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BASEBALL IN THE DOMINICAN

Love of game

Philanthropy, commitment result in field of dreams

EL MAMON, Dominican Republic -- Many Red Sox players point to the July 24 brouhaha with the Yankees -- touched off by Jason Varitek shoving his mitt in Alex Rodriguez's face -- as the turning point in their dream season.

That same day, a turning point for the Sox also took place some 1,600 miles from Fenway Park. A dozen teenagers, mostly from the Boston area, and a dozen teenagers from the Dominican Republic were in the middle of moving the earth and building a baseball field and daycare center in El Mamon. They called their project "Lindos Suenos" -- which means "Beautiful Dreams" in Spanish.

That dream has come true. Red Sox officials, including team president and CEO Larry Lucchino and principal owner John W. Henry, dedicated the field Dec. 8, and the daycare center is slated to open this month. Red Sox Hall of Fame candidate Luis Tiant also made the journey after celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Red Sox Academy in nearby El Toro.

The Sox say the idea came from a fan.

"One day a lady came into our office and said I have an idea I want to present to you," said Dr. Charles Steinberg, executive vice president/public affairs. "She said I love the effect baseball has on unifying children when they play together no matter their background. But more importantly, I want for each day these 24 children to work together in the community. And so we began with our neighborhood in El Mamon with these 24 children and made our beautiful dream come true. And they began by building a ballfield for the children of El Mamon that within two weeks was ready for play."

The fan, Charlene Engelhard of Concord, Mass., granted the project $100,000 from her family foundation, and hopes this will be a pilot project for other areas. She argued to remain anonymous, but her name was already engraved on a plaque behind home plate.

Engelhard said she got the idea while in the hospital. "I was very sick and in a prolonged hospital stay," she said. "My son joined a Little League team. He didn't know anybody. Baseball helped him get by."

She was also impressed by Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who placed a shoebox in the Red Sox clubhouse after the worst floods in a half-century caused death and devastating damage to western areas of his native country. Players and fans raised more than $100,000, which was matched by Henry. At the earlier ceremony Ortiz, introduced as Senor Octubre, thanked the Sox for helping the Dominican Republic.

The Lindos Suenos project took place July 17-31 in this dirt-road town where "the kids had no shoes and they were playing with sticks and rocks," said Tom Moore, Red Sox assistant director of international and professional scouting.

First, Steinberg and Engelhard spoke at a town meeting. They said the 12 Dominican kids would stay in a beachfront hotel with the 12 Americans. They would work in the morning and then play ball all afternoon under the watchful eye of Academy director Jesus Alou, who along with famed brothers Felipe and Matty played together for the San Francisco Giants 40 years ago. Alou had planted a row of beans beyond the fence and told the youngsters, "I want you to hit it to Beantown."

Manuel Santurria, 16, had butterflies in his stomach the first day. "At first I was very nervous and very anxious," he said. "We Dominicans get very nervous when something important happens.

"Looking back it was silly to worry. We found them to be very amicable people. No one worked harder than anybody else. We were all the same. I learned to speak English and make new friendships. We have become a big family so quick. When we got to the hotel it was just so much fun. All the beautiful women at the swimming pool. One of the saddest days of my life was when they left."

The Red Sox soon learned that a generator at a central water station had blown. The town's ramshackle huts -- some strangely beautiful with peeling pastel colors -- had no running water. Villagers had to walk 2 kilometers to get water. The Sox paid for repairs.

Needless to say, the village is now Red Sox territory. The townspeople watched the playoffs, tuning in even when the Yankees were ahead, three games to none, in the American League Championship Series. "We watched," said Santurria. "Oh yeah, David Ortiz. The electricity went out. We went to a house with a generator. We all pitched in for gas for the generator. Eight straight games. You could pretty much hear people yelling and screaming all over." Fernando Rodriguez-Villa, back home in Wellesley, Mass., said the trip was an eye-opener.

"At first glance we were really different," he said. "They were poor but it wasn't horrifying. They weren't morose, there was a sense of optimism. One thing that took me by surprise was how easy it was to relate to each other. We came from incredibly different backgrounds but we all loved baseball and we realized we were all the same. I actually enjoyed the work part more than the baseball part. Honestly, I had more fun interacting with other people. Maybe by the time baseball rolled around I was too tired to enjoy it."

The youngsters awoke at 7:30 each day. They had breakfast, and stuffed muffins in their backpacks for their friends in town. They worked from 8:30-12:30. Half of the group worked clearing the field, leveling it, pouring dirt, and grooming it. The other half worked on the daycare center, mixing cement.

Red Sox ambassador Frankie Gonzalez was working alongside the teens in the summer sun when he heard a commotion. "Somebody yelled, `It's a tarantula.' One of the kids from town picked it up with his hand. It was no big deal to them."

Englehard couldn't stand the sight of the malnourished dogs walking around. She got a veterinarian to bring in dog bowls and fill them with Purina. "People from town took the bowls away from the dogs," Gonzalez said.

Two of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's grandchildren helped build the field of dreams.

"I jumped at the chance to go on a trip and do community service and play baseball four hours a day. It was a dream come true," said Tim Shriver in Washington, D.C.

Shriver was struck by how baseball was the center of life in the Dominican. The unemployment rate in the Dominican Republic is 16.5 percent, and one in four people live below the poverty line.

"One of the Dominican coaches was a big major league prospect," said Shriver. "He got [injured] in a car crash and he was depressed by the fact that he was so close to getting out to the majors. Another was a guy who was going to get drafted but his mother got sick and he had to stay home."

Shriver said his new friends were "so excited to play in the minor league academy. It gave guys hope.

"I learned so much by staying with those kids and seeing their world and being able to do something about it. We need to do more."

In the afternoon, they joined forces and played local teams at the Red Sox Academy. They never lost a game. They danced together on the bus, sang songs, and taught each other slang.

When Henry and Lucchino stopped in El Mamon to dedicate the field, they brought the World Series trophy. All the kids touched it.

"That meant a lot to me," said Alou, who won two world championships with the Oakland A's in 1973 and '74. "There are a thousand towns that would love to host it, but it's here in the middle of nowhere."

Lucchino threw out the first pitch, then surveyed the field, now part of Red Sox Nation. He saw a towering tree in right field, a short poke down the line.

"That's the Pesky tree," he said.

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