues. More than 1 in 6 major league players are Latin American, many of them Dominicans. (See a game in the DR)

How did baseball become the DR's biggest equal opportunity employer as well as the nation's greatest passion? It's a long story.

Dominican youngsters view baseball as anything but fun and game.  As players, they undergo a continuous, intensive audition to see who's good enough to progress to the minors.

Usually when a Dominican signs with one of the farm teams he receives only a few thousand dollars. That's chicken scraps compared to the millions some first-round American players often demand and sometimes get. Yet it also means ball clubs can sign up large numbers of Dominicans without a lot of financial risk.

One of those who bucked the odds and made it is San Pedro's Alfonso Soriano.

His first job in the majors was second baseman for the New York Yankees. He now plays second base for the Texas Rangers.

?When Dominican kids come to me, I tell them listen to your Mama, go to school and work hard and you just might make it.?

Of all his Mama's advice, he says the most important was ?telling me everything is possible.?

He's living proof she was right. And more motivation for Dominican kids to start playing ball as early as they can.

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