Photo by Brendan Hoffman
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but in the Dominican Republic it is something more—if not a religion, than at least an obsession. It is also the country’s biggest export: On opening day of the 2013 season, 10 percent of the players on Major League rosters were from the tiny Caribbean nation. Omar Minaya has seen the growth of baseball culture here firsthand. After his minor league playing career fizzled, he worked as a scout, bird-dogging talent in the early days of the Dominican explosion, then went on to become the first Dominican-born GM of a Major League team (the Montreal Expos, then the New York Mets). He is now senior VP of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres.
“This country has a great love for the game, and for the players who play the game. It’s an identity. When you think of the Dominican Republic, baseball is at the forefront. It connects everybody. It’s got bursts of excitement and then relaxation, and that’s what the Dominican Republic is about.
In a country that is economically challenged, baseball has given people financial opportunity—not only as a way out for themselves, but as a way of helping others, of helping the family. Baseball, from a numerical standpoint, is a game of negatives, meaning that if you get three hits out of ten times at bat, you’re great. It’s that long shot, striving to hit that home run in life.
The culture has changed a lot, because the business has gotten bigger. When I started out, the international aspect of the game was something that not every team dabbled in. In the States now, a lot of talent is being redirected to basketball, football, other sports, so we look for talent elsewhere; the Dominican Republic in particular has become much more important.
Not only is the talent there, but there is also the passion. The game is growing because of the Marichals, because of the Sammy Sosas, because of the Pujolses, because of the Papis. The Dominican team just finished winning the World Baseball Classic. That’s huge.
But there are fond memories of those early days, of what the kids would do to play. There were no baseball academies back then. A kid would jump on a bus, drive five hours and try out, right off the bus. And then we’d sign the player. I’ll give you the story of Sammy Sosa: When I was working for the Texas Rangers as a scout, Sosa got on a bus, came to us and tried out for a contract. We negotiated for four or five hours, and we fought back and forth over $500. Those days are over.”