Baseball isn’t just a sport in the Dominican Republic — it’s the national obsession. The Dominican is home to many talented major leaguers including Robinson Cano, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriquez and Albert Pujols just to name a few.
It’s obvious, but the warmer climate allows for baseball year-round. Many major and minor leaguers, as well as former professionals, will play in Dominican leagues to stay fresh during the cold winter months. The Dominican teams are reigning World Baseball Classic Champions. Their players are truly among the best in the world.
The Caribbean Winter Leagues are heading into their playoff season. Here in the Dominican, its version of the World Series, Serie Final, is in full swing. Game three of seven was Wednesday night. Seeing as it was our first night in the country and we had nothing to, I naturally pleaded with my best friend and travel buddy, Rachael Kleinberger to go to the game, after all, the stadium is only a 15 minute cab ride away from our hotel. Being a good sport and great best friend she agreed.
As we rode to the game, Feliciano, our cab driver, mentioned he was a fan of the Licey Campeon (pronounced ‘lie-see camp-ee-own’) Tigers — the same team Rachael and I are cheering for. The spirit of the game is all over the city. Licey’s blue flags and signature “L” are everywhere! We got to talking about baseball with Feliciano, then asked if he wanted to join us for the game. He did.
How, you may ask, do two girls from Minnesota, who have never been to the Dominican Republic become fans of Licey? Simple. A former Minnesota Twin, Lew Ford, is on their team. I’m a fan of his, therefore Rachael is a fan, too. More on that coming up.
Despite being game three of their World Series, we were able to walk up and buy tickets. It isn’t like anything you’d see in the U.S. Scalpers and street vendors approach your car, pleading to sell you their hats, T-shirts and tickets. They even surrounded us at the box office window. Then the negotiating begins. Since I don’t speak much Spanish, Rachael did the eavesdropping as Feliciano represented us in finding not only the best tickets on Licey’s side of the stadium, but the cheapest, too. By the way, they were 600 Dominican Peso, that’s less than $20 U.S. dollars each. Incredible.
Estadio Quisqueya, the baseball stadium, is home to two baseball teams (like the Staples Center is home court for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers). It just so happens, those same clubs are facing off in the Serie Final. The teams alternate being home and away during the series, but the fans stay strictly on their own side. Licey fans in blue. Escogido fans decked out in red.
We settled into our seats and the game began. For the first time since landing in this country I realized I didn’t need Rachael to understand the language. I speak baseball. Instead, I was translating for her. She’s an enthusiastic fan (despite asking when halftime was) and doesn’t watch the game enough to understand a fielder’s choice or why you can’t strike out on foul balls.
Watching a game in Santo Domingo is a completely different experience than it is at home. Fans there live and die for hits and strikes. Even the first strike out in the third inning got a standing ovation. Escogido fans had a mini band in one section to accompany its cheering. It’s hard to not get wrapped up in the excitement. Every play counts because every play gets a reaction.
A big surprise during the game was the cheerleaders. Every time they performed, my jaw dropped farther towards my feet. I’m not dissing cheerleaders, I was one in high school, but clearly there is a difference in culture. The women were wearing very little outfits and shaking everything their mamas gave them. And there was a giant lion mascot with them. We’ll leave it at that.
Players are well matched in the league and Feliciano explained these two teams are like the Yankees and Red Sox of the island. They’re good, they know it and their fans think their team is No. 1. Almost all of the players in the finale have played in or are currently employed by Major League Baseball teams.
Our game was a bit of a pitching dual. There were dramatic strike outs, pop flies and a few quick turns to catch a runner trying to steal second. The best were the close calls at home. Both times the Licey catcher was quick enough to tag the runner. The game remained tied at zero until the top of the 9th.
With two outs, and a runner in scoring position, Lew Ford walked up to the plate. After his second strike, panic set in. I had only found out Ford was playing the Dominican hours before leaving for this trip. The stadium was easily accessible from our hotel. We got tickets at the gate. All of the pieces were coming together perfectly. I said a little prayer and pleaded with the baseball gods to let him get a hit.
Then I did the only thing I knew to do when I needed a clutch moment from him, I started yelling “LEWWWWWWW!” in the lowest, longest shout I had. Rachael joined in. We got some strange looks from the otherwise anxious Licey fans who surrounded us.
I hit record on my phone. Then it happened. Ford smacked the ball deep into right for a hit. He reached second easily. The runner scored. The stands erupted. I haven’t cheered that loudly and proudly in quite some time (there’s no cheering in the press box).
The RBI finally broke the scoreless game and was enough to win. We even got a few fans to yell “Lew” with us in celebration. Licey won to lead the series 3-0. One more win and they’re league champions.
The game, while now a great first memory of being on this island, is also a reminder: sports are a great equalizer. Regardless of the age you are, language you speak or your ability to play, you can enjoy it.
My Spanish is still sub-par-to-non-existent. But for three hours on a muggy January night, it didn’t matter I couldn’t talk to the people next to me. I could cheer with them. And that’s all that mattered.
Fuimos a un jugar be béisbol en la Dominica. ¡Vamos Tigres!