Brian Major | April 07, 2016 4:00 PM ET
Baseball, Fun and Friendship in The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Annual Travel Exchange (DATE) conference will take place in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic this month and I’ll be there. Why wouldn’t I? The country is the number one Caribbean travel destination, hosting 5.6 million visitors last year.
The “DR” is extremely popular with North Americans. It’s at the epicenter of the upscale all-inclusive trend dominating the hotel industry with a multitude of upscale, feature-filled resorts supported by strong air links with East Coast cities. Dominican beaches rank among the Caribbean’s finest and the capital of Santo Domingo, a UNESCO Heritage site, is in the midst of renaissance with new hotels and a restored Zona Colonial district.
It’s all pretty exciting. But the first time I visited, more than 20 years ago, the Dominican Republic was for me more of a sleepy curiosity. In fact the moment that even today symbolizes what I believe the country is about occurred far from its feature attractions.
I was cruise editor for a travel magazine assigned to take a voyage with American Family Cruises, a now-defunct cruise line conceived in the Disney mode. I decided to take my son and nephew, both of whom were about 10 years old, along on the trip. It allowed us all to spend some family time together while I used the kids as a test audience for my report.
Of course our itinerary included a call in the Dominican Republic. I recall the ship docked at an industrial port in La Romana, on the island’s southeastern end.
During the day that followed I took a long tour of the recently opened Casa de Campo resort, a 7,000-acre property that featured three 18-hole golf courses, a marina, tennis, polo and skeet-shooting facilities. We ate lunch at a restaurant in Altos de Chavon, a 16th century replica Mediterranean village.
At some point during the tour our guide from the resort mentioned there were also baseball diamonds on the vast property, and some local kids had agreed to play with children from the cruise ship. The Dominican Republic is a baseball-loving country, and today several of the finest Major League Baseball players hail from the Caribbean nation.
Throughout lunch my son and nephew, both ballplayers, harangued me to get them over to that field. Our public relations guide had mercy on the kids and drove us over to the field, a beautiful new diamond carved from previously undeveloped land.
There were already about 20-30 kids from the ship teaming up to face the young Dominican players; we got there just in time and my boys both took their turns at bat and in the field. Baseball of course is an American sport and several of the kids from the ship, including my boys, were competent players.
But the Dominican kids were very, very good. They outclassed our kids in general and played from ahead, but at no point did they gloat or engage in look-at-me antics. On the contrary they were friendly and engaging despite the obvious language barrier. Everyone seemed to genuinely have a good time.
As I stood on the side watching I noticed a bunch of Dominican kids with baseball gloves who’d showed up, but weren’t playing. Remembering a game my friends and I played growing up in Brooklyn, I grabbed a baseball bat and ball and gestured to one of the glove-wearing kids to back up onto the long expanse of grass beside the field.
He smiled, picking up instantly. I hit a long fly ball and he ran, caught it and threw it back. Within minutes I was hitting fly ball after fly ball to a group of seven or eight kids, all happy to take an opportunity to work on their outfield skills.
This went on for a solid half-hour, pretty much until the ballgame ended. I believe if I had hit those kids 100 fly balls they would have been happy to catch every one of them. Maybe I did. Anyway I know I’ll ever forget their youth, willingness and joy at this very simple activity.
Today as I travel across parts of the country far from the ballfields of La Romana, I frequently find the same welcoming friendliness of those kids in the Dominican people I meet every day. It’s a common Caribbean trait that’s expressed in innumerable ways in this fascinating nation. I look forward to returning.
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