Any fan interested in how the Dominican Republic came to be the world's leading per capita producer of Major Leaguers needs to read Rob Ruck's 1991 book, "The Tropic of Baseball." Part history, part travelogue, the University of Pittsburgh professor's book holds up well nearly two decades later. And lo and behold, ESPN The Magazine's
former baseball editor and current Insider chief Jon Scher is thanked in the foreword.
Now we get to return the favor. Thanks to Ruck's original insights, The Mag can now humbly advance one of his book's great stories—the genesis of the player pipeline from the city of San Pedro de Macoris.
Ruck documented the role demographics played in the "Miracle of Macoris," which has produced more than 70 big leaguers from a city of 200,000. Much of the San Pedro talent pool descended from English-speaking Caribbean islanders brought to the Dominican in the early 1900s to work in the cane fields and later, the sugar refineries.
These English speakers, known as Cocolos
, worked the toughest jobs for the lowest wages. But they came to the island with a proud culture and a passion for swinging the bat—a cricket bat. Within a few generations, those sons and grandsons of Cocolos took up baseball, and took it to another level, with players like Rico Carty, George Bell, Alfredo Griffin, Nelson Norman, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez
and Julio Franco
setting the stage for the island's outsized MLB presence today.
In our January trip to the DR, Jorge Arangure Jr. and I noticed a new wrinkle in Ruck's historic tale: the rise of the Haitian-Dominican player.
Like the Cocolos
of the early 1900s, Haitians for the past three decades have immigrated to the DR (the countries share a porous border) for work in the cane fields or whatever else they could find. While the Dominican is poor, its economy is far healthier than Haiti's. The Haitian immigrants have often been exploited, in some cases bearing conditions that human rights groups say are tantamount to slavery.
Prejudice against Haitians runs high in the DR, Ruck says, a product of history (Haiti invaded and occupied the Dominican from 1822-44) and often-racist fear mongering by past Dominican politicians.
Yet just like the Cocolos
before them, a generation of Haitians has persevered, and their kids have taken up baseball. And now those kids are succeeding. We saw several talented second-generation Haitian kids on our travels through the Dominican player-development system.
"That's great," says Ruck. "I've been waiting for years for this." Why? Ruck thinks a breakout Dominican baseball star of Haitian descent can start to chip away at the wall of bigotry Haitians face.
As one former baseball prospect, who didn't want his name used, told us: "When somebody commits a crime, we're considered Haitian. When one of us has tremendous success as a ballplayer, then they consider us Dominican." On our travels, we met Gustavo Pierre, a 17-year-old shortstop in the Blue Jays organization, whose grandparents emigrated from Haiti and whose mother works as a cook in La Romana. Pierre signed for around $700,000 last year. We met Luis Jolly, a sweet-swinging outfield prospect who could draw a high six-figure bonus on signing day this July 2.
And we met Miguel Angel Sano, a shortstop with a booming bat and a laser, rocket arm who baseball people say could command $3 million when he signs this summer. Sano's mother says her son has both Haitian and Cocolo blood, and is proud of it. Sano symbolizes another chapter in how the Dominican baseball melting pot can be a pot of gold for a lucky few. And just maybe a golden opportunity to change a society.