Escaping Poverty

Two young Dominican children

The Dominican Republic – a tiny second-world country located in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic is a poverty-stricken country, to say the least. In fact, roughly two-thirds of its population lives in poverty; 20 percent of those under the poverty line are currently living in extreme poverty. In a country where power-outtages are normal on multiple occasions throughout the day (even in its own capital), tap water is rare to find (except in a few select cities), and inflation has damaged the economy, hope seems all but lost in the views of an outsider. Many people who visit the country only see the beautiful. They travel to the likes of Santo Domingo (the capital), Boca Chica, Punta Cana, and so forth. It’s easy to overlook the negative when you only expose yourself to the positive. The reality is that the country, although steadily developing, is still drowning in poverty. Yet with such adversity, it still witnesses numerous individuals make their way out. In the United States, where even the poorest of poor are in better circumstances than most in the Dominican Republic, there is one common goal: gaining a higher education to one day successfully get a job.

Poverty stricken man

If you were to come up to any random child with ambition, in the likes of a struggling neighborhood in perhaps Chicago, Detroit, New York, or wherever, his/her goal is probably to go to college and get a degree. With that piece of paper, a bunch of doors are supposed to open up. But put this into perspective: in the Dominican Republic, roughly 20% of those living in poverty don’t even have proper documentation, such as birth certificates – much less any shot of every seeing a college diploma. In the United States, education is viewed as the main tool to make it out of poverty. In the Dominican Republic, to the commoner, education beyond the high school level isn’t even a thought sometimes. In fact, to many, there is no hope of them escaping poverty. But to some, there is a source of hope. That source of hope isn’t education, it’s baseball.

A youth pitching

The Dominican Republic was introduced to the game by Cuba in the 1880′s. Ten years later, professional baseball was established. The country now breeds baseball players. But that ambitious child from a struggling American neighborhood may not say education, but rather, a sport! But even to succeed at that sport, let’s take basketball for instance, that American child must still use his education as the foundation of his success. He has to finish high school to gain recognition from a college. He then must complete at least one year of college before entering the NBA (unless he plays overseas once graduating from high school). The point is, they must at least attain a high school diploma! In the Dominican Republic, well, that’s a different story. The country is widely-known for the great baseball players it produces. It’s because in the Dominican Republic baseball comes first, while education comes second. That’s not a metaphor, nor is it a way of exaggerating the commitment that Dominican players put into baseball. It is by no means a hyperbole. Here in the States, any child who is foolish enough to cut class is either getting into trouble, doing drugs, being lazy, or simply ignoring his or her duties of attending school and kickin’ it with friends. I guess that last one isn’t that bad. But in the Dominican Republic, there’s a 95% chance that a child who cuts class is out playing baseball. It sounds insane, but remember: baseball comes first, eduction comes second.

Robinson Cano

The numbers do not lie. On opening day, the MLB’s full-roster featured 28.2% of players born outside of the U.S. That’s 241 players out of a pool of 856. Of that 28.2%, which is made up of 15 different countries, 37% of them are Dominican. In fact, the Dominican Republic has led the MLB in players born outside of the U.S. ever since 1995, when Major League Baseball began releasing such information. The United States’ population is roughly 314 million. The Dominican Republic’s population is roughly 10.3 million. In other terms, the United States is roughly 30 times larger in number. Yet, against the odds, the tiny island of the Dominican Republic makes up about 10% of the MLB’s roster. At a glance it may not seem like much, but considering the sizes of both countries, the vast differences in opportunities, economy, and standards of living, it’s extremely impressive. But it’s not just about numbers; wait, it is. It’s not just the number of players that the Dominican Republic breeds, but it’s also the numbers that these players are capable of putting up. They typically aren’t your 6th, 7th, or 8th hitters, if they aren’t killing on the mound. In fact, you can typically find them at the top of the lineup. From Robinson Cano, to David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Valverde, and Jose Reyes, to former greats such as Vladamir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, and Juan Marichal. The list goes on and on. If you noticed, big names like A-Rod and Sosa were left off honorable mention due to their steroid use.

A game of "vitilla"

So what makes these Dominican players so good? What is the main reason behind why this tiny little island in the Caribbean produces such great talent? Is it because of games like vitilla, as pictured above? People always mention how great of a sport basketball is because you can simply gather some friends an put together a pickup game. To a non-Dominican, that probably degrades the game of baseball a bit. But to a Dominican from the island, that’s laughable nonsense. They’ve already solved that. Rather than going through the hassle of putting together two 9-men teams to play a baseball game, why not run a quick 3-on-3 or 4-on-4? Yeah, we do that. It’s a very flexible game, in terms of the rules. You may play with or without bases, among the other variations that can be made. But how may this game give Dominicans an advantage that an American may not have (as a developing baseball player)? Well, as previously said, it’s not always easy to gather 18 players to run a good ol’ ballgame. In fact, if you aren’t playing organized baseball in a league or academy, you’re playing vitilla. You can find a game being played on nearly every corner. What makes the game so special? Well, if you think hitting a 90MPH fastball is tough, try hitting a water bottle cap with a broomstick for a start. That’s the foundation of vitilla. Kids grow up playing this street game. It’s not a wild guess that a 10-year old who grows up successfully hitting water bottle caps with a broomstick, and dedicates his entire childhood to baseball, will grow up to be an outstanding hitter. But, vitilla is just a recreational activity. While it may benefit a hitter, it’s definitely not the reason behind Dominican baseball player’s prowess.

A young man fielding

The reason is a rather simple one. It’s the identity of the country in global terms. In sports term, the identity is definitely baseball. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that MLB is located in the U.S. and the fact that the U.S. out-populates the Dominican Republic 30 times to 1, there would be far more Dominicans than Americans in Major League Baseball. So even though there are technically more Americans in the league, the Dominican Republic should be better recognized as the baseball powerhouse that it is. Baseball is the identity of this small Caribbean country, in terms of sports. But globally, it’s identity is poverty. While in better economic shape than its neighbor Haiti, the Dominican Republic is still an extremely poverty-stricken country. While poverty serves as a horrible abstract force of oppression, it also serves as a blessing in disguise. The cruel reality behind the country’s poverty is that a lot of these players that we see in the big leagues today were blessed to have come up surrounded by such poverty.

A "dugout"

Talent is developed. But, talent isn’t enough. Potential may be set, but it may never be reached. Motivation is the uniting force that allows talent to reach its potential. Without that motivating force, it’s extremely difficult to reach such potential, solely on personal desire. One may want to succeed, and while that’s nice, it’s not nearly as enough as one who needs to succeed. One who needs to improve the quality of life in which his or her parents is currently living. The motivation that poverty radiates isn’t that of desire, but rather of necessity. It’s what drives a young man or woman to work 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, year-round. The reason why the Dominican Republic breeds such great baseball players is because baseball serves as the only means of truly escaping poverty. Just ask the 30 MLB teams that have established baseball academies in the country, in attempt to buy some of the best talent in the world – for cheap. For what may seem like chump-change ($5,000) to an MLB organization, is the opportunity of a lifetime for a young kid who’s never had a lightbulb in his home.

Written by Fausto Rodriguez, Jr. 

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