Welcome to the Dominican Republic

Quick facts

Location: Caribbean, eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of Haiti
Size: 18,815 square miles, or about slightly more than twice the size of New Hampshire
Population: 8.9 million
People: 73% Mulatto, 16% European descent, 11% African descent
Language: Spanish
Government: Representative Democracy
Capital: Santo Domingo (population: 2 million)

Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Talented baseball players and interesting personalities (see Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, many others); passionate managers and fans; baseball being played in the streets with broom handles and bottle caps; loud music (merengue); abject poverty.
Quotable: "If you reverse time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to actually pay for a bus," Pedro Martinez.
Famous national anthem verse: "Let us show to the world, Our invincible, glorious banner."
Baseball's Dominican Republic debut: Introduced by the Cubans during the 10-Year War (1868-1878).
Dominican Republic baseball hotbeds: All of the Dominican Republic is a baseball hot spot, especially in and around the cities and towns of Santo Domingo, San Cristobal, Bani, Nizao, Santiago, Cotui and La Romana.
Approximate number of Dominican Republic-born currently signed to MLB organizations: 1,521 (of which 1,442 are minor leaguers)
Some notable current Dominican Republic-born MLB players: Pedro Martinez (Manoguayabo); Manny Ramirez (Santo Domingo); David Ortiz (Santo Domingo); Miguel Tejada (Bani).
Ones to watch for in the future: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins), Ervin Santana (Angels), Francisco Liriano (Twins), among many others.
Some notable MLB record-breakers: Sammy Sosa (San Pedro De Macoris) has hit more than 500 home runs; Albert Pujols (Santo Domingo) became the first player in history with 30 or more homers in each of his first four seasons.
MLB Hall of Famer: Juan Marichal, a nine-time All-Star nicknamed "The Dominican Dandy," Marichal dropped out of high school and was signed by Escogido, who at the time had a working agreement with the San Francisco Giants. Marichal's major-league career took off in 1963 when he won 25 games. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Marichal was baseball's best pitcher, often going head-to-head with Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson en route to winning 191 games and 20 or more games six times. Dominicans loved his unusual delivery, raising his left foot head-high and his right hand, clutching the baseball, nearly grazing the dirt on the pitching mound. Whether it was overhand, sidearm and underhand (submarine-style), Marichal left hitters spellbound. His uniform No. 27 is retired by the San Francisco Giants.
Dominican Republic's baseball weather: Tropical maritime; little seasonal temperature variation; seasonal variation in rainfall. Translation: Muy Bonita! (very beautiful!). The temperatures are usually in the 60s in the evenings (shorts and T-shirt weather).
Biggest sports competitors: None. Baseball is king.
Only in the Dominican Republic: Teenagers guard the entryway to ballparks with a shotgun. Nearly every MLB team has an "academy" to train and house Dominican-born prospects. These academies also often serve as the site of the Dominican Summer League. Among them are the Athletics ("Campo Juan Marichal," La Victoria, one hour north of Santo Domingo); the Chicago Cubs, "Ciudad de Beisbol," Boca Chica, east of Santo Domingo; the Dodgers, Campo Las Palmas; and the Reds "Loma del Sueno Liga."

Amateur and international competition
Approximate number of Dominicans playing baseball: Unable to quantify, but many.
Amateur highlights: None (see other important notes below for explanation); Licey Tigers, the most storied team in the Dominican Republic Winter League (professional), have won eight Caribbean Series titles, the most by any club.
Biggest international rival: Puerto Rico.
Wood/aluminum use/rules: Wood is primarily used, as Dominicans can rarely afford a wood bat, let alone an aluminum one.
Other important notes: The Dominican Republic's amateur "program" has been limited due to a lack of funds. In addition, MLB teams sign players from the country from 16 years old, further limiting the ability of Dominicans to represent their country. The Dominican Summer League, operated by MLB clubs, is the first stop for Dominicans signed by their organizations.
Contact information: Dominican Republic Baseball Federation
Calle Ortega y Gasset Esq. Avenida John F. Kennedy
Estadio de Béisbol # 2, Centro Olímpico Juan Pablo Duarte, Distrito Nacional
Tel: (809) 562 4641, (809) 562 4771
Fax: (+1-809) 562 4708
E-mail: hectorpereyra@hotmail.com

Winter League
Overview: The approximate 50-game regular season runs from the end of October until the end of December, followed by an 18-game, round-robin playoff format featuring the top four teams. Usually, all but six players per team are Dominican born, and some players will only play half a season. Up to 10 "refuerzos" (reinforcement) players are allowed for the postseason, slots usually reserved for some of the country's best players.
League Web site: www.lidom.com.
Teams and the cities that host them: Historic Santiago's Eagles/Aguilas Cibaeñas in the Central Valley; Santo Domingo's Licey Tigers/Tigres del Licey and the second-fiddle Lions of the Chosen One/Leones del Escogido; San Francisco De Macoris' Giants/Gigantes del Cibao; the very historic San Pedro De Macoris' Eastern Stars/Estrellas Orientales; and La Romana Bulls/Toros del Este.
Dominican summer league/baseball academy Web site: www.dominicansummerleague.com

A Dominican signed to his contract has no more than three years to make it to the next level, the U.S. minor leagues, sometimes far less than that. The training ground is an academy of a Major League Baseball team, most of which are scattered on the outskirts of the capitol, Santo Domingo. The players in these academies participate in the Dominican Summer League.

Starting every January, signed Dominicans will play baseball seven days a week, all day long, seldom venturing outside the grounds of a Major League Baseball academy. Call it baseball boarding school. The prospects not only learn the fundamentals; they also learn how to take care of themselves -- and to eat.

At the academy, every day starts with a 7 a.m. wakeup call to eat a big, buffet-style breakfast that included fat-filled pancakes. The players will put on an average of eight-to-10 pounds per month over the next 12 months, or about 120 pounds. The few studs in a group of the 30 to 40 new players every year may even be summoned to rookie ball in North America.

After breakfast and stretching, it's baseball from 8:30-noon, with instruction that includes as many as seven coaches along with drills and some intra-squad games. Following a hearty hour for lunch, the players usually return to the fields or lift weights until around 5 p.m., when they break for a big fat dinner. English classes follow supper, after which most Dominicans are so exhausted they go to sleep.
Most successful franchise: Licey Tigers have won a record eight Caribbean Series titles.
Biggest rivalries: Licey Tigers-Eastern Stars; Tigers-Eagles.
Famous alums: Yesteryear -- Luis Tiant Sr., Cuba's legendary Martin Dihigo and Horacio Martinez, plus Tetelo Vargas, Ramon Bragana, Cocaina Garcia, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. Last 10 years or so -- Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Furcal.
Best ballparks: Capacity is about 7,000-10,000, with Estadio Cibao, the grandest of them all, the exception to this rule (it's 18,000 plus). All of the country's ballparks do not provide bleacher seating beyond the outfield fences with one exception -- Santiago's Estadio Cibao, by far the most beautiful and more colorful ballpark in the Dominican Republic, and one of my all-time favorites in Latin America. Grandstand, mostly wooden seats, have seat backs while bleacher seats -- located down the lines in the outfield -- do not. And unlike in Puerto Rico, all Dominican ballparks feature natural grass, both in the infield and the outfield -- as it should be!
Ballpark food and drink: "La Bandera Dominicana," featuring white rice with beans and meat with cerveza, El Presidente (grande, por favor!).
Ballpark atmosphere: Attend any baseball game in the Dominican Republic and expect a lot of noise, from merengue on the sound system to voices screaming for success and young boys chasing after a foul ball. Fans bring whistles and other noisemakers, and can generally go berserk.
Wildest entertainers: The fans. It's all about fans. The Dominicans love their baseball.
Uniquely Dominican: There is a sign that greets "Les Tigres" as they enter the locker room from street level, which reads, "Por estas Puertas entran los Mejores Peloteros de este Pais." In English it means, "Through these doors walk the best players in the country."

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.