Editor’s Note: Mark Cryan, former MiLB general manager and Ballpark Digest contributing editor, is releasing a series on his travels to the ballparks of the Dominican Winter League. What follows is an excerpt of part one of his three-part installment.
The World Series is over, the weather is turning colder, and baseball fans, like Rogers Hornsby said, are preparing to “stare out the window and wait for spring.” But, you don’t have to wait until spring training to feed your baseball addiction. The Dominican Winter League is just a short plane ride away!
There is no place in the world where baseball courses through the veins of the nation like the Dominican Republic. This tiny, impoverished country of just over 10 million people produces roughly 10% of all the players in the major leagues, and has sent hundreds of players to the U.S. since the first Dominican player, Ozzie Virgil, made his major league debut in 1956. The D.R.’s exports include stars like Robinson Cano, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Juan Marichal, and Vladimir Guerrero.
And, you never know who will run into while you’re there. I’ve run into Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez at the airport luggage carrousel, dropped in on the Braves’ Bartolo Colon at his complex, talked baseball with former All-Star Julio Franco in Consuelo, seen Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez in parades in Santiago AND Santo Domingo, traded baseball riddles with the legendary Ozzie Virgil, played dominos with the Marlins’ Marcell Ozuna, and seen Manny Ramirez play for Santiago.
I have had the good fortune to visit the Dominican Republic six times over the last three years, including several visits during the winter, when the Liga Dominicana (LIDOM for short), was in full swing. Known to American baseball people as the Dominican Winter League, this is the “big leagues” for Dominican fans and is a place where their hometown heroes play for the love of the game, their country, and their hometowns during November, December and January. While the play on the field is below major league caliber, the passion and joy that the players and fans bring to the game make it a fan experience like nothing else I have ever experienced.
This league is not to be confused with the Dominican Summer League (DSL). The DSL is a Rookie-level minor league composed of teams of teenage Dominicans, Venezuelans and other Latin players that competes during June, July and August. Those games are played in the Dominican complexes operated by Major League Baseball teams in front of coaches and scouts, much like the Arizona Rookie League or the Gulf Coast League.
With six teams, including two in the capital city of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Winter League no longer features many big stars like it once did; the players here are primarily minor leaguers who play in Single A, Double A and Triple A, some older players showcasing themselves for a new deal, and a few established major leaguers. The big league teams generally don’t want to risk an injury to their established major league players by playing in the winter. Nonetheless, this is the highest level of baseball in the Dominican, the wellspring from which the richest stream of baseball talent in the world flows. When this great baseball is combined with the passion and joy of the Dominican fans, the beautiful beaches, and the wonderful welcoming people, you have a truly special place that every serious baseball fan should experience at least once in their lives.
In the series, I have described each of the five stadiums that host games in the Liga Dominicana, starting with Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal.
Stadium: Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal
Year Opened: 1955
Teams, Year Founded: Tigres del LIcey (1907), Escogido (1921)
Santo Domingo’s major baseball stadium, and the home of the Tigres del Licey (Licey Tigers) and Leones Escogido (“Select” or “Chosen Ones” Lions), two of the glamour franchises in the Dominican League, is located north and west of the Colónial Zone in a bustling, chaotic, part of the city. You will need to take a cab, although it’s recommended to hire a reputable taxi that is arranged through your hotel. As you approach Quisqueya Stadium through the working class neighborhood that surrounds it, you may be relatively underwhelmed, but once you are inside, the stadium is genuinely impressive. With just over 13,000 seats, a gracefully curved roof, and luxury boxes and premium seating areas ringing the top of the main grandstand, this stadium is reminiscent of a well-maintained older Triple A ballpark. Built between 1951 and 1955, during the reign of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, this is the showplace for baseball in the D.R.; think of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park rolled into one.
As a shared stadium, this ballpark features a “Licey side” (third base) and an “Escogido side” (first base), with each team’s sponsors and logos displayed in the seating bowl. Each side has a premium club area, with Escogido’s sponsored by Dewar’s while Licey’s premium area is sponsored by Presidente beer. It’s worth mentioning that Presidente is EVERYWHERE in Dominican ballparks, with sponsorships at a level of prominence that puts Budweiser to shame. There are several companies that appear to be league-wide sponsors, including the cell phone company Claro, but Presidente is the most prominent, with normal signage options like fence signs and concourse signs, but also with massive signs on every outfield light pole in practically every stadium in the league.
This stadium has seen a parade of talent over the years, including Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and Pedro Borbon. The Licey team’s white and blue color scheme can be traced back to their long relationship with the Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda managed Licey for many years, and Dodger players including Steve Garvey, Orel Hershiser, and Mike Scioscia passed through Estadio Quisqueya during that time.
One notable thing about this stadium, as well as every stadium in the league; the bleachers seats are physically separated from the main grandstand. There are no 360 degree concourses here. Apparently, as the Offspring would say, “You gotta keep ‘em separated!” In each stadium, the “cheap seats” also have their own concourses underneath, with concessions, although generally more limited, and their own entrances.
The stadium in Santo Domingo, originally known as Estadio Trujillo when it opened, has been known for many years as Estadio Quisqueya. In the language of the native Taíno people, Quisqueya is the word for the island of Hispaniola, which the DR shares with Haiti. The distinctive curved shape of this ballpark’s roof will remind baseball history buffs of Miami’s since-demolished Bobby Maduro Stadium, which this facility was modelled after.
The stadium was recently re-named in honor of Juan Marichal, the San Francisco Giants pitcher who was the first Dominican elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The full official name is now Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal, but you would probably still ask the cabbie to take you to “Estadio Qui-queya.” (Say “kee-kaya”; the “s” is often dropped.)
LIDOM; Liga Dominicana
This ballpark is also the home of the league offices. LIDOM, appropriately, occupies the middle space in the office level of the stadium, while the two team’s offices and locker rooms are on either side. As it was explained to our group, the league is structured in a vastly different way than is typical in U.S. sports leagues. In MLB, for example, local owners have a franchise that they own, with the league serving as an organizing entity for these independently owned businesses. In LIDOM, on the other hand, the league retains ownership of the franchises, which are then operated by local organizations.
If you were planning a trip to see LIDOM games, it’s also important to understand the format of the schedule. There is a 50-game regular season during November and December from which four of the league’s six teams advance to the first round of the playoffs. Beginning after a break for Christmas, this first round is an 18-game round-robin that eliminates two of the four remaining teams. These last two teams then play a best-of-nine championship series.
As a result, scheduling a visit during the playoffs can be a challenge. The round robin portion isn’t scheduled until the regular season is near its conclusion, and the round-robin portion of the season can end before its scheduled conclusion if the two top teams clinch early. The saving grace is that four of the six teams are clustered on the south coast and are not far apart, but planning a trip can require some flexibility. Keep an eye on www.lidom.com for up-to-date information (click on “Estadisticas” for stats and standings).
WHERE TO STAY, EAT, AND PLAY
Visiting Santo Domingo
With all six teams in the league within two hours of Santo Domingo, this beautiful, historic capital city is the logical, centrally located place to begin your Dominican baseball odyssey. If you are not interested in driving while you are in the D.R. (see “Driving in the D.R.” below), this would be your best destination, with two teams just a short cab ride away from any hotel in the city. Santo Domingo is served by Las Americas International Airport, just twenty minutes east of the city. There are lots of flights connecting through Miami, and it’s a modern airport that is easy to navigate.
The Colonial Zone, or Zona Colónial, Santo Domingo’s old city, features many historic attractions including the first cathedral in the New World, the Spanish Plaza, anti-pirate fortifications, and Diego Columbus’ palace. The Calle Conde, the Colónial Zone’s pedestrian street, provides a place to stroll; start at the cathedral; a visit is just a few pesos, and you’ll be standing inside a building that was built just a few decades after Columbus landed here.
The Parque Colón neighborhood is very scenic area, and, for better or worse, more touristy. There are several nice places to eat right on the plaza with outdoor seating which are excellent for people-watching, including Green’s on Colón Park, and my favorite, the Colón Hotel & Restaurant. It has a varied, inexpensive menu, great location and atmosphere, and relatively fast service. This is by local standards, though. Be prepared for leisurely meals. Wait staff will certainly not rush you, and if you have a schedule to keep, you should tell the wait staff right away that you are on a tight time frame.
As you leave the Parque Colón and stroll the Conde, you will find several good restaurants, a nice wine bar with frequent live music, and at the far end of the this pedestrian street, is Paco’s Grand Café. Open 24/7, Paco’s is the place for pollo and arroz (chicken and rice), and cold Presidente beer, (and, yes, they have hamburgers for the unadventurous). This is a genuinely authentic Dominican experience; looking out on a busy street, a local restaurant full of local customers, staff with very little English, but delicious food, cold beer, and a lively atmosphere. They also have a soft-serve ice cream stand where you can get a nice inexpensive cone, perfect for an evening stroll.
Even if you are staying in the Zona Colónial, it is worth taking a stroll down the malecón (the oceanfront boulevard also known as George Washington Avenue), although you should be prepared to be approached by some very ambitious shoe shine boys and would-be guides. While Santo Domingo is on the coast, a stroll down the Malecón is probably as close as you will want to get to the water. The coastline here is covered in litter, and sadly, litter is a common problem in many places around the south coast. You may want to stick to gazing out over the ocean and admiring the palm trees that line the boulevard. (See the section on Juan Dolio for information on how to enjoy a day on a nice clean beach while in the Santo Domingo area.)
The malecón will also take you past the city’s casinos, including the one inside the Crown Plaza, a nice, modern American-style hotel favored by many baseball execs. There are several seaside cafeterias with spectacular views, and you can also get a close-up view of the monument to Fray Montecino, a Dominican friar (fray) who advocated for the rights of native people during the Colónial era. This monument is huge and impressive, but it’s hard to get a good look at, since there are trees in front of the monument that block out the views from most angles. The malecón will eventually bring you to the Adrian Tropical, an excellent seaside restaurant with spectacular views that is known for its “mofungu.”
Views from the Street
Santo Domingo has stray dogs everywhere. The locals largely ignore them, and they generally don’t seem to bother anyone. They bark at each other every once in a while, but they each seem to have a territory, they seem to get enough to eat, and some people actually show them some affection, which they soak up.
Street music is fairly common on the Conde; there are some occasional strolling three-man bands, usually with a couple guitar players and a drummer with some bongos and an instrument called a guiro; a small handheld metal instrument that looks like a round cheese grater, scratched with a sort of pick or whisk, made up a wooden handle and three metal wires.
For anyone with mobility issues, there is something called the “The Choo Choo,” which is a white tram-type train that runs tourists around the Colónial Zone for a healthy fee. The best place to pick up the tram is on Calle Las Damas.
Another of the common elements of the Dominican tourist experience are the “tigueres,” or “tigers.” These young men work as a kind of street agent, a freelance operator who will strike up conversation, and be willing to provide virtually any type of service a tourist needs. The tigueres generally have some English, and they will happily guide you to a good restaurant, a souvenir shop or artisan market, hail you a cab, recommend a hotel in another city, you name it. They are very forward, and are persistent in a very friendly, Dominican way, but a smart traveler will look at them as a resource rather than a hassle. I found the tigueres to be enjoyable to talk to, generally well-informed, and unfailingly friendly. And, if you don’t need their services, they say goodbye with a wave and a smile.
Obviously, common sense applies, and travelers should stick together, should not allow themselves to be led to anyplace secluded, trust their gut, and avoid the risks of seeking out illicit services or products. With that said, on my two recent visits to the DR, there was never a moment when I felt threatened by a tiguere or anyone else.
Where To Stay
The Conde features several good small hotels. We stayed at the Hotel Mercure, which was wonderfully situated and well run. There is also an excellent hot breakfast included, and a front “porch” which provides a wonderful, somewhat sheltered vantage point from which to watch the world go by. Ask for a room on the back of the hotel, though, as the music from the nearby clubs can make it hard to get much sleep before things wind down at 2 AM.
If you are looking for the most upscale, sedate accommodations in the Colónial Zone, check out the Nicholas Ovando Hotel. This hotel has a pool that overlooks the Ozuno River, and is built in a former Colónial governor’s “palace” (actually a one-story building composes of massive stone block). It’s run by the same folks that run the Hotel Mercure, and it’s more expensive, but is also very nice, very upscale, and has some amenities like a pool table and lots of interior courtyard spaces for relaxing.
If you are looking for a modern full-service hotel of the kind favored by most visiting Major League Baseball personnel, you will want to stay at the Crowne Plaza. It is a very nice hotel with a very sleek modern look and feel. There is also a small casino. The hotel is at the base of Calle Pasteur, located a long walk or a short cab ride south and west of the Colónial Zone, on the malecón.
If you are looking for a beach day while you’re in Santo Domingo and you want to experience the beach like a Dominican, head to Juan Dolio. This is about an hour drive east along the Avenue of the Americas from Santo Domingo, and when we visited, we wound up occupying beach tables and chairs belonging to a great little ocean front restaurant that had a nice affordable sandwich menu, and let us use the chairs for free if we ordered food, unlike some of the restaurants who had “salesmen” renting their tables and chairs.
This is a very friendly, lively Dominican beach, with very few white faces. When we visited on a weekend, there lots of people on the beach, playing vitilla (think stick-ball with a large bottle cap for a ball), eating and drinking, and listening to Latin music (we heard very little American pop music being played in public). The beach has a steep drop off to the water, but the sand then flattens out and you can walk out quite a ways, although the Dominicans are mindful of the natural predators that live in these waters, so they don’t get our very far. The surf was pretty strong, so it was great exercise just to be out in the water.
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