Book review: The Eastern Stars

July may be the only month of the year when baseball fans give the Dominican Republic anything close to the attention it deserves.

On July 2 each year, about a month after the amateur draft, the international signing period opens and major league teams stock up on promising teenagers from around the world—mostly Latin America. Then most of us forget about those players until the best of them start cracking prospect lists a few years later.

To acknowledge the influence of “Latin America” on modern baseball is too vague: It obscures more than it explains. A huge percentage of internationally born major leaguers are from the Dominican Republic. And a disproportionate number of them are from the area around San Pedro de Macoris.

San Pedro’s all-star team would have a fighting chance against the best of just about any U.S. city. Starting with Rico Carty, the area has produced stars such as George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Pedro Guerrero. In the big leagues now are Macorisanos Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Jose Valverde, among many others.

Yet to the average baseball fan, the name of the town gets you a blank stare. Surely there’s a story here. Why San Pedro and not somewhere else in the Dominican? Why so many middle infielders that San Pedro has earned the moniker “The Cradle of Shortstops?”

The Eastern Stars

Mark Kurlansky has attempted to fill the gap with his recent book, The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris. He traces the history of San Pedro through its multiple spells as part of Spain’s Dominican colony, into its years as the home of U.S.-owned sugar mills, up to today’s baseball factory.

It is in describing the earlier stages that Kurlansky is sure-handed. The Dominican has always been something of an afterthought in the Caribbean, passed around from one imperial power to another, with a culture that owes much to those of Haiti and Cuba.

When we get to the baseball, the book starts to disappoint. It’s clear that Kurlansky isn’t compelled by the baseball angle. Or if he is, he has little interest in how Dominicans fit into the broader picture of U.S. baseball. He spends as much time on recipes for San Pedro delicacies as he does trying to answer the question that makes his topic an interesting one.

He is to be commended for spending as much time in San Pedro as he clearly did. The pages of The Eastern Stars are filled with quotes from ex-major and minor leaguers, family members, scouts and buscans, the men who prepare Dominican teenagers for pro academies.

The downside is that these interviews appear to comprise almost all of his research. As any baseball historian can tell you, ex-ballplayers aren’t always the most reliable sources when it comes to their own exploits. To take just one example, he accepts Rafael Vasquez at his word that in rookie ball, Vasquez “struck out five batters in a row and was immediately sent up to Class A.” Nice story, but what Kurlansky calls a “phenomenally swift” rise really involved 53 innings before the promotion. Any single fact-check sounds like a nitpick, but there are more than enough fudges of the sort to make this a tough read for a baseball fan.

Stories untold

I’ll admit that some of my disappointment with The Eastern Stars isn’t fair to the author. There’s a certain book I’d love to read; it isn’t the one he set out to write.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the path to the big leagues is very, very different for a Dominican teenager than for his U.S. counterpart. The level of poverty in San Pedro beyond most of our experience, and the focus on baseball-as-salvation is a far cry from neighborhoods where Little League is what kids do between music lessons and homework.

Kurlansky gives us plenty of hints about the difficult transition from the Dominican academies to U.S. farm teams, and he reminds us now and then about the long odds facing any San Pedro kid, even after he signs a contract. But there’s an immediacy that’s clearly missing.

It’s that immediacy that I think is missing from the awareness of most baseball fans. We can marvel at how exciting and bewildering it must be for a teenager from Mississippi to be drafted, signed and sent to Montana for rookie ball. But I, for one, wish I understood better the parallel system by which Dominican players go from promising prospect to a Dominican academy to, well, Montana. The language barrier is a big part of the problem; no intrepid team bloggers interviewed A’s mega-prospect Michael Ynoa last year.

The Eastern Stars leaves the reader with a much clearer impression of where these players come from, and the lives led by their parents and grandparents. But it doesn’t do much to explain why San Pedro has been responsible for so much baseball greatness, and it leaves the prospects themselves just as opaque as they’ve always been.

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