January 17, 2005


BASEBALL IN THE DOMINICAN PASSION FUELS RIVALRY: Licey vs. Aguilas is every bit as big as Yankees vs. Red Sox (Susan Slusser, January 17, 2005, SF Chronicle)

Here in the Dominican Republic, possibly the most baseball-mad country in the world, Licey (LEE-say) vs. Aguilas (AH-gee-lahs) is the equivalent of any huge American sporting event. In a nation where baseball is everywhere -- on bare fields, in dusty streets, in parking lots -- attention is riveted on any showdown between Licey, the team from the capital of Santo Domingo, and Aguilas, from Santiago, a city in the Cibao Valley in the north-central portion of the island.

"La Guerra ('The War')," the newspapers trumpeted the first time the teams met during the nearly monthlong round-robin tournament.

And no wonder: The Licey Tigres have won 18 championships, the Aguilas Cibaenas 17. Aguilas holds a 11/2-game lead on Licey after Tejada's three-run homer keyed a 10-6 win Sunday. Both teams are loaded with big-league talent.

When the tournament began this month, Licey (the Yankees of the island) had a major-leaguer at every position, including an outfield of Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen and Eric Byrnes. Other Licey standouts include Ronnie Belliard of the Indians, Cristian Guzman of the Twins and D'Angelo Jimenez of the Reds, plus onetime A's player Carlos Pena at first base, and Jose Offerman on the bench. Guerrero, the 2004 AL MVP, has missed most of the tournament with an injured thumb, however.

Aguilas has Tejada, the former A's shortstop, along with Polonia, reliever Luis Vizcaino and a host of ex-major-leaguers and top prospects.

"We could play against big-league teams," Tejada declared.

Aguilas also features effervescent starter Jose Lima, whose outrageous behavior sends packed stands into an even greater frenzy.

The first time the teams met this month, in Santiago, Lima was pitching, and though he's known for his lively antics on the mound in the U.S., he hammed it up 10 times more for the Dominican crowd, taunting Licey supporters in the stands relentlessly and leaping in the air and spinning around after any good play and at the end of each inning.

"He is crazy, yes?" a Dominican reporter asks a visiting American. "Loco. Muy loco."

Capitan America: A's outfielder Byrnes is beloved in Dominican Republic (Susan Slusser, January 16, 2005, SF Chronicle)
When Eric Byrnes arrived here for his first winter-ball season four years ago, he got a nasty shock after checking into his hotel. A man was shot dead in the lobby, and the crime-scene tape outline of the body was still there the next morning when Byrnes headed down for breakfast.

"That was my welcome to the Dominican Republic," the A's outfielder said. "And I guarantee you right now there are at least 20 pistols in our (Licey) clubhouse. Everyone carries guns, and there's only one rule -- if you pull it out, you better use it, because if you don't the other guy will. That's what happened to the guy in the lobby: He was waving his gun around and the security guard shot him. It's like the wild, wild West here." [...]

It's an odd pairing, the kid from Woodside and the Dominican Republic, but it makes sense.

The feeling is more than mutual. Byrnes can't venture out without getting requests for autographs or photos. People whip out camera phones the moment his easily recognizable blond mop comes into view, and murmurs of "Er-eek Byrnes, Er-eek Byrnes" follow in his wake.

He went to a resort last week when his girlfriend, Tara Peters, was in town and thought he wouldn't draw much notice because of its largely foreign clientele. But the workers and staff were all locals and big fans. Soon, he was agreeing to play stickball on the beach with them.

Many of the Licey players have their favorite stories about Byrnes, and Carlos Peña's demonstrates how crazed the populace is about him.

"After we won the (Dominican League) championship two years ago, I was in a restaurant in Santo Domingo, and I heard all this commotion, so I stood up to look, and I see this parade of people, total chaos -- and the next thing I know, there's Eric, bobbing up and down on top," said the Dominican-born Peña, who was briefly Byrnes' teammate in Oakland in 2002 and now plays first base for Detroit. "There are thousands of people, he's being thrown up and down, and he's loving it."

Byrnes said the impromptu street party began when he and some teammates stopped at a gas station en route to a nightclub. Byrnes was spotted, and, he said, "All of a sudden it turned into a mob. I can't express how many people were there, grabbing and tugging at me. So I just decided to enjoy it."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2005 10:07 AM

The Dominican Republic is the cradle of baseball. Nothing wrong with that, as long as there is one.

Posted by: Palmcroft at January 17, 2005 4:38 PM

Outside the stadiums, baseball is everywhere. In a ramshackle youth facility across from Estadio Quisqueya, 12 kids play, sharing the three gloves they have, with the rest fielding barehanded. Stickball games are staged in side streets in the heart of the city while cars and buses whiz past. Baseball games blare from taxi radios.

Boy, this sort of thing reminds me of the College World Series: loads of fans driving up in their RVs every year to hang out in Omaha for a week and watch a great amateur baseball tournament. Outside the stadium, there is a panoply of games and stands and concessions -- something for everyone. A real treat for baseball nuts. It's such a pure celebration of baseball that the ESPN announcers make sure the CWS is written into their contracts every year.

If you're interested, we start play June 16th this year, and everyone in town shows up for this thing. A guaranteed good time, I promise.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at January 17, 2005 7:39 PM