Written By: Jhensen Ortiz
In my experience, I have never fully understood my father’s emotional uncertainties and struggle to become an individual as a nineteen-year-old Dominican baseball player until recently; I sat down to talk to him about his journey from the city of Baní to “Sunny California” in the spring of 1983. More importantly, I wanted to ask about how his experience reflected on a system that has altered the lives of so many Dominican men through the years and continues to treat them as commodities. My father Elsis Jacobo Ortiz was born May 29th, 1964 and raised by his single mother Lourdes Deliza Ortiz Bautista, a trained nurse who worked in the only hospital in the city of Baní and other medical institutions in Santo Domingo. Sadly, my father never met his biological father, a road surface marker from San Pedro de Macorís when he died in a traffic accident. He grew up in an old wooden house with ten members of his family which consisted of his mother, aunt, and uncle, three cousins, and four siblings; he shared a room with his first cousin Hugo, who was like a brother to him. When he was eleven, my father worked for a peso a week at a mechanic shop that was right in front of the house, and he would plant onions for two pesos a week as well. Besides the financial circumstances growing up, he said, “Everyone played baseball. It was the one activity we all enjoyed together as a family.” What eventually transformed the course of his life was Hurricane David on August 25, 1979.The hurricane was a level five storm; it pummeled the island with 175 mph winds (and gusts over 200 mph) and waves as high as 20 to 30 feet. According to The New York Times, the number of fatalities was officially estimated at 400, and at least, 600 were missing and feared dead. Many provinces in the country appeared bulldozed, and his family had lost their home as well. Luckily, the house next door to them that was occupied by another family was abandoned after the hurricane, and they were able to stay there.
In November of 1979, the situation at home had gotten worse. Then one night, he went to see his sister; she was married to a baseball trainer. He looked at my father said to him “Look at this guy with good size, but all he does is waste his time going to school protest. You should be at the baseball field- they are signing everyone.” What his brother–in-law said was true: my father was coming of age at the right time because most foreign-born talent heralded from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s.Baseball’s popularity was on the decline in the U.S. while simultaneously increasing in areas of Latin America (Koble, 2008).
Following his brother-in-law’s advice, he trained in December of that same year to hopefully sign with a team and found support in the process. He found his brother Hugo’s old St. Louis Cardinals baseball pants along with the bag in his mother’s house. The next day, his uncle came from San José de Ocoa and brought him a glove that he used for softball. In 1981, he graduated high school and dedicated all of his time to baseball. For the next two years, he played in Villa Sombrero, Baní until in September of 1982,my father found out that his mother was diagnosed with cancer. What my father did was in the mornings he would practice and by noon he had to leave the field to go with his mother to the Santo Domingo Cancer Institute for therapy every day. In late February of 1983, an opportunity emerged by way of a friend named Oscar from Boca Canasta, who was practicing with the Yankees in Santo Domingo. Oscar told my father along with a group of other players that he needed five players to come with him because he invited a scout from the San Diego Padres to look at some pitchers. He then looked at my father and asked him, “Jacobo, can you throw a couple of pitches?” and my father said, “Yes, I can throw a few.” The scout was only impressed by my father out of the five that threw that day. The scout came the next morning to sign my dad on his mother’s hospital so she could sign the contract too, while still fighting the illness. On March 11th, 1983, in less than a month, he left the Dominican Republic for the first time to play with the Reno Padres, a Class A franchise in Reno, Nevada, to compete in the California League. The only thing my father had done before he left was get his teeth fixed; nothing back home could have prepared him for the transition to U.S. social and sports culture. If life in a new country wasn’t enough to deal with, on April 6th, 1983 while playing a game in Sacramento, he received the news that his mother passed away.
The manager Jim Skaalen told him the news about his mother, and he spoke with his older sister to find out that she had died nine days ago, and nobody told him. Very few players find time during the season to lament the loss of a loved one, and it affected how he played that first season. He remembered feeling at times during the season in Reno and later in Spokane, Washington unstable because, “She was the one that kept me going,” he said. His season finished, and he went back to bury his mother in September of 1983, living with very little money in the offseason. Dominican baseball players didn’t make very much money in the minor league system, and many did not have enough money to send back home during the offseason or to sustain themselves. He would get paid only $350 a week and that would cover his expenses during the season. However, since my father, like most Dominican players during that time, was not eligible for the amateur draft, he did not have legal representation and was not protected by the rules governing draftees. The signing bonus of the Dominican players is far less than that of players eligible for the amateur draft, making the Dominicans a better bargain for Major League Baseball (MLB) (Koble, 2008). What some players did during the offseason was report to one of the four professional teams in the Dominican Republic; my father was selected to play for Las Aguilas Cibaeñas. He decided not to go because his uncle told him, “What are you doing? Go back to the United States, find work and get paid; there is nothing for you here.” My father arrived in October, and he lived with a cousin in the Bronx for about three months during the winter. He worked in construction during those three months, and he got a call from the scout in March of 1984 asking him where he was. On orders of the scout, he returned to Santo Domingo to pick up his visa and reported to Arizona for spring training. He played in the California League until July then was sent to the Utica, NY to play for the Utica Blue Sox in the New York-Penn League in 1985. He spent two more seasons playing through severe short arm pain in Utica and never fully recovered from it. In 1986, he returned to New York City and worked in construction with the same men he competed against on the field trying to survive with no capital or social connections – only their experiences in the system.
My father’s story has had a positive impact on my life. He met my mother that same year he returned to New York City. He has raised me and my younger brother with no educational or professional background in this country. His mother would be proud of him and I have the privilege of sharing his personal journey with many people. The same way my father’s story inspired me to follow my own path; his story is shared by many former Dominican minor and/or major league ball players and their families in the United States. Dominican immigrants in baseball have changed the face of MLB despite having to deal with language barriers, racism, and feelings of displacement. The pressures to succeed in such an environment are a testament to how far we have come – on and off the baseball field. Baseball immigration is an ambiguous journey and a reflection of the hopes, dreams, and obstacles of many Dominican-born baseball players in the U.S.
Thomas, B. J. (1979, Sep 03). Dominicans put storm toll at 400 dead and 600 missing. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/120734285?accountid=9967
Koble, M. (2008). Not My Father’s Game: Immigration, Major League Baseball and the Dominican Republic. ProQuest.
About the author:
My name is Jhensen Ortiz, and I am working as the Assistant Librarian for the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archives and Library. I have worked in the library the last four years and enjoy providing research and reference consultations to students and maintaining the Library’s collections. At present, I’m currently pursuing a dual master degree program in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archival Studies and History at Queens College.