Book review: ‘The Eastern Stars’ by Mark Kurlansky

Los Angeles Times

In many ways, San Pedro de Macorís is like any other medium-sized Latin American city. Its narrow, pot-holed streets are choked with traffic, much of its populace wages a daily battle with crushing poverty, and its tired, time-worn architecture hints at a once-grand past.

In countless other ways, however, San Pedro is like no place else on Earth. There is a distinct vibe there, a rhythm and a romanticism as intoxicating as the sweet guavaberry rum drinks the city has made famous.

But what truly sets San Pedro apart are the shortstops.

Founded around its sugar mills, San Pedro, a teeming Dominican Republic city of some 250,000, has thrived in recent years because of its ballplayers — a history that city leaders honored by placing a billboard at the city limits that reads: “San Pedro: Land of sugar cane and the best ballplayers.”

No city its size has turned out more Major League Baseball players than San Pedro de Macorís, a seaport about an hour east of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. Since 1962, when Amado Samuel made his debut for the Milwaukee Braves — at shortstop, naturally — becoming the first native son to play in the majors, San Pedro has sent more players to the big leagues than 28 states and the District of Columbia.

How and why so much talent sprung up in such a place is a remarkable story that Mark Kurlansky misses in “The Eastern Stars,” a brisk read that fails to live up to its sweeping subtitle. A former Caribbean-based correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and bestselling author of several books, Kurlansky repeatedly runs aground in his foray into sportswriting.

He gets so many of the simple, easily verifiable facts wrong so often that, after a while, it becomes impossible to trust his grasp of the larger narrative. Big-league all-stars Roberto Alomar, Juan González and Iván Rodríguez are Puerto Rican, not Dominican. Neither is Ozzie Guillén: He’s from Venezuela. Joaquín Andújar never won a most valuable player award, Juan Samuel didn’t win two and Tony Fernández didn’t win four in a row.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Although Kurlansky isn’t sweating the details, he does a little better with the bigger picture. As his book shows, the birth and growth of baseball in the cane fields around San Pedro sprung from a fertile mix of immigration, exploitation and acculturation. San Pedro was built with sugar but, to build that industry, the plantations that once circled the city had to import workers from English-speaking Caribbean islands. A part of the culture these workers brought with them was cricket, but over time mill owners began paying some workers to give up that sport to play on the plantation’s baseball teams and, eventually, on the city’s Dominican League team, Estrellas Orientales — the Eastern Stars of the book’s title.

When the sugar market collapsed, idling many of the mills, and baseball bonuses began to skyrocket, it became an easy transition for many in San Pedro to lay down their machetes and pick up a bat. As a result, many of the first and best players to come out of San Pedro descended from immigrant cane cutters.

Kurlansky gets much of this history down, but what’s missing from its telling is the human element, a story that other writers have told well. In “Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Ball Player,” for example, Marcos Bretón explains that Dominican players are not just good — they’re desperate to escape the poverty of the cane fields and succeed in the major leagues. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck told a similar tale in the recent “Sugar,” the story of a young pitching prospect from San Pedro de Macorís that, though fictional, rang true.

It’s that drive, not ancestry, that best explains how baseball changed the city. And by not making that connection, Kurlansky’s book fails to explain the magic of San Pedro de Macorís.