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The Great Escape : America’s Pastime Is Also Pedro Guerrero’s Passport

Times Staff Writer

It is a one-hour drive from the marble floors and wood-beamed ceilings of Pedro Guerrero’s new house in Santo Domingo to the dirt-floor shacks in which he was born and reared.

A culture shock for some, it is a retreat to a familiar time and place for Guerrero, who makes the journey regularly during the winter, returning as both hero and saint to his impoverished family and friends.

His wife, Denise, attorney Tony Attanasio and Sergio Feria, Attanasio’s associate, made the drive with Guerrero the other day. They were accompanied by the irresistible rhythm of the merengue pounding from the tape deck of Guerrero’s Mercedes.

In a country in which baseball players are idolized and cars battered past the point of junkyard acceptance still clog the roads, both Guerrero and his luxury model are quickly and easily recognizable.

Horns honked. Pedestrians and drivers waved as Guerrero picked his way through the Santo Domingo traffic. The Dodger star raised his hand and nodded in response. Street waifs selling oranges and candy surrounded the car at traffic lights, displaying an empty-handed innocence. They knew who he was. They knew he would respond with the coins he keeps in a dashboard compartment.

He bought a bag of oranges and distributed the coins. He pulled away and headed for the coastal highway, where his speed and largess accelerated.

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This time it was the police. They stood alone or with a partner by the side of the road, forming a human speed trap every 5 or 10 miles. They, too, knew Guerrero’s car and twice waved it to a stop when his speed appeared in excess of the 80 k.p.h. (50 m.p.h.) limit.

The routine is a way of life here. It is a small price Guerrero pays for his fame. He already had asked Denise to get the pesos ready, knowing it was coming. He left the now parked car, shook hands with the officers, draped an arm around their backs, inquired as to their health, then returned to the car without the pesos--a little Christmas gift that allowed him to continue without citation.

The incident affected Guerrero’s pace only slightly as he raced past the royal palms and southeast shoreline of the West Indies island whose name was anglicized to Hispaniola after Columbus had named it La Isla Espanola in 1492.

Finally, passing over a narrow inlet of the Caribbean, he arrived in San Pedro de Macoris, the hottest, perhaps, of the Dominican Republic’s many baseball hotbeds.

Guerrero slowed, turned the volume on the tape deck down and said: “This is it. This is my hometown. I’m proud of it. The best ballplayers in the world are here.”

“Why?” Attanasio asked. “Why so many players from here?”

Guerrero turned, laughed and said: “The water. It must be the water.”

Pedro Guerrero knows differently. He knows the answer is based in economy and sociology, that the youngsters of San Pedro de Macoris are lured to their rock-strewn, weed-infested sandlots with the same dreams that send inner-city blacks to the boxing ring or playground basketball court.

He also knows that this is an open market ungoverned by baseball’s amateur draft, a last great hunting ground for eager scouts who are able to sign equally eager prospects for bonuses far below those demanded by already jaded U.S. players. There are no college-scholarship opportunities here to increase a player’s value.

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s office has been looking into the possibility that some U.S. teams have been exploiting the situation, attempting to corner the market by signing very young Dominicans for very little money, or by teams staging tryout camps and baseball academies, requiring players to sign an attendance agreement, which they later claim is a binding contract.

A spokesman for the commissioner’s office said that every major league club has established guidelines aimed at protecting youngsters attending the schools and tryout camps. He said the National Assn., which governs the minor leagues, recently approved a proposal requiring players to be 17 before they can go to spring training.

The Dodgers, long at the forefront in Latin America, operate a year-round school under the supervision of scout Ralph Avila in San Pedro de Macoris. The club brings in its local minor-league players and others that it is interested in signing. They are given bed and board at one of two homes the Dodgers own here. They receive tutoring in English and nutrition, as well as baseball. They often play afternoon games against academy teams from other organizations. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda was recently here to lecture prospects on the merits of worshipping the Big Dodger in the Sky.

The increased presence of U.S. teams, combined with the fact that more than 50% of Dominican teen-agers fail to finish high school often because they can’t afford it, is expected to swell visa requests. Approximately 200 Dominicans already are signed to major- and minor-league contracts, including about 100 from this city of 110,000.

Among the active major leaguers who received their first baseball uniform from one of the six sugar mills that sponsor teams here are Joaquin Andujar, George Bell, Julio Franco, Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Ramirez, Juan Samuel and the man whose surname means warrior, Pedro Guerrero.

Now 28, Guerrero was 16 when signed by then-Cleveland scout Reggie Otero for $2,500.

“The scouts look at the way guys live here and figure they can offer anything, and it’s the truth,” Guerrero said. “The kids are just looking to sign and get out of here. They don’t care how much they get.

“Baseball is in the blood. The first thing a child asks for after he learns to talk is a bat, ball and glove. The only thing they do here during the summer is listen to the U.S. games on radio.

“I used to stand across from the shack where Rico Carty’s aunt lived in the hope I could see him drive up in his big car. I told myself that I wanted to be rich someday, just like he was. It was my dream. Now the kids see me in my Mercedes and probably think the same thing. They know the only way out of here is to play baseball in the U.S.

“I mean, I’d have signed for $500. I’d have probably signed for nothing.”

Pedro Guerrero now has a five-year, $7-million contract with the Dodgers. He has a condominium in Lafayette Park and a new Hancock Park estate that has been used in the TV series “Falcon Crest”. He has real estate investments in Hawaii, Cape Cod and Santo Domingo, a share of his father-in-law’s Albuquerque sand and gravel business and endorsement contracts with Presidente, a Dominican beer, and Nike, a U.S. athletic goods firm.

His new house in Santo Domingo has both a pool and music room, where Guerrero, on drums, and Denise, on saxophone, frequently have jam sessions with friends from the Dominican entertainment community.

It would have been easy for Guerrero to forget his roots, but that apparently has not happened.

In Los Angeles, for instance, he purchases 50 tickets for every home game and gives them to the elderly and underprivileged. He returns to the Dominican Republic each winter with boxes of baseball shoes, equipment and promotional items for young players. He recently arranged with Nike to bring in 600 pairs of tennis shoes for needy children. On Dec. 6, the Day of the Child, he walks the streets, handing out packets of coins.

There is a Pedro Guerrero youth league here, and each trip to San Pedro de Macoris includes a visit to the one- and two-bedroom cement houses and the tin and wood sheds of his youth. These are the poverty pockets where many of his 300 cousins, the children of his 23 aunts and uncles, still live in wrenching conditions, their only income the 10 or 20 pesos Guerrero provides with each visit and their occasional employment in the cane fields.

His home here is the home of his mother, Altagracia, and stepfather, Ramon. The nameplate near the door reads, “La Familia Guerrero.” It is a simple stucco house with six bedrooms that Guerrero bought for $25,000 after reaching triple-A. It was the first time his mother had lived with electricity and plumbing. He has since bought her a van that is used as a city shuttle bus, providing the family with income.

A Blue Thunder Guerrero poster hangs in the living room. Other baseball pictures and Dodger memorabilia hang above the television set in the family room. Guerrero’s sister, Aracelis, 14, and adopted brother, Ramon, 15, live with their parents here. Guerrero smiled and said: “We have so much family that lives poorly you never know who will be living here when we come over.”

The guests on this occasion included Domingo Michel, a 19-year-old second baseman who hit .259 for the Bradenton Dodgers of the Florida Rookie League. The Dodgers signed Michel for $3,500. Guerrero said he was angry that Michel hadn’t gotten more and that he wasn’t told Michel was signing. He nodded toward his brother, Ramon, who is also a prospect, and said, “If they want to sign him, it’s going to cost them a lot of money.”

Also at home, visiting from New York where he has been looking for regular employment, was one of Guerrero’s two older brothers, Luis, 30, and his 4-year-old son, Pedro Jr. The gregarious Luis also played briefly in the Dodger organization. He, too, remembers the early days in a city that is said to boast some 200 teams--from youth leagues sponsored by the sugar mills and rum companies to the Estrellas Orientals, or Eastern Stars, of the Dominican Winter League.

It started for the Guerreros with bats shaped from tree branches and baseballs made from socks wrapped with tape. They remembered building a pitching mound in front of the two-bedroom wood shed that was their first home and how Pedro would later pitch and bat fourth behind his brother, the Guerreros comprising a fearsome 1-2 punch in the youth leagues.

They played winter and summer, day and night, living on a diet of potatoes, papaya and roots, much of it grown at their doorstep. A block of ice with which to make ice water during the scorching summer cost 2 cents. Work, when available, was back breaking. The stepfather earned 60 cents a day cutting cane with a machete, wrestling it onto a wagon and sweltering in the mills where the stalks are ground into granules. Pedro tried it once and quit. He left school after the eighth grade. He might have given it a second thought if he’d known what Cleveland is like, but the $2,500 offer was too tempting.

The Indians assigned him to Sarasota of the Florida Rookie League. There was no one on the team who spoke Spanish and he spoke no English. Lonely, he said, wasn’t the word for it. He thought he was going crazy. He tried to go home. He asked for his release.

“I used to cry every day,” he said. “I’d cry in the clubhouse, on the field, in my room. It was tough, but I made it, and the second year was much better.

“There were more Spanish guys in spring training, and I had an idea of what to expect. I figured to go to (Class) A ball. Then one day in Tucson they called me into the office. A lot of guys were getting released. I got worried. They said, ‘We’re sorry to tell you this, but you’ve been traded to the Dodgers.’ I knew nothing about trades. I said I wouldn’t go. I started crying again. I didn’t know what they were saying or what was going on.”

Pedro and Luis Guerrero were now in the front seat of the Mercedes, honking and waving at friends as they turned the narrow streets of San Pedro de Macoris into a Formula One course.

It is a city that once thrived as a center of sugar production. Then the economy went bad when much of the commerce moved to the deepwater port of Santo Domingo.

Said Guerrero: “There were a whole bunch of guys I played with as a kid who went on to play professional ball but didn’t make it to the majors. Those who had money came home. Those who didn’t went to New York to try to find a job.”

The bad economy recently closed two sports meccas--The Dugout, a cantina on the main square, and Tio Miguel, a waterfront restaurant. Still, every other male seems to wear a baseball cap with a major-league insignia, and the scouts, coaches and sportswriters now gather at a restaurant called Apolo, where the walls are decorated with pictures of the city’s sports heroes.

Guerrero stopped at a bank to exchange dollars for pesos, which he would soon leave behind. He then drove past a church where he occasionally made a peso or two playing drums during services. He drove past a field on which a uniformed team was taking infield practice amid horses, goats and boulders the size of a pitching mound. He smiled and said, “That’s why I have such good hands now.”

The pavement ended and he turned down a dirt path to point out the two-bedroom wood shack in which he was born. He would later introduce the aunt who had served as midwife because his mother couldn’t afford a hospital.

He drove to an area called Santa Fe, a company town built next to the cane fields and sugar mills. “Almost everyone you see here is family,” Guerrero said. He stopped frequently to exchange greetings and press pesos into thankful hands. The children were without shoes. The adults wore tattered shirts and pants often patched together from different fabrics. The homes were devoid of electricity and plumbing. Can lids had been hung from branches to provide Christmas trees.

Attanasio shook his head and said: “The people who are always saying that players are greedy, that they always want this or that . . . well, they have no idea where the player has come from or what he’s gone through.”

This was Guerrero’s environment until he signed his first professional contract. It is still the way thousands seem to live in a country where the average income is $1,200 a year. The pervasive and disturbing poverty was brightened some by the poignant smiles that greeted Guerrero’s arrival.

The aunt who served as midwife at his birth clapped joyously when he handed her 10 pesos. A cousin warmly invited the visitors to share some of the potato soup she was making. Children, seemingly unmindful of what they were without, tossed pebbles in the air and swung sticks in a style that might someday make them the subject of a Blue Thunder poster.

“This is what these people were born to,” Guerrero said. “They’re not happy about it, but there’s nothing they can do except pray for a job and maybe a miracle.”

He drove out of Santa Fe and back toward the home he had purchased here for his mother, the small miracle that had come to her late in life. His mood was melancholy. No merengue now. The feeling haunts him each time he comes home again.

“I feel bad and sad to see how so much of my family still lives and know I can’t really do more,” he said. “My mom has to be No. 1 and now I’m also married. There’s only so many people who can live in my house, and I can’t take them all to the U.S., though many of them would like to go.”

Attanasio patted Guerrero’s shoulder and said: “You care and you feel, that’s the important thing. They know it and you know it.” Guerrero forced a smile, turned the tape deck on and said: “At least when they see me they seem to get excited. At least then they know something good is going to happen.”


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