The absence of venues for serious sportswriting is one of my stock bitches. This is in part because it’s true, although that kind of tracks with the decline in high-profile venues for good writing, period. But it’s also because I like to imagine that a dearth of deserving venues is the only thing keeping me from writing that sprawling, deeply felt and powerfully composed 3500-word feature on, like, the A-11 offense or the weirdness of going to a NBA game or whatever it is that seems important to me at the moment.
But there’s another way to write that piece, which is embodied in Patrick Clark’s elegant, eloquent and strikingly thoughtful piece on baseball in the Dominican Republic at Triple Canopy. And that is simply to take the risk of researching and writing it, then trust your lower-profile venue to do right by it. (Triple Canopy is a web magazine run in part by Sam Frank, who’s a frequent CSTB tipster and all-around friend of the program) Dominican baseball is something most baseball fans have read about, although usually through little picaresqued moments of color like Felix Pie (above) having to borrow cleats for his first MLB tryout or glibbish pieces about scouting — but never really with any sense of the desperation, depth or cultural import of the game in that country. Clark gets at all those things not by pounding out a mournful, Zirin-y think-piece about the exploitation built into the game, but by actually going to the Dominican and hanging around prospects, buscons — the word translates roughly to “pimp,” and refers to the trainer/coach/agent hybrids who are the cornerstone of Dominican scouting — and their baseball academies. That Clark wrote the hell out of the piece that resulted is to his credit, but the reporting is what makes the article really work, and really different from essentially all of what’s out there to read on this subject.
The whole piece is worth reading (and looking at, as there are photos mixed in), and its flow and depth makes it difficult to excerpt. Know that it’s recommended highly, and that the bit below is just a taste.
I™d come to the DR curious about what baseball costs boys like Priki [Ignacio, a prospect under the wing of buscon Juan CedeÃ±o], and certainly, it™s hard to watch a teenager languish in isolation, out of school, hanging all his hopes on a baseball dream. There™s no question Priki faces incredibly long odds; the numbers dictate he will have washed out within a few years, with little to show for his prodigious efforts: no education, scant savings, few job prospects. I didn™t meet many people willing to criticize the place of baseball in the lives of Dominican youth, but those few I did would point me to the motorcycle-taxi drivers. Those are your baseball players, they™d say.
Baseball men claim that the sport offers other benefits: the food and shelter that CedeÃ±o pointed to, or, commonly, that the clubs teach English to their charges. But when I met an American who worked at one of the academies, he told me that his club was hardly invested in teaching English: Most of the players will never make it to America, so why waste the time and effort? As CedeÃ±o told me, a prospect must focus on only one thing.
And yet, it isn™t baseball that™s keeping Priki and his peers out of school. Lack of education is a national, systemic problem; while I wasn™t able to pin Priki or CedeÃ±o down on an answer, I can guess that even without baseball, Priki would have been out of school by the time he was twelve or thirteen. I met other ballplayers who practiced by day and attended school by night, but they are more exception than norm. Meanwhile, Priki™s agreement with CedeÃ±o allows him a richer material life than he had in Los Minas, a neighborhood that generally draws electricity from the power grid for less than twelve hours a day.
Nor can I help but think his efforts provide their own rewards. In college, my baseball coaches used to harp on the sacrifices of time and effort you made to be an athlete: that you worked hard because hard work was a good thing. At eighteen, I found their exhortations to have something of a false ring. Now, watching Priki labor day after identical day, I can believe in the value”unquantifiable, and perhaps only private”of the rigorous pursuit of an improbable dream.