By Dalbert Sánchez
With so many kids still sloshing through the water of the melting rinks that hardcore hockey moms cannot prevent, baseball is probably a swear word at the present time. Sorry! While they are still passing the puck around, I will talk ball, anyway. Let me ask you, what would you say is the difference between baseball in Canada and in the Dominican Republic? I could mention other nations, where baseball is not just a sport – it is a passion. But let’s stick to Quisqueya. Is it having the opportunity to play ball every day? Well, maybe. But there are a few factors.
In the Caribbean, the temperature remains consistent at around 77 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Generally, the whole island is sunny with tropical weather. They determine the change in seasons by the annual rainfall rather than by the icy temperature causing havoc during the winter months in Canada.
It was the early 90s and my second winter in Canada, when I was invited to play snow-pitch. Snow-what? I said. “Snow-pitch.” It didn’t sound good but it had something to do with baseball, so I accepted. I put on about five pairs of pants and as many shirts underneath my winter coat. It was so bitterly cold that after a few minutes outside, it felt like every vein in my body was frozen. It was about -20 degrees, but to me it felt like -100. As my body begged for mercy, my face and everything around it was numb. Everything was strange to me.
Where else do you see people playing baseball in the snow? But then again, this is Canada and when you talk about Canucks and winter, they do crazy things. To start with, they told me that I couldn’t use any gloves to avoid letting go of the bat and hurting someone, accidentally. This didn’t make sense but when you are trying to fit in, you could pretend to even enjoy death.
My friends did something evil and cruel. It made me laugh after but at the time, I was sulking like a bear with a frozen paw. They used a white ball instead of an orange or a yellow one. The batter made sure to hit it right in front of me in the outfield. I thought I saw something round falling but it disappeared when it hit ground. I was hurrying my frozen fingers, like a kid trying to retrieve his favourite toy from quicksand. Was I going to find it?
As he ran the bases, the runner laughed and took all the time in the world―taunting me. They had their fun but when my turn came, I fed them a piece of their own ice. After hitting the ball, I ran to third instead of first and dropped to the ground shivering and talking with slurred speech that wasn’t hard to fake. Everybody circled around me. “Jesus! Are you okay?” asked one of my buddies. “What?” I mumbled, looking confused. I continued to chatter my teeth like a pair of maracas.
Somebody ran for his phone to call for help. “Do you know where you are?” I said yes and quickly got to my feet. They couldn’t stop laughing. I went home shortly after. The cold blisters at the bottom of my feet felt like walking on broken glass and my toes as if they were banging against a concrete wall. When I went to school on Monday, I moved tentatively like a sloth and had to crawl up the stairs to go to class.
Despite knowing what they had put me through, the following weekend they invited me to play snow-pitch, again. I was furious. “I love baseball but if someone else calls again asking me to play snow-pitch, I will call the RCMP; what you guys did to me is a federal crime.” He laughed his butt off before I hung up on him.
In the Dominican Republic, things have changed for the better for those, who dream of becoming professional baseball players. You don’t hear about a youth receiving a $350 signing bonus, anymore. However, while many baseball analysts in America called it exploitation, Dominicans just wanted to play. It was like playing the lottery and many won big.
“Like any thing in life, in baseball sometimes you have the opportunity but you are not prepared – and sometimes you are prepared but you don’t have the opportunity,” former Major League’s pitcher José Lima, who started his career with the Tigers, said to me when we played together back on the island.
Today, you hear about 16-year-olds getting multi-million dollars signing bonuses that if things don’t go the way they hope, they could retire by age 20. Many kids still quit school to play baseball, hoping to be seen by one of the “caza-talentos”―as they refer to the scouts―that go all over the country looking for talents and potential prospects.
In the rural areas, which have produced so many of the superstars that you see in the Majors, you play anywhere. You learn to share the field with the cows and the pigs, and negotiate with them, as you chase the ball. People respect you a lot more if you recognize that you suck and don’t blame hoofs and the oinkers for dropping the ball and knocking your own team out of the championship. Needless to say that many kids don’t have access to a decent field, but they play and nothing gets in their way.
“Baseball diamonds are so clean in Canada that if they cooked a steak and lay it on home plate, all I need is my hands to devour it,” I often joke with my friends. How about gloves, bats, and balls? Regardless of whether parents can’t afford them, their kids always have access to decent equipment and uniforms. But the more my son becomes more competitive and the more I realize that bigger players could obstruct his progress.
As a person, who used to play organized baseball, I have great respect and admiration for the London District Baseball Association―better known as LDBA―the game of baseball, and the different baseball organizations. Whether my boy plays or not, I will always want to be part of the game and be a strong advocate for the kids and their rights to enjoy the sport in a safe environment.
But my passion and my son’s love for the game can’t supersede the rules, which are in place to better manage the different member associations, I would imagine. It is what it is and there isn’t much that you can do about it. But LDBA cannot prescribe its rules in a way that they are going to discourage kids from playing their favorite pastime. It would seem as if while trying to do well, LDBA is encouraging parents and their kids to sprint to other organizations.
In 2015, I registered my son to play for one of the LDBA daughter associations. A couple of months later, we were not receiving any updates regarding practice or scheduling, so I e-mailed them a few times asking for information. Lo & behold, we received a call from a different association to let us know that my son had to go there, as per LDBA rules. In other words, our area didn’t have enough gloves to fill a competitive team.
In early 2016, we are facing the same dilemma. We paid for my son to attend a workout program being offered in a different area. Two weeks into the fitness program, I received an e-mail from Diane Wakefield (of LDBA) prohibiting my son from continuing to participate in the workouts. “You are not allowed to work out with an out of area team," said Wakefield. "He needs to have permission from me and I am not giving it to him."
I was shocked. Coming from a Third World Country and writing extensively about communist regimes in Latin-America---like Cuba for example, where you get thrown in jail if State police catch you eating beef---I find these rules pretty authoritarian. How can you deny a kid the right to work out in a different area, when he’s just trying to stay loose and get ready before the season starts, especially when his area association has not announced whether it’s holding similar fitness sessions and has not had a competitive team in the last three years?
LDBA should not force any kid to sit and wait around for the ice cream that might not be coming. This is competitive baseball. I have heard that my son can only play for a different area if his association can’t fill a team or if he asks to be released. This reminded me of what Katherine Hepburn, who was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years, once said. “If you obey all the rules, you will miss all the fun.” We are taking all the fun out of the game.
The question is does LDBA have the legal rights to tell a youngster that he cannot even take part in a fitness program? Sometimes, I think that I could be making a typhoon out of teaspoon of water. But it is just unfathomable!
If the survival of competitive baseball in the city depends on having the teams that LDBA is trying to keep from disintegrating, why not require that everyone in the city register through a MDB (master data base), except associations such as DKMB and St. Thomas? Registering through an MDB doesn’t mean that you are not going to play with your area association. It doesn’t mean either that teams won’t be able to hold their tryouts. All it means is that individual associations would have less of a chance to recruit out of area’s players, as it may happen through the direct and current (existing) registration process.
By mid or the end March, LDBA should know what association or associations would have enough players to fill a team and provide the coaches the list of the players that would be trying out for their teams. But before we get there, LDBA should hire a fitness/baseball instructor before the season starts. This could be someone, who has nothing to do with LDBA or its daughter associations, to work out and get the kids in shape once a week, for 10-15 weeks―before the season starts.
This will prevent the unfair recruitment of players by sneaky coaches and/or associations, who just want the best players. Such a workout program, which parents would have to pay something for, would promote the importance of early registration, teamwork, fitness, and participation. Regardless of what level they play, players would be encourage to register and be a part of it to get ready for the season.
It is frustrating when a parent learns that his kid needs permission to even participate in a workout session, as he tries to loosen up his muscles from the time he spent hibernating during the winter months―if he doesn’t do any winter sports.
I understand that enforcing these rules is important to prevent an association from going to another area and stealing its players to put an all-star team together. However, regardless of the reason this is not the right age to be applying such a rigorous policy. At the end, many youth may just give up and quit for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball.
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Dalbert Sánchez, father, author, umpire, and a former catcher