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Monday, September 10, 2001
"What must they be thinking?"
By Jimmy Roberts
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on ESPN.com on Sept. 23, 1998.

Three weeks ago, at the height of the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run frenzy, I was assigned to do a story on Sosa's background and upbringing.

I spent three days in the Dominican Republic, talking to family and friends (one thing I found was that everybody, it seems, is Sammy's friend). I listened, watched, tried to gain some understanding of what was behind a man who was now part of one of the biggest stories of the year.

I came looking for a sports story. I'm not sure if that's really what I found.

Among the things I saw:

  • Neighborhoods where giant hills of garbage and puddles of animal excrement were the landscape on which children played "baseball" with a tree branch for a bat and a bottlecap as a ball. Man, could they hit that bottlecap.

  • Little clear plastic bags with blue writing, which litter the island. It's how the people of the Domincan Republic get drinking water because what comes out of the tap -- if you have plumbing -- is suspect.

  • Our local guide-driver-fixer was a young man named Euripedes, who earns a decent living working for the Baltimore Orioles (doing what, I'm not exactly sure). He is quiet and amiable and never went anywhere without a loaded .45 tucked in his waistband and an extra clip in his back pocket.

    He carries the gun because San Pedro has become a sometimes dangerous place. He says that now the U.S. is deporting bunches of Dominican drug lords and criminals and they have come home to prey on their own people -- to pick the carcass clean of what little meat remains.

    One day he took us to a restaurant at which he said many visitors to the island ate. It was clean and bright and surrounded by packs of the omnipresent shoeshine boys who roam the island looking to earn a few pesos. They hang around knowing they might get the scraps of an unfinished meal or perhaps -- through the guilt, shame, or generosity of a horrified foreigner dining on the other side of the glass -- a piece of chicken that they were actually the first to taste. This, we are told, is what life was like for Sammy.

    We bought food for the entire pack. Sitting there watching them patiently wait for Euripides to give them each something to eat, I couldn't help thinking they looked just like typically overactive and happy elementary school kids from Anywhere USA on a picnic. When Euripides came back, he said that in all likelihood it was the only good meal they had had in days. If you are a parent, this breaks your heart.

  • Still, these are among the happiest children you have ever seen. They literally have no idea what they are missing. I saw the same thing in Soweto. Nobody ever told them there are supposed to be things like Barney, recommended daily allowances and The Gap. And so life is good, with their made up games, a mouth full of freshly hacked sugar cane and the obviously donated clothing. One little boy was wearing a tee shirt that said: CHAD's BAR MITZVAH CRUISE 1999."

    The day after I returned from San Pedro, I drove from West Palm Beach up to Port St. Lucie to talk with Omar Minaya, the Mets assistant general manager who, as a scout, first "discovered" Sosa 15 years ago. As I waited for him, I looked around at the training complex and its two or three flawless practice fields, where it seemed not a blade of unruly grass existed. It was then I really understood. What must a child, raised in squalor and deprivation -- who loves baseball with every ounce of his fiber -- feel or think when he sees this for the first time? What goes through his mind when he understands that this is his new reality?

    Maybe he loves this game because it represents a joyous escape from the indigent reality of his daily life or maybe because it was a way out. Whatever.

    If you think America is the center of the baseball universe than you need to take a trip to the Dominican Republic. Maybe like me, you'll go to try and gain some deeper understanding of this game.

    Don't be surprised though, if like I did, you come away distracted.





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