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The Story Of Baseball And Sugar In A Small Town

Jose Reyes is a star baseball player from the  Dominican Republic who was recruited by a New York Mets scout when he was 16.
Jose Reyes is a star baseball player from the Dominican Republic who was recruited by a New York Mets scout when he was 16.

What do Rico Carty, Alfredo Griffin, Pedro Guerrero, George Bell, Julio Franco, Juan Samuel, Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano have in common? They all come from the small sugar mill town of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, which, according to Mark Kurlansky in his new book, The Eastern Stars, "has given the sport of baseball the most major-league players of any small town in the world."

Coincidence? Hardly. In this intriguing social history, Kurlansky presents several reasons why, by 2008, 1 in 6 of the 471 Dominicans who had made it to the major leagues was a Macorisano. He writes, "To baseball fans who ask, 'Why San Pedro de Macorís?' the answer is not the water but the sugar."

Phenomenally prolific, Kurlansky is drawn to seemingly limited subjects -- cod, salt, oysters and even a single, seminal year, 1968 -- that provide a key to much larger social issues and historical struggles for survival. He's found a journalistic sweet spot in the convergence of the sugar industry and professional baseball in a country with one of the worst economies in the Americas -- in National League terms, somewhat akin to signing a pitcher who can also hit.

To understand the prevalence of baseball in San Pedro, Kurlansky delves into the violent history of the Dominican Republic, a chronicle of foreign occupation and exploitation -- by Spaniards, French, Haitians, British and Americans, and by a series of dictators.

Before San Pedro was a baseball town, it was a sugar town. In the late 19th century, Americans and Puerto Ricans came to run the sugar mills, importing workers from Haiti, Cuba and across the Caribbean. These workers brought with them various versions of ball, bat and running games that eventually mutated into baseball -- a perfect diversion during the long idle months between sugar harvests. Eventually, three Dominican towns organized four teams, including the poetically named Las Estrellas del Oriente from San Pedro -- the Eastern Stars -- which Kurlansky compares to his beloved Boston Red Sox (in the 20th century) for their frustrating habit of "collapsing just before victory."

Caribbean sugar production peaked in the early 1920s, when Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, under American military control, together accounted for almost a third of all the sugar sold in the world market. With its embargo on Cuba in 1962, the United States shifted attention to the Dominican Republic to fill both its sugar bowls and its baseball diamonds.

Kurlansky sweetens his occasionally repetitive book with stories about players who make it, including Alfonso Soriano, with his unmatched 2006 40-40-40 season (more than 40 each of stolen bases, doubles, and home runs), and gerontological-record maker Julio Franco (who retired at 49). There's a valuable appendix describing the first 79 major leaguers from San Pedro, though, unfortunately, no photographs.

Even more compelling than the success stories are Kurlansky's sympathetic portraits of some of the 97 percent of signed players who are released without explanation before they ever get to play in a major league ballpark -- like the hero of last year's excellent feature film, Sugar, about a young Macorisano pitcher who comes to question his lifelong ambition. These are men who bet their entire future on baseball, eschewing education for one of the few available routes out of poverty open to them.

Kurlansky's portrait of the network of scouts, agents and intensive baseball academies that funnel talented players into major league franchises makes it clear that baseball is a high-stakes industry in San Pedro. But, beyond skills, what do scouts say is the greatest predictor of success? Attitude -- a love of the game.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.