All posts by Faiz Siddiqui

He dreamed of the Fenway Park lights

Words by Faiz Siddiqui
Photo by Nickolai Hammar

On a sunny afternoon in San Cristobal, a 17-year-old lies unconscious, splayed out across a pitcher’s mound before a crowd of 300. The boy’s name is Jesús Cebollo Ulba, and today was supposed to be the most important day of his life. Though Jesús can’t hear anything, cries for help are muted by the sound of an incoming ambulance.

A few hours earlier, around 8 the morning of his big audition five years ago, a plate of eggs and fried plantains sat on his kitchen table untouched. On the counter beside him was a tall, empty glass he’d pulled from the sink. His mother pleaded with him to eat before his big game that afternoon.

“The food’s getting cold,” she said.

Jesús refused. Too nervous, he said. Didn’t want to upset his stomach.

He had good reason. Today Jesús was to show off his 90 mph cut fastball to scouts from the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers and elsewhere. If the outing went well, the stocky, buzzcut-wearing pitcher might sign a six-figure contract to play professional baseball, a ticket to a new life in a new country. A ticket to supporting his newborn infant daughter. A ticket to potential MLB stardom.

He’d been known to throw wild pitches before, but today, of all days, Jesús couldn’t screw up. Neglecting breakfast, he reached into the cabinet and retrieved a jar of chocolate-flavored protein that had been mailed to his mother from a friend in the United States. He spooned the recommended dose of powder into the glass until it was a third of the way full, mixing the protein with water. He’d need the energy.

So he chugged another shake. And another. And another.

He’d never drunk so much before. And when he finally made it to the baseball field, he says, he felt great.

The feeling followed him to the mound, where in his sixth inning debut, he struck out two of three batters. Already, Jesús had begun imagining himself under the Fenway Park lights, relieving his favorite pitcher, Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. This was his chance, and he was nailing it.

Until he sat down in the dugout to rest. Then, Jesús says, he began noticing something was off. His vision became blurry and he started feeling dizzy. His heart was beating faster than usual.

Jesús took the mound in the seventh anyway. He threw six more strikes, retiring two batters in a row. Then, he cocked and released, watching a fastball fly higher than the catcher could reach. The pitch bounced off the backstop. To gasps from the scouts and coaches in attendance, he threw a second wild pitch in a row. And a third. When his heart started beating faster than the pitches he was throwing, Jesús knew something was wrong.

A minute later he just laid silent on the ground. His teammates rushed over from the dugout.

In that five-minute span, any hopes Jesús had of making it professionally were crushed. Scouts didn’t give 17-year-olds second chances. Especially when they needed months to recover from the jolt. Especially when they were Dominican.

Jesús knew as much the second he woke up in a hospital bed, nauseated and confused with a tube stuck in his arm, as far from Fenway as ever.

A shortstop takes batting practice at the Centro Olimpico baseball field in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar
A shortstop takes batting practice at the Centro Olimpico baseball field in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar
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Gipsy Veras and the death of a dream

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.

After a softball game they hosted for former baseball players, 35-year-old Gipsy Veras (left) and his brother Jose (right), who plays for the Chicago Cubs, meet young baseball players in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar.
After a softball game they hosted for former baseball players, 35-year-old Gipsy Veras (left) and his brother Jose (right), who plays for the Chicago Cubs, meet young baseball players in Santo Domingo. Photo by Nickolai Hammar.

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.