“The idea of playing baseball simply for fun had become a rare notion in San Pedro,” Mark Kurlansky writes about the southeastern city in the Dominican Republic responsible for producing a disproportionate number of major-league baseball players over the past 40 years. In The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed The Dominican Town Of San Pedro De Macoris, a travelogue with a twist, Kurlansky expertly balances Caribbean history against the wholesale hope of would-be major-leaguers and the impoverished neighborhoods where they live.
Constantly drawn into other countries’ conflicts, the Dominican Republic participated in most major events in the region in the past 500 years while always remaining an afterthought, enduring two U.S. occupations, and periodic invasions by Haiti, whose government wanted to use it as a bargaining chip with the French. The nation built its fortunes on sugar plantations, and until the market’s 20th-century collapse, the five-month harvest season that provided its inhabitants with money to live on year-round. The plantations—densest on the eastern tip of the island—were also instrumental in organizing groups of their workers to compete in baseball games, but the game caught on even as factories closed, picking up momentum as American teams integrated and new franchises were born.
Kurlansky plants himself amid the cottage industry springing up around finding the next Sammy Sosas and Alfonso Sorianos in boys who never worked in the cane fields, but have seen the dividends of even a few seasons in the majors. This new cash crop, Kurlansky suggests, mirrors all Western investment in the region: The benefits afforded to the few offset the losses of the many. Although signing bonuses have inflated, developing a Dominican player is exponentially cheaper than training a similar prospect stateside. Scouts entice young men to drop out of school to train, reversing the old process, under which dictator Rafael Trujillo’s lieutenants were sent to recruit Negro League stars for his local team, then release them from their contracts without offering a reason.
Kurlansky’s interview subjects, including several families of major-league hopefuls, aren’t under any illusions regarding the permanence of a player’s career, but he buttresses their point that the allure of the sport encompasses practical planning for what might be the most constant form of employment available to young Dominican men. (The region’s tourism industry isn’t much more stable than its sugar prices were in the 1800s.) Not all of The Eastern Stars’ theories go down so easily—Kurlansky’s exploration of cultural appropriation among Caribbean countries is deeply suspect—but his thoughtfully open-ended book leaves room for debate about whether San Pedro De Macoris’ newest product is sustainable.