Quisqueya Estadio with Jimmy
Here's a little more on Jimmy from my baseball travel memoir:
In the first days following my arrival in Santo Domingo, my mind was preoccupied by the extensive poverty, the likes of which I had never seen before, and the moment-by-moment inconveniences and aggravations. I closely guarded my wallet belt, sleeping with it at night, showering with it within arm’s reach, and slipping it off in cloak-and-dagger fashion in banks when I exchanged money. I found myself upset at the mayhem in the streets, honking horns, car stereos blasting merengue, mosquitos whining in my ears, the oppressive humidity and intermittent downpours, and the narrow sidewalks with unmarked holes too dark to see the bottom.
The Dominican Republic, which occupies two thirds of the island it shares with Haiti, was the fourth poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I saw squatter settlements of shanties with corrugated roofs along the Ozama River, and citywide blackouts every few hours because of outdated and inadequate electrical generating systems – the blackouts, in turn, caused water shutoffs - taxi drivers at the side of the road fixing engines, and children beggars walking stride-in-stride with tourists on El Conde, the main shopping promenade of the city.
Underemployment hovered around 50% in the 1980s. The government devalued the peso, which, in turn, contributed to a 60% inflation rate in 1988. President Joaquin Balaguer attempted to lower food prices in response to national protest strikes against the inflation, but this resulted in the buying of staple crops from Dominican farmers for less than fair value, a practice that depressed the living standards of rural Dominicans. During his 14 years in office, Balaguer also attempted to lower unemployment through public works construction projects, such as building schools, affordable housing, roads, and aqueducts, but he paid for his $500-million building spree by printing money, which triggered even higher inflation.
During my first few days, I had felt lost in this society that seemed impersonal and chaotic. My perspective changed however upon meeting Jimmy, whohad indoctrinated me into the world of Dominican baseball during my first trip in the elevator. I had simply asked him if he liked baseball. He grinned widely. "Oh, I like it so much," he said. His eyes teared as he recited from memory the Winter League standings, and predicted that his favorite team, Aguilas, would be in the national championships.
I was pleased to see him as I passed through the hotel entrance following the first evening's game. "Ah! Hello!" he said, extending his hand to me. "Do you come from the stadium?"
"Yes. It was a good game!"
Inside the elevator Jimmy’s eyes watered as I described my evening. "You should sit in the one-peso seats," he said. "They have the same view." At the sixth floor, I exited the elevator stepping backwards and said, "Jimy, would you like to catch the game tomorrow between Aguilas and Escogido?" He smiled warmly. "Oh yes, I would like that very much."
I met Jimmy at the end of his next shift. Walking briskly down El Conde toward the intersection where carro publicos were flagged, we weaved through tourists, fruit vendors, juice vendors, black market currency-changers, shirtless shoeshine boys, and crippled beggars banging cans on the sidewalk. Jimy said hello to one female beggar and then shared with me that she was homeless and on cool evenings she came into the hotel lobby for warmth.
“Does the hotel allow that?”
“Yes, of course. We take care of one another.”
I asked if he preferred speaking in English or Spanish. He said it didn't matter -- whichever I preferred. From then on, I spoke Spanish and he spoke English.
He was a twenty-six-year old college dropout. His landlord had raised his rent and he couldn't find a cheaper place to live. "It happens to many students," he said.
As we passed the gate, Puerta del Conde, the site of the declaration of Dominican statehood in 1844, he told me about his hometown, the village of Matayaya where he'd grown up. He said it was far more beautiful than Santo Domingo, and the climate there was refreshingly cool because it was in the mountains. He liked to go swimming in a deep part of the stream adjoining the village then snack on tamarind from trees on the embankment. Seconds before rushing me into a carro publico, he added, "Oh, and we play baseball there, so you can visit."
On the stadium grounds I bought an open-faced scrambled-egg sandwich and asked Jimmy if he wanted one.
"No, because insects get in them," Jimy said.
Inside, we found seats on a three-planked bench with the middle plank missing. All around us, fans searching for seats spotted acquaintances, shook their hands, and sat down next to them. To our left, an old gentleman approached another from behind and cupped his hands over the seated person's eyes until the perpetrator's laughter revealed his identity. Lone spectators struck up conversation with the persons next to them.
The ambience was magical and harmonious: sparkling eyes, friendly handshakes, and fast, tickling merengue music emanating from portable radios. The more crowded our section became, the more intimate it grew. Rum passed freely from stranger to stranger through the rows in front of us. Conversation was everywhere. People walking in the aisles waved to acquaintances in the stands.
When a Licey fan behind home plate launched what Jimmy identified as "championship balloons," my neighbors who were all Aguilas fans booed loudly, then cheered when the balloons got caught on a beam of a light tower. Fascinated children in the crowd pointed to the balloons and kept staring.
As Aguilas leadoff hitter, former major-league outfielder Miguel Dilone, dug in, men around us called bets and waved cash. "I bet he'll reach base twice tonight!" shouted a young man behind us. A number of fans sprang up and accepted his bet. Up and down the stands there were shouting, arguments, and the exchange of money.
Jimmy focused mainly on Dilone. "Dan, do you know him? He's so fast. His nickname is Avion."
"Yes, he's fast. He's one of my favorite players."
"Is he the reason you support Aguilas?"
Jimmy smiled. "Aguilas is the nearest team to Matayaya and we hear their games on the radio.”
Betting lasted throughout the game. Even fans who sat quietly sprang up occasionally and yelled out a bet, then continued shouting until someone won.
On the dozen or more occasions where shouting looked as if it might turn physical, surrounding fans stood up, causing a rippling effect as fans farther away rose to their feet. I had no idea how many fights erupted because when I rose to my feet, I only saw the tops of heads. Once I asked Jimmy, who had a height advantage at 6’5”, but he shrugged.
Fans were just as animated about the game action, flashing the strike count to neighbors and razzing and shouting instructions to players. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Aguilas first baseman, Tony Peña, an accomplished catcher in the Major Leagues, made a great reflexive catch of a soft line drive in foul territory. The crowd loved it. Many did imitations of how he extended his arm and snared it. They pointed to their eyes and said he had good eyes. Beyond that Aguilas fans had little reason to celebrate as their Cibaenos went hitless the remainder of the game. After the final Aguilas out, small children jumped onto the field and ran the bases, sliding headfirst into home plate while fans shouted and nudged down the ramps leading out of the stadium. As Jimmy and I exited the building, he pointed with disgust to buses, which were departing with torsos protruding from windows, a few men clinging to the outside. We followed the flow of people walking to the main road along the sidewalks.
"I once knew an American woman from the Peace Corps who volunteered in Matayaya," Jimmy said. "Her name is Susan. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. I write her, but haven't heard back from her in a long time.
"She wanted to help me to live in America, so I can learn English better and go to an American university. Susan told me about the farms and open fields in Virginia. She said she was trying to adopt me, so I could immigrate."
"She has lung cancer. Every time I call her, she's in bed and too tired to sit up. She is too tired to write. Dan, I miss her."
He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.
"Dan, would you like to go to our village? If my schedule is free, I’ll go there on the weekend. If you'd like, I will call my parents and tell them you are coming."
I said I'd be delighted to visit.
He smiled. "OK, I'm happy."