Mark Kurlansky Sees Eastern Stars
Kurlansky spoke with Hair Balls about his affection for the Dominican Republic, how the wellbeing of an entire family can depend on a 12-year-old who can throw a good fast ball, and what players who made it to the major league found once they got there.
Hair Balls: What inspired you to write this book?
Mark Kurlansky: I'm really struck with this sense that people who go to the Caribbean, which is a lot of people, never get to see the Caribbean that I have so much affection for. They never get to see their people or see their lives, and that's by design. So I was looking for ways to show this world and these incredible people who face defeat every day but are never defeated. They always come out with their dignity and their sense of humor intact. They're just remarkable people. So for a long time, I've thought I could show that by writing a book about a small town. It occurred to me one day, why not focus on this town that's produced 80 major league baseball players?
HB: Baseball, to the people of the Dominican Republic, isn't much of a game, is it? It's serious business at every level.
MK: What baseball has to offer [Dominica players] is so serious - I mean, saving your family, getting medicine for your sick father, things like that - that there's almost no sense of play when kids play baseball.
San Pedro's full of baseball players and you can spot them because they tend to be larger because they're American-fed and they tend to speak some English. I'm larger and I speak some English, so people were constantly coming up to me and say, "Did you play baseball?" And I would always say, "Yes." Like most American kids, I grew up playing baseball. The next question was always, "Where did you sign?" I realized that they have no notion of just playing baseball for the fun of it.
HB: Most Dominican players are signed to teams in their mid-teens. What's life like for a talented 12-year-old ballplayer? What's the pressure like at that age?
MK: When you're 10 or 11 years old, they start looking at you. By the time you're 12, you should be in a good program, so that by the time you're sixteen and a half, you're ready for a tryout.
It didn't used to be as organized as it is now. Now they try to teach them English, with "I've got it" being the first thing everyone learns. They try to feed them more of an American diet. They try to beef them up because they are all these tall, skinny kids. Very lean, with powerful arms, but still not as big as an American sixteen-year-old.
HB: Even with so many players coming out of this small town, there have to be hundreds of guys who don't make it to the majors for every one that does.
MK: San Pedro is full of people who sign, but only three percent of people who sign ever make it to a major league game.
HB: And is that success to the players, just to get signed, even if they don't make it to the majors?
MK: Yes, because these days signing bonuses have gotten so good. Especially in the minor leagues, salaries aren't very high, but if you can get a few hundred thousand dollars as a signing bonus, that changes the life of your entire family. A sixteen-year-old pitcher got $4.5 million for signing with Oakland. This guy is set even if he never goes to bat.
People in San Pedro earn a few hundred dollars a year. You can never put any money away or get medical help or have a house, as opposed to a shack. When a sixteen-year-old kid signs with the majors, he gets a check. Almost invariably the first thing he does is buy a home for his family. Unless he isn't the first one in the family to sign, then they already have a home.
MK: No, no. We're talking about a cinderblock home with a corrugated metal roof that can withstand a storm and is big enough for the whole family. An American looks at a Dominican middle-class home and thinks its poverty.
HB: Then my brick, three bedroom house ...
MK: Oh, you must be a ballplayer. That's a major league home.
HB: If just getting signed is a level of economic success, then getting to the majors must be seen as a major accomplishment. Is there any stigma for the guys who don't get who don't do well there, who have short careers?
MK: There are a few people in San Pedro who have one game careers. There was a guy a few years back that everyone was talking about. They brought him into the majors, he played three innings and was a disaster. They sent him back to minors. But even if you only play one game, making the majors lets you into a club. It means that you get a higher salary when you play for the Dominican league, it means that you can be a coach, it means that you have an in if you have a plot of land and you want to rent it to a major league team as a base for [operations]. Lots of things happen if you can make it to the majors, even if it's only for one game.
HB: One of the things you talk about in your book is the problems that players encounter when they first come to America. Besides the language, many of the players face racism for the first time.
MK: There are lot of race problems. The Dominican Republic is a very racist place, but it's a different kind of racism. It's all based on the fear of Haitians.
You are not discriminated against in the Dominican Republic for your race unless you're a very black Haitian. If you're a lighter color and not Haitian, you're not on the receiving end of racism. Then they come to America and they see racism and Jim Crow, especially some of the earlier players who went to the South, and they don't see what that has to do with them. They also have a lot of problems with African Americans because of that attitude. The black Americans thought that these dark skinned Dominicans ought to have some sort of solidarity with them, but they don't. They think they are outside of the situation.
And they're not attuned to American political correctness about racism. Like not calling black people boy. One player's nickname was Big Boy, and the black players pressured him into being Big Man. They'd say, "Don't call yourself boy," and he didn't know what they were talking about.
Mark Kurlansky reads from and signs copies of The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris at 7 p.m. April 22. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-523-0701 or visit www.brazosbookstore.com. Free.