Dominicans live and die by the sport of baseball. That’s true both figuratively and, as the stories of so many big league hopefuls here reflect, quite literally.
The contributions of the sport to the Caribbean nation’s culture are evident in Santo Domingo, where young boys hit line drives into traffic using broomsticks and branches collected on the side of the road. No country besides the United States has given rise to as many Major League Baseball players as the Dominican Republic.
Thousands in the country grow up with hopes of following in the footsteps of sluggers like Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez — Dominican stars who have cemented the sport’s status as a national obsesssion.
Gipsy Veras, 35, grew up admiring the Dominican stars of generations past: Felipe Alou, Cesar Geronimo, Pedro Guerrero. After signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at 16, the lanky pitcher, newly enriched by a $27,000 signing bonus, traveled to the United States to follow his dream. But one afternoon in 2002, the sport he loved drove him nearly to suicide.
It was a few weeks after he’d been cut from the Giants and sent home: nearly a month after Veras stormed out of the team’s rookie facilities still wearing his uniform. Team staff had already cleared his locker and packed a bag for him. His flight back to the Dominican Republic was already arranged. Veras says he was the last to find out.
Now back in his mother’s home in Santo Domingo, a home his bonus check had expanded and remodeled, Veras laid in bed unresponsive. Saliva drenched his pillow.
He’d spent the day’s early hours locked in his bedroom, crying often, refusing food. Just getting out of bed seemed a monumental task. More than once, his mother came by to check on him.
“Gipsy,” she said, “Gipsy. You have to eat something.”
Veras remembered looking into the mirror, the feelings of failure as he made out the stocky figure reflected within it. Embarassment overtook him. Shock. Utter Disbelief.
Finally, he rose with sights set on his mother’s medicine cabinet. Veras grabbed the first bottle he could find, retreating to his dark bedroom. One by one, he slipped the unmarked prescription pills into his mouth until he started feeling dizzy. He faded not soon after the nausea set in.
For Veras, life in the pressure cooker of the Major League farm system had taken its toll. The pain in his right arm — his pitching arm — had become unbearable, a product, he says, of overwork and abuse at the hands of coaches. His fastball, once 90 mph, was losing its punch. The money that fueled weekend-long beach getaways in the northern Dominican Republic had long ago disappeared. Now back in his home country with no Major League contract, no education and no professional skills to boot, Veras had nowhere to go. Baseball was his life for 15 years. He didn’t know anything else.
So with the dream suddenly out of reach, he tried to end it all.
Veras eventually woke up, confused but alive. Stories like his seem to be all too common for young Dominican signees, taught from an early age to live and breathe baseball, and then abruptly sent home as if a business investment gone bad. Right now, around 5,000 of those investments are chasing big league ambitions of their own, in the 30 Major League academies around the country. Of those lucky few, only about 100 will ever see their dream realized.
Thousands more will find themselves in Veras’ position, left to face the reality of life beyond baseball in the Dominican Republic.