Days 1 and 2: November 10-11, 2022
And we’re off! After a welcome dinner on the beach and a presentation about Dominican culture – baseball and otherwise – on arrival day, our first full day was a big one.
Our look inside the Dominican baseball machine began in San Pedro de Macorís, where one might say the soul of Dominican baseball resides. The entrance to the city is adorned by a huge sign that depicts baseballs and a bat, followed by a series of metallic statues of a pitcher, catcher, and batter.
We visited the independent training program of Alfredo Arias, one of the most renowned trainers in the country and a man in the center of the baseball hub of San Pedro. He has signed scores of players to professional contracts, and many of the best players and prospects in pro ball – Fernando Tatis, Jr., Jeimer Candelario, and George Valera, to name a few – work out at his facility in the offseason. We were fortunate enough to see an impromptu tryout with scouts of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. Some impressive talent from these young ballplayers! Will any of them be the next big thing to come out of the DR? Maybe…
After the Arias academy, we visited Macorix Cigar Factory, a small shop where three workers meticulously roll premium Dominican cigars all day long. We learned a bit about the cigar-rolling process and our guests walked away with some nice consumable souvenirs. One of the workers gave me a sample of a mini cigar that is soaked in a vanilla concentrate (they also have chocolate) – maybe I’ll have to smoke it at the end of a successful trip!
Lunch was at one of my favorite spots in the whole country – Amable. Amable only serves one food item – pasteles en hoja – which are like Dominican tamales. You pick if you want masa made of plantain or yuca (cassava root) and either chicken or beef inside, slather it in “catchup” and hot sauce, and enjoy. Oh, and can’t forget the fresh smoothies and juice – passion fruit, cherry, strawberry, or papaya. Amable always hits the spot.
Then it was back to the hotel for some beach time before our first LIDOM (Dominican Winter League) game, which would be back in San Pedro at Estadio Tetelo Vargas to see the Estrellas Orientales host the Leones de Escogido.
It was a good thing we rested because it was a long and dramatic game! The game was a rare LIDOM pitching duel, with the game entering extra innings in a scoreless tie. Colorado Rockies prospect Elehuris Montero appeared to hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th. The fans went wild and the Estrellas bench emptied to await their hero at home plate; it was going to be a climactic, cathartic victory after six straight losses by the Estrellas.
But then Montero stopped at second and the whole stadium entered a state of utter confusion. The umpires claimed that the ball hit below the yellow line on the outfield wall and it was not a home run. An excruciating delay ensued as the play went under video replay. The Estrellas players lined up along the first base line, waiting to celebrate with Montero. Two players even eagerly held the Gatorade cooler, ready to give Montero an icy, celebratory shower. The fans chanted “Jonron! Jonron! Jonron!” with impatient cries. Then, the umpire emerged and ruled it a double. The game would go on, and the crowd was deflated.
The baseball gods were good and gave Montero another try in the bottom of the 12th with the bases loaded. This time, rather than a smash that appeared to be a sure-homer off the bat, he hit a dinker into right-center field that fell in just the right spot. Estrellas win!
Day 3: November 12, 2022
Our morning activity was a special one: returning to Pantoja to visit and make donations of baseball equipment and school supplies to the “Triunfadores con Jesús” youth baseball program. Coach Tomas founded the program in 2021 as a sort of antidote to the stereotypical Dominican baseball programs that emphasize baseball above all else.
We visited the program as part of our tour last year to show our support for this exemplary model for developing children and young ballplayers, and I was pleased to see how far they have come. They have now over 100 members, ranging from ages 5-14. It was clear from the presence of many parents and the enthusiasm of the kids that Tomas is having a big impact. The pillars of his program are family, faith, and education, and he uses baseball as an effective teaching tool.
With a big thanks to our tour guests, JapanBall donated an impressive haul of baseballs, bats, hats, apparel, and school supplies. The gifts were graciously received, and Tomas presented plaques to JapanBall, Pachi, and Henry for our continued support of the program. It was an honor to support them and we look forward to continuing to see the program grow.
Next up were sandwiches and fresh fruit milkshakes from the legendary Barra Payan, a favorite spot of mine that was once visited by Anthony Bourdain for a late-night snack.
Fueled up, we toured Santo Domingo’s colonial zone and the house of Cristobal Colon’s son Diego, which was the focal point of the first city in the Americas constructed by European colonists.
A classic Caribbean downpour halted further sightseeing and delayed the start of our next activity, a game at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal between the famed stadium’s two inhabitants: the Leones del Escogido and Tigres del Licey. An impressive portion of the crowd waited out the two-hour rain delay and enthusiastically cheered Licey on to a 6-1 victory.
Day 4: November 13, 2022
After a long day of baseball and sightseeing yesterday, we had a much-needed “chill day” today. Most guests spent the morning sleeping in, going to the beach, working out, or getting a massage.
We met up for lunch, walking down the street to Paladart Argentinean grill, my favorite restaurant in Juan Dolio. Highlights were the octopus carpaccio appetizer, beef skirt steak kabobs, churrasco, and the pork short ribs. Oh, and the Oreo cheesecake!
We returned to Estadio Tetelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris for an early-evening game between the home Estrellas Orientales and visiting Toros del Este. We noticed a group of kids playing vitilla in the parking lot before the game, one of two impromptu games taking place in the lot. We decided to watch them play this common stickball game that uses a bottle cap as a ball, and they invited us to take a turn!
The Toros (whose foreign players include Jackson Frazier, the former Yankee and Cub who used to go by Clint) held a 4-3 lead going into the ninth, but the Estrellas delighted the home crowd with a two-run rally to win it in the ninth – the second time we’ve seen the Estrellas win in walk-off fashion at home in three days!
Day 5: November 14, 2022
After another restful morning, we headed back to San Pedro in the early afternoon to visit the Detroit Tigers’ Dominican academy. Detroit built this complex around 2009, and they were at the forefront of the new wave of Dominican academies that put a renewed emphasis focus on giving young prospects the best opportunity to maximize their abilities, rather simply providing a place to live and work out, as did the spartan facilities of past. Academy Director Jimmy Ortiz was a gracious host, giving us an in-depth look at the massive effort that the organization has made to provide for their players. From the weight room to the classroom, the Tigers are heavily invested in the Dominican Republic and the development of their Latin players. It’s hard to believe that at certain points of the year, around 80 young professional players are living under that roof!
We drove up the road from the Tigers complex, through endless sugar cane, to the Barceló rum factory, which is perennially at (or at least near) the top of the world’s largest dark rum distributors. Despite their prolific production (70,000 bottles per hour, eight hours per day, seven days per week!), Barceló does not cut corners. The only ingredients in their rum are fermented sugar cane juice and water, but the result is a complex flavor profile that goes down surprisingly smooth. In 2016, Barceló became the first carbon-neutral rum producer in the world, and they are conscious of their environmental impact with every step of the process (for example, they compress their carbon waste and sell it to local soft drink producers and they burn their used sugar cane to power their factory). Our tour guests are now rum experts, and many of us with factory-priced consumables to take home and sip on to reminisce about our Dominican tour!
After a quick stop at a local gift shop to purchase typical Dominican souvenirs, we headed to dinner at El Mesón Español, a local favorite in Juan Dolio that specialized in Spanish cuisine. Standout dishes were the conch in garlic sauce, paella, rich pastas, and baked whole fish.
Our two “chill” days are done and we are back tomorrow to finish with two days full of unique Dominican baseball experiences. Stay tuned!
Day 6: November 15, 2022
And we’re back with action-packed days after a couple of days to catch our breath! We started out with a visit to historic Estadio La Normal (officially, Estadio Osvaldo Virgil, named for the first Dominican big leaguer). La Normal was built under the guidance of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1946 and immediately became the focal point of Dominican baseball. Fans at La Normal witnessed countless legends and big moments while Trujillo watched from his box behind home plate. The 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, played here, and the boxing legend Joe Louis also fought a match at La Normal.
As soon as we arrived, we spotted Juan Soto Sr., father of the Padres superstar, who remembered us from last year’s tour. Mr. Soto spoke to our group about his son’s path to the big leagues, which started at Estadio La Normal when he was four years old. Juan Jr. and his younger brother Elian, who signed with the Nationals last year for a $250k signing bonus at age 16, have collectively spent thousands of hours honing their craft on this field.
The next stop was Valdez Hitting Club, the premier batting cage facility in the country. Owner and lead hitting coach Robert Valdez welcomed us to his new facility, which has only been open for about a week. Photos of his famous pupils adorn the walls, including Juan Soto and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Alas, Juan was not going to be there until nighttime, and we had a game to catch in La Romana, so did not have the opportunity to meet him.
Before the game, we stopped for lunch at Adrian Tropical, a local favorite for traditional Dominican dishes on a beautiful waterfront patio. Most of our guests tried mofongo, one of my favorite Dominican dishes, which is made with fried and mashed plantains, and mixed with pork cracklings (chicharron).
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped for some photo ops in front of the MLB academies of some of our guests’ favorite teams. It’s amazing that all 30 MLB teams have an academy within such a short distance of each other.
We had a couple of hours at the hotel before driving east to La Romana, where we saw the Toros del Este host the Gigantes del Cibao at Estadio Francisco Micheli. Before the game, we met with Toros general manager Raymond Abreu, a longtime friend of mine who also leads the scouting and player development operations of the Oakland A’s in the D.R.. Ray was a gracious host, welcoming us to his ballpark and teaching our guests about the serious competitive nature of Dominican winter ball and the process of acquiring players and running a team.
The Gigantes (who are from San Francisco, making them the DR’s San Francisco Giants) are the defending LIDOM champs. They have a handful of big names on their team, including two 2013 heroes: Wladimir Balentien (Japan’s single-season home run king – he hit 60 in 2013) and Fernando Rodney (who closed out the DR’s WBC win in 2013). It was a pleasant surprise to see Balentien, who we also saw at our Honkbalweek Tour earlier this year. They jumped out to an early lead and maintained it for Rodney to close it out. However, as soon as Fernando stepped on the mound to warm up in the bottom of the 9th, it started to pour rain! The game was suspended and we did not get to see Rodney shoot his patented imaginary arrow.
Day 7: November 16, 2022
Wow, how did we already arrive to our last day!? We have had lots of fun and unique experiences over the past week, but today was our fullest day yet.
We started off by going to the “Best of Latinoamerica” prospect showcase at JD Ozuna’s independent trainer academy. With so many top prospects playing in legit games against each other in a neutral setting, it was a perfect opportunity for MLB team scouts to evaluate players for the upcoming international free agent classes. We met up with MLB’s Henry Gonzalez, who explained to the guests what the scouts were looking for and shared about his own unique baseball background. Romy Jimenez, a certified player agent who I interviewed last year on Chatter Up’s “Women in International Baseball” panel, joined the group and also shared about her unique background.
We next drove to the Miami Marlins’ academy, where Academy Director Ismael Granadillo gave us a tour of the MLB’s newest Dominican academy. Wow, what a beautiful facility! Any Latin player who signs with the Marlins is lucky to call that place home, and is certainly put into an ideal position to maximize his talents.
Our lunch was the one that I was perhaps looking forward to the most all week: the legendary Grand Parrador Bella Mar, or as I like to call it, “gas station ribs.” This road stop claims that they have “the best ribs in the Caribbean,” and I’m not going to argue that! It’s a favorite place for baseball scouts and players, and pictures of the many ballplayers who have eaten there line the walls – David Ortiz, Juan Soto, Jose Ramirez, and even Hideki Matsui! We gorged on smoked ribs, chicken, and brisket, accompanied by avocado salad, rice with pigeon peas, and fried bananas. Delicious!
As we prepared to leave, I noticed that Pittsburg Pirates phenom shortstop Oneil Cruz was waiting in line to order! After our group met Juan Soto last year, I was hoping we’d have a similar opportunity. Cruz may not have the same cache as Soto, but I expect big things from him next year and wouldn’t be surprised if he turns into a perennial all-star. Cruz was gracious with his time, taking a group photo and various selfies, as well as signing a few items for me.
Next up was a trip to BHD Bank, the official bank of MLB that processes over $100MM of signing bonuses paid out annually to Latin players signing their first MLB contracts! Carlos Gomez, who manages MLB accounts, talked to our group about the signing bonus payment process, the market for international players, and what BHD does to encourage the players to manage their money wisely. The lobby of the bank is a gallery of Dominican and Latin baseball memorabilia, and to our relief, was really well air-conditioned!
We drove towards Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal to watch our fifth and final game of the tour, but before entering the stadium, we visited the Museum of the Dominican Ballplayer, which is adjacent to the ballpark. We received a private tour and learned a ton about the Dominican legends that are not as well known to American fans. As the tour concluded, we were treated to a special visit by one of the players who is recognized in the museum – 18-year MLB veteran pitcher Miguel Batista. Miguel is a friend of mine from working the World Baseball Classic together, and he was a perfect person to hear from. He had countless entertaining stories from his 26 years of professional baseball, including unique insights into the Diamondbacks’ 2001 World Series victory over the Yankees just after 9/11.
Finally, it was time to enter the stadium for the last time on our tour. The rain stopped just before the gates opened, cooling things down for a perfect evening. We watched the Leones del Escogido host the Estrellas Orientales, and fortunately, the hometown team won because we had seen them struggle a few times earlier on the trip. The game ended up being the third walk-off win that our group attended on the tour!
So that’s a wrap on our second annual Dominican Republic Tour! As advertised, it certainly was a baseball adventure. We logged a lot of miles on this Caribbean island and learned about the Dominican baseball machine inside and out while also getting a healthy dose of the rich Dominican culture. Our tour guests were fantastic – enthusiastic, easygoing, inquisitive, and curious. I can’t thank them enough for trusting JapanBall to take them on this adventure, and have tremendous gratitude for their place in the JapanBall family. I can’t wait to travel with them all again, and to come back to the DR for our 2023 tour!