LA ROMANA, DR -- Though most of the box seats were empty in Francisco A. Micheli stadium, home of the La Romana Toros/Azucareros, nearly all fans in attendance had traveled the two hours from Santo Domingo to see Licey, the Dominican equivalent of the Yankees. They had packed the cheap seats down the left and right side, $1 compared to the $10 box seats.
Dressed in striking royal blue uniforms with classic baseball script, there’s no doubt, even from an outsider’s standpoint, which hat bears the most tradition. Licey rolled to town with an assortment of recognizable talent, including former Phillie Jose Offerman, Indians infielder Ronnie Belliard, Braves pitcher Jorge Sosa, Dodger reliever Yhency Brazoban and catcher Carlos Ruiz, who will be in camp this spring with the Phillies. On the other side, the Toros fielded Scranton veteran Jim Rushford, along with Red Sox prospect Andy Marte.
There were no programs and no names on back of uniforms, so one had to guess who was who. From his short, squat stature and lighter skin, Ruiz was easy to spot. It had been a nice surprise that Licey was in town; I was holding out hope of seeing Ruiz in action. I knew he was having a great winter with Licey, batting .315. An announcement from the Spanish-speaking public address announcer, the volume amped twice as high as it would be in the United States, confirmed that it was, in fact, Ruiz.
Licey fans to the left, Toros fans to the right, our section was occupied by twenty indifferent but steadily-drinking college students, my wife and several other faculty from Philadelphia University. This was the destination I was looking forward to most during my 10-day stay in the Dominican. My wife was there to teach an exchange program. I was there to relax and watch baseball.
What started as an exercise in cultural observation quickly turned into one of the best pure baseball games I’ve ever witnessed live, and the students came alive. The game unfolded as a pitcher’s dual through the first few innings. A tall, powerful Dominican had cruised through the early going for the Toros. Only later, after checking the box score the following day, did it occur to me that it was Orioles right-hander Daniel Cabrera. For the Tigers, a white, bean-shaped submarine pitcher, who would later be revealed as Royals minor-leaguer Danny Tamayo, held the Toros off balance through the first few frames.
Both pitchers melted down in the sixth. After striking out six, Cabrera lost control, walking four and allowing two earned after six innings. Tamayo, a flyball pitcher all the way, was eventually burned, touched for a homer by Anderson Hernandez and a run-scoring play that featured the best home-plate collision I’ve ever seen.
Through it all, I studied Ruiz. Visiting the mound, taking signals from the dugout, he was striking in his management of the game. I had to say hello. I had to let him know I was there.
Strapping the camera around my neck and turning my hat backwards, I sliced toward the Licey dugout and hung my head inside. I looked like an American reporter. I got the attention of the first player I saw. It was Offerman, perhaps the most recognized player on Licey.
"Carlos Ruiz," I said. "I’m from Philadelphia."
Curiously, Offerman turned, summoning him from the bench. "Carlos!"
He emerged. It occurred to me that moment how small the world was, how I could be standing there, face-to-face, with this player I studied and cheered for. Here we were, a chance meeting in La Romana.
"I’m from Reading. I’m from Philadelphia," I said. He nodded and stood. With nothing more to say, I snapped his picture.
I wanted to say more, "Screw Sal Fasano," is what I was thinking. Instead, I said "I want to see you in Philadelphia this season." He nodded, turned and he was gone.
Perhaps it was a jinx. Ruiz had a terrible game with the stick, going 0-4 and getting picked off first base. But the rest of the game was a joy. The difference between the American game and the Dominican game couldn’t have been more apparent, on the field and off. In the stands, there was dancing, machismo and joy. On the field, it was no different. Replacing the graceless Tamayo was a pitcher named Chavez. His style most resembled the merengue, the national dance of the Dominican. His flair was all hips and a snap-dragon release that caused his entire body to twist. Wild as hell, but entertaining.
Symbolic of the entire experience, it was artful, foreign and beautiful. The fans had been nonstop to the very last moment, when Brazoban notched the save for Licey in the 11th, securing the 6-5 win.