Book Review - Mark Kurlansky's batey for baseball

How baseball became as important as sugar in San Pedro de Macorís

The impoverished Dominican town of San Pedro de Macorís has produced more Major League Baseball players than most cities, including Atlanta, ever have. In his new book The Eastern Stars, author Mark Kurlansky, always a fan of deceptively simple questions, has set out to explain why San Pedro produces such a wealth of baseball talent. Picking at this curious baseball statistic like a tangled knot, Kurlansky patiently follows the threads of history, economy, and identity as they lead into a broad and fascinating story.

Kurlansky's previous books, namely Cod and Salt, have used food to approach and parse the complexities of world history. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first few chapters of The Eastern Stars use the sugar industry as a lens through which to view the history of San Pedro and the Dominican Republic. "It was sugar companies that brought in the game and cricket-playing Eastern Caribbean sugar workers who provided the players," he writes. "In some cases sugar even supplied the baseball itself, a hardball fashioned from molasses." Because San Pedro was a sugar industry center, it became a center for baseball, too.

The sugar industry, of course, brought more than baseball. Throughout the Dominican Republic's various occupations by French, Spanish, Haitian and U.S. forces, various waves of immigrants came to the country, often to work in the cane fields. "The Dominicans were left a little bit Spanish, a little bit French, not quite black or white – the only mulatto country, obsessed with race and deeply insecure." In the lead up to World War II, the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo accepted German Jewish refugees in order to whiten the country. At the same time, he arranged for the mass murder of thousands of Haitian immigrants.

Kurlansky admits that this fraught history makes Dominican identity a difficult subject to clarify, but he does pinpoint a significant distinction of hopes, "In Kingston, Jamaica, slum kids practice their singing and hope to be the next Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff. In San Pedro de Macorís they practice their swing and dream of Sammy Sosa."

Kurlansky digs into the stories of the kids who made it out of San Pedro and charts the dizzying progression from poverty to life-changing wealth. As the sugar industry has steadily declined over the years, baseball has become the island's prominent industry. While those who cut cane during the sugar harvest can expect to make a few dollars a day, the average major league ballplayer makes about $3 million a year. It's easy to understand why baseball is the hope not only for young, aspiring athletes, but often their entire families.

Though baseball arrived to San Pedro sometime in the late 19th century, the city's first major league ballplayers arrived in the U.S. in 1962, the same year as the Cuban embargo. Prior to 1962, Cuba had been the main Caribbean destination for tourism and talent scouting. Today, San Pedro is overrun by talent scouts and baseball academies, including one run by the Atlanta Braves.

While San Pedro has produced a stunning number of ballplayers, many never make it to the majors. The precarious nature of baseball dreams isn't lost on Kurlansky. When The Eastern Stars manages to fit personal stories into the tangled webs of the nation's history, the book hits it out of the park.

Charlie Romero, a Dominican player who never made it out of the minors, describes what it was like to grow up in San Pedro's sugar villages, called bateys, "Most kids work at an early age. When they are ten, after school and during school breaks boys work in the fields to make some money. ... Working in a sugar field is one of the worst jobs you can do. You just make enough money to survive." In reflecting on that reality, Romero comes close to answering Kurlansky's central question of why San Pedro produces such a wealth of baseball talent: "Most of the Dominican kids who have made it to the majors come from the bateys. These kids really work. You don't want to go back where you came from, so you give a little extra."

The Eastern Stars by Mark Kurlansky. Riverhead Books. $25.95. 273 pp.

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