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ISLAND FEVER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The road to Campo Las Palmas is beset with the squalor of Third World poverty.

Children hang out of the pastel-colored shacks that they call home, wearing little more than the pain and dirt on their faces while they wonder from where their next meal will come. They walk barefoot amid shards of glass and trash and splash about in the same muddy puddles where emaciated dogs drink.

The older boys, the ones trying to make a quick buck by shining shoes or washing windshields of passing cars stalled in traffic, look on in wonderment at an approaching bus. As it ambles down the barrio’s rickety road, heading to the Dodger baseball academy for a game, the bus carries more than the revered peloteros, baseball players. It also totes along the dreams of these pobrecitos, poor boys, who hope to one day be on that bus, riding it to the academy and, hopefully, off to the United States and away from their life of destitution.

Campo Las Palmas, a 50-acre facility carved out of the Dominican jungle 15 miles south of the country’s capital of Santo Domingo, is the first step toward realizing that dream.

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“We play a lot of baseball in this country. Our No. 1 sport here is baseball,” said Pablo Peguero, the general manager and acting director of Campo Las Palmas. “Every day you see on the streets kids playing. Even the families, they keep on the kids, ‘You’ve got to be a ballplayer, you’ve got to be a ballplayer,’ because they want to have a better life. This is one way for the whole family to have a better life. They teach the kids to play baseball. Sometimes the kids want to play other sports, ‘Ah-ah, you’ve got to play baseball.’ ”

While the Toronto Blue Jays were the first to mark their turf in the Dominican Republic in the early 1980s, the Dodgers were pioneers in opening Campo Las Palmas on March 21, 1987, as a tool for developing Dominican talent. The facility was the first of its kind.

After undergoing renovations necessitated by Hurricane Georges last year, Campo Las Palmas consists of two full-size fields, a clubhouse with an adjacent training and weight room, indoor batting cages, two dorms, classrooms, a recreation room, a kitchen and a dining room named, oddly enough, after Tom Lasorda.

Currently, the camp is occupied by 45 Dominican Dodger hopefuls, whose typical day begins at 7 a.m. and includes English classes, calisthenics, position drills on the field, a game and meetings. The routine, which lasts until 11 p.m. with lights out, is carried out five times a week. In the summer, about 70 players from the Dominican Republic as well as from Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela fill out the bunks.

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The facility maintains a full-time staff of 65, including eight baseball instructors and coaches. But while developing and improving the players’ on-field talents is stressed, it is not the main objective of the Campo Las Palmas mission.

“A lot of these kids from Latin and Central America, sometimes, they got good ability but discipline-wise, it’s not as good,” Peguero said. “So, in this camp, we work on that, discipline, how to be a better person so that they’re not only a good ballplayer. We want a good person also.

“Most of these kids are from poor families and have no school.”

Omar Minaya, the New York Mets’ assistant general manager, said Campo Las Palmas is the blueprint for major league baseball’s Latin American involvement. After all, every big league team now has some sort of presence in the Dominican.

“More teams should model their operation after the Dodgers,” said Minaya, a Dominican who is also the highest-ranking Latino official in the majors. “The Dodgers have been the leaders in providing leadership not only in baseball, but on the social side as well. Every team looks to the Dodgers, or should.”

Not all players who are in baseball academies maintained by major league clubs are under contract. There is a loophole that allows a hopeful to take up residence for a month before the parent club is forced to make a decision as to whether to tender a contract.

Once they strike a deal, however, players, who must be at least 16 years old, are earning at least $800 a month and can stay for up to three years, at which time they must either be moved to the minors in the United States, or sent home.

Peguero, who said he has the final say on signing Dominican players for the Dodgers, claimed that Campo Las Palmas has sent 37 graduates to the majors in its 12-year existence.

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Alumni include Pedro Astacio, Adrian Beltre, Roger Cedeno, Wilton Guerrero, Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Raul Mondesi, Jose Offerman, Henry Rodriguez and Jose Vizcaino. Only two of those--Beltre and Vizcaino--are still with the Dodgers.

And Beltre could be gone soon too.

Campo Las Palmas was apparently the flash point for the current mess that has Beltre requesting free agency by claiming that the Dodgers not only signed him illegally--at 15 and before the signing period--but also forged documents altering his birth date.

The tenure of Peguero, who took over as the academy’s director in the wake of Ralph Avila’s sudden retirement in October, could be a brief one, indeed, if he is found to be at the root of the Beltre mess.

Still, Beltre had nothing but fond memories of his time at Campo Las Palmas.

“I think it’s the best in the Dominican, maybe in all of Latin America, because not only do they teach you how to play on the field, they also teach you how to act out of the field,” he said. “At first I was mad at the coaches because I felt the coaches were too hard on me. I was like, ‘Man, why is this guy like that?’ But as soon as you get two or three months’ [experience], you see why they treat you like that--you learn discipline. I’m glad that they did that for me.”

It’s all part of the bootcamp-like mentality, said Peguero, a native of the Dominican Republic who was in the Dodger minor league system as a catcher from 1971 until 1982.

“We’re still working hard to send players to play in Dodger Stadium,” said Peguero, who, with a glut of Dodger talent behind the plate in Joe Ferguson, Steve Yeager, Johnny Oates and Mike Scioscia, never played in Chavez Ravine during his career. “It may take a few years to come, but we are going to send some new players.”

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Two of the best prospects in Guerra are Ricardo Rodriguez, 20, and Marvin Rosario, 19, a pair of baby-faced right-handed pitchers with fastballs in the mid-to-high 90s.

Neither sees himself as being exploited as cheap labor and living in a pseudo-orphanage. Rather, they’re just happy to be there.

“You make a lot of friends here because you go through so much together,” said the 6-foot-3 Rodriguez, who is in his third year at the Dodger camp after coming from the Dominican city of Monte Cristi near the Haitian border. “And you help each other along the way too.”

Rosario, whose squat, 5-foot-9 body belies his 95-mph fastball, said the players at the academy get inspiration from visiting alumni, who, though they may now play for a different organization, and it may have its own camp, prefer to visit their alma mater, so to speak.

“It makes you stronger, when Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, those guys come here to practice with us,” said Rosario, who is in his second year at the academy and is from Santiago in the north-central part of the island. “We play with them and they support us. They tell us that we can make it to the major leagues too, that it’s hard work, but as long as we keep working hard we can make it to the next level. That means a lot to us.”

It’s the kind of thing the players reflect on when they’re on the bus, navigating the roads of the barrios, en route to their dreams and las grandes ligas--the big leagues.

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Staff writer Ross Newhan contributed to this story.


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