SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - The lanky 15-year-old and I didn't share a full language, but on a breezy, balmy November night, we shared at least two words.
"Junior Lake?" I asked of the man in the home team's batting cage, preparing for that night's game by snapping his hips into pitch after pitch.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
"Sí," the boy said, and smiled.
I was familiar with Lake as a solidly built 22-year-old up-and-comer in the Chicago Cubs' minor-league system. The boy, Ambiorix, knew Lake as a local guy who played for the local team: Estrellas Orientales, San Pedro's squad in the Dominican baseball league. That night, they were hosting Toros del Este, the team from La Romana, 25 miles to the east.
Ambiorix said he hoped to follow a similar career path as Lake: infielder for the Estrellas, playing professionally in the United States, and then, hopefully, making the big leagues. And no wonder.
Of the 856 players on Major League Baseball rosters on opening day 2012, nearly 100, more than any nation outside the United States, hailed from the Dominican Republic. The country of 10 million has sent north such greats as Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Juan Marichal.
No one can quite say why the Dominican Republic is such a baseball factory, but it makes for an ideal shorts-and-T-shirt getaway for someone wanting more than a beach during winter's depths. Not only can you see some of the best talent on the planet, you might also see a few players you know, like Lake, who grew up in San Pedro, a town of about 200,000 where Sammy Sosa famously shined shoes as a boy before hitting 609 home runs in the majors.
Even my cabdriver in San Pedro was at a loss to account for the talent his city and nation have produced. "I don't know how to explain it," he said. "There are a lot of successful players from all over the country. Here there are the most, and it has been that way for a long time."
The answer unfolded as we drove through the small town buzzing with commerce - pharmacies, fruit stands, cellphone stores - and young men on smoky mopeds. At its edge, San Pedro pays homage to its greatest export artistically: tall wire statues of a pitcher, catcher, and batter. Minutes later we passed the living version of the same scene: three 8- to 9-year-old boys on a rubble-strewn lot where a rusty paint-can lid served as home plate.
We stopped for a closer look. When the catcher decided to play outfield, I took over behind the plate - that is, the rusty paint-can lid - for a few minutes, dutifully returning the ball to a small, thin pitcher. But then the huskiest of the boys cracked a pitch beyond a neighboring fence, far enough that after a brief, fruitless search, the boys deemed the ball gone. Fortunately, a tennis ball sat in reserve. Game on.
After a few more pitches, the cabbie and I piled back into his van and headed to Tetelo Vargas Stadium, smallest in the league, seating about 8,000. Dating back more than 60 years, Liga de Beisbol Profesional de la Republica Dominicana, or simply the Dominican League, has six teams, each made up of an assortment of up-and-comers, has-beens, and never-wases. Most of the players are Dominican, and many have been signed to professional organizations in the U.S. The rest are Americans who are trying to sharpen their games while already affiliated with professional organizations (winter ball, as you may have heard).
Ardor runs high here for American baseball, and many Dominicans also follow a team on our shores: The Red Sox are particularly popular for boasting the holy Dominican trio of Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz in recent years. But you will see hats from a dozen or more American teams on local heads, and there's a certain democracy in it. In Santo Domingo, for instance, both the man shining shoes and the man having his shoes shined wore Yankees (or Yanquis) caps.
But in San Pedro, it is all about the green-and-white-wearing Estrellas, a frequent also-ran in the Dominican standings that was enjoying unusual first-place success as I settled into my seat 10 rows up the first-base line on a warm, cloudless night in January.
The seats around me were only sparsely filled, but the stands in right field were packed with locals, one of whom carried a massive green flag. Behind home plate a cluster of American scouts crowded together with scorecards as vendors hawked candy and potato chips and tried to catch their attention. It was the only game on the island that night, which meant the scouts' presence was particularly heavy.
"We're doing our due diligence," said Eddie Bane, a former Minnesota Twins pitcher who was there on behalf of the Boston Red Sox. "There are major leaguers all over the place here."
Indeed, both starting pitchers were American-born players affiliated with American teams: Bruce Billings was on the hill for the Estrellas (he's now a free agent) and Josh Outman, a Colorado Rockies pitcher, threw for the Toros.
What unfolded had the good-natured enthusiasm of a college basketball game crossed with a professional soccer match jammed into a minor-league baseball game. Chanting erupted early and often, especially from the Estrellas fans as their team took an early lead, and that massive green flag got a brisk workout.
But a small band of orange-wearing Toros fans, sitting high along the third-base line, was not deterred. They chanted for their outfielder, Charlie Blackmon (another American-born Colorado Rockies player), who got the only Spanish-accented English chant of the night: "Let's go, Blackmon!" They chanted their undying devotion even as they trailed ("¡Somos los Toros y no tenemos miedo!" which means "We are the Toros, and we are not scared!"), and they taunted the Estrellas' pitcher ("Tu eres loco" - "You are crazy").
With the Toros down by 10 runs late, their fans turned their attention to another target: pitcher Jose Valverde, a San Pedro native who has enjoyed success in the major leagues and pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series. He sat in a bright pink shirt near home plate, rooting, it seemed, for the Estrellas.
The Toros fans started chanting Valverde's name and continued until he stood and waved. When they cheered gratitude, he responded by sending over a bucket of rum and soda. Then, an inning later, he ran up the steps to those fans and danced with them between innings. Just try to imagine an All-Star pitcher doing that in the United States.
Four hours later, the game was over, and the Estrellas had won, 15-6. For a Northerner, it was a much-needed shot of live baseball in midwinter. For Ambiorix, it was a double success on a local level: Not only did his team win, but also his man Junior Lake had two hits and a run batted in.