Baseball Books Reviewed: The Eastern Stars

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead, 288 pg., $25.95). HB, 2010.

If you're a kid in a small town in the Dominican Republic and you want to play baseball but have no equipment, you use whatever might be available. You make a ball out of old socks, a bat out of a stick, and a glove out of a milk carton.

Similarly, if you are old enough to work, you take whatever jobs might be available. You cut sugar cane with a machete for a few months a year, earning the equivalent of about $4.00 for cutting a ton of cane. You sell oranges and lemons on the streets for a couple of dollars a day. It's enough money to maintain your cinderblock house and to raise a few chickens.

By contrast, in another part of that same small town, there are large homes with satellite dishes, gated entrances, and an SUV in the driveway. These are the homes of the lucky few who have really made it, in the eyes of their fellow Dominicans. This is where you live if you have played in the Major Leagues.

Since 1962, more than 80 players from the coastal town of San Pedro de Macoris have made it to the big leagues. Among them are George Bell, Julio Franco, Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano.

What's in the water? This is the first question that author Mark Kurlansky addresses. How did one small coastal town give birth to so many baseball players? It's not the water, but the convergence of social, political, economic factors which Kurlansky unravels in his book: The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, published by Riverhead Books in April 2010.

Over the years, sugar plantations have provided jobs for people in the Dominican Republic, but perhaps more importantly they have also provided bateys, or housing for the workers, where finding an empty field for a pickup game is a long standing tradition. Baseball here brings people together during their leisure time, and these company-owned neighborhoods give rise to a strong sense of local identity and loyalty. The Estrellas Orientales - The Eastern Stars - is San Pedro's professional team, where the season begins in mid October.

Kurlansky tells of two major events which opened the door for Dominican players to migrate to Major League Baseball: the integration of the Major Leagues in 1948, and the US embargo on Cuba in 1962. After integration the dark-skinned players from the Caribbean were able to play in the US, although they faced the terrible specter of racism along with the African American players. But it was the end of US trade with Cuba which led to a greater need for players from other Latin and Caribbean countries, and since professional baseball was already well established in the Dominican, the scouts turned their attentions to places like San Pedro de Macoris.

While boys from this island nation might play the game from an early age, they may be lacking in physical strength. To address this situation, some major league teams run local Baseball Academies, where promising players are given medical care, good food, an education, and daily baseball instruction. The most fortunate of them are offered MLB contracts, and are then expected to spend three or four years in the minor leagues before making it to the majors. Even so, a minor league salary can provide a lifetime of economic stability for the kid's family, along with a lifetime of prestige among his countrymen. If he grew up on a batey, he has seen the toll that years of hard labor can take on a human body. The daily grind of baseball will also take a physical toll but given the choice these boys will do whatever they can in order get a contract to play.

Mark Kurlansky has made a career writing in-depth profiles of naturally occurring phenomena: Cod, (1997), Salt (2002), The Last Fish Tale (2008). In The Eastern Stars, he successfully weaves together the varied storylines behind the natural occurrence of baseball players in San Pedro de Macoris. In a place where options are limited, baseball offers a glimmer of hope for a better life.

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Reviewed by: Susanne Wells (Apr. 26, 2010)