There are some beautiful beaches and stunning golf courses in the Dominican Republic. But let's be honest, that's not what comes to mind when you think about the country. When you think of the DR you think of baseball or maybe poverty. According to the World Bank, 20 per cent of this Caribbean country lives in poverty, while 10 per cent lives in extreme poverty.
But for anybody who has been to the Dominican, those numbers seem low, particularly in the rural areas. For a place that is desperate to put a positive spin on its image internationally, the crowing of the country as champions of the World Baseball Classic this week when they defeated Puerto Rico 3-0 in the final is arguably the most significant sporting moment in the history of the nation. And I have but one question: What took you so long? There are few countries in the world as good at a sport as the DR is at baseball.
Over the years the Dominican Republic has sent hundreds of players to the major leagues in the United States and thousands more to the minors. Journeymen, bench players, stars, superstars, and Hall of Famers; the Dominican Republic has produced them all. For absolute single-minded, sporting purity and success, there is soccer in Brazil, ice hockey in Canada and with its new international crown, baseball in the Dominican. The US is a football country now, the NFL rules the roost and the priority of fielding a world championship baseball team does not seem particularly high.
The DR beat the US in a spirited game in Miami that was close but the better team clearly won. In fact, the DR went 8-0 to run the table for the first time in the event's history and it was no accident. They were loaded with All-Stars and while not even the Dominicans can touch the depth of talent in the US, most of that talent was nowhere to be seen on the American roster. Until the best come out to play, the US is an afterthought in a tournament it hosts. The Netherlands made the semi-finals, the US did not. Enough said.
During the first two WBC tournaments, the Dominicans were an afterthought as well. Despite a star-studded roster, they played as a fractious group and were nowhere to be seen as Japan won both. But this year, it was time to reassert their soul. "We've got the game in our hearts, and we cannot hold it in," joyous Dominican pitcher Octavio Dotel said after the medal ceremony.
On the hard scrabble, ramshackle baseball fields that dot the country, the love for baseball is nurtured in prepubescent kids to young adults. Some kids show up without shoes or a glove, hoping for a chance and eager to work all day if that's what it takes. Over the past 35 years, baseball academies run by major league clubs have sprung up to teach kids not only how to hit and catch, but how to adjust if they are one of the lucky ones to make it off the island to the US.
"You have to understand, many of these players come from very low socioeconomic levels, and some of the kids have never been out of the Dominican Republic," said Dominican scout Ronaldo Peralta. "They don't know what an airport looks like, much less what English or American culture is all about."
One of those impoverished kids was Sammy Sosa, who grew up without a pair of shoes to call his own but overcame his background to become one of baseball's most famous players. By the time he retired Sosa had hit 609 home runs, less than only seven other players in the history of the game.
But since his retirement, Sosa has become a pariah because of his history of using performance-enhancing drugs. At one point Sosa was making US$17 million a year and while anti-drug crusaders claim performance-enhancing drugs could kill you, so can poverty. Pious morality seems a bourgeois luxury.
Just as basketball has been a ticket out of urban poverty for legions of minority youths in the US, so too is baseball in the DR, which is why the game transcends sport in the country. It's baseball or bust for most Dominicans. Their passion is borne of both love and necessity. And now their exalted and fabulously wealthy players have delivered on their promise by winning the final at AT&T Park in San Francisco, which features a huge statue of the only Dominican player in the Hall of Fame - Giants pitcher Juan Marichal - outside the stadium. Dominican Republic, the world baseball champions - it's about time.