What began as a morning trip to Verón (near Punta Cana) to watch kids practice baseball ended with chasing down a bus on a moped with a guy named Coco Loco. But I guess I should start at the beginning.
I've been in the Dominican Republic for about a week now trying to find baseball. I've asked just about every waiter, bartender, and souvenir hustler where might be the best place to find "play", which is the most common term for playing baseball down here. Even the location where the fields are located is simply called "play". Friday night, a muscular guy with a wayward eye in his 20s named Juan, said he'd take me to Verón Saturday morning to see "play". We agreed to meet at 10 a.m. a few blocks from the Airbnb apartment I'm staying at to take the half hour, one dollar bus ride to "play," but as far as I know, Juan was a no-show. Which was just fine with me, because that's how I met Coco Loco.
Coco Loco, I'd guess, is a man in his 5's. One of his many jobs is as a souvenir barker for one of the shops that line the beach in Bavaro, Punta Cana. As I was waiting for Juan, Coco Loco approached me, introduced himself, (which he had done two days earlier as well) and tried to get me inside the souvenir shop. I told him, "Estoy esperando para un amigo." (I'm waiting for a friend.) But he'd have none of it, and before I knew it, I was inside the shop explaining to him about Juan being a no show and how he was supposed to show me "play" in Verón. At which point, Coco Loco tried to sell me one of the many baseballs they have for sale emblazoned with one of the six professional teams that play in the Dominican. Strangely enough, the shop also sold a Marlins and Blue Jays logo ball.
Realizing an opportunity to serve as my replacement guide instead of Juan, Coco Loco put away las pelotas (the balls), and hurried me to the bus stop. We sat under it's weathered straw roof escaping the late morning sun speaking spanish and english and waiting for the bus as he bummed cigarette after cigarette. Coco Loco told me of all the baseball he could show me in the Dominican Republic. From a huge stadium built by a huge pitcher named Bartolo Colon to the birthplace of Sammy Sosa in San Pedro. Coco Loco also dropped some terrible news on my shoulders that his wife is bedridden with cancer and he needs money to take care of her.
I was born at night, but not last night. Of course, I wanted to believe Coco Loco's story, but I also know it's likely part of the his hustle. I had every intention of paying him something for taking me to "play." I would have paid no-show Juan too, but Coco was laying it on thick. I fished for the truth and told him about my family experiences with cancer to which I lost my own dad. But the more Coco spoke (mostly in English) and attentively listened to me speak (mostly in Spanish), I gained an overall trust that I can only equate to an explorer trusting his sherpa. I trusted him, but I was fully aware that this trip could end in disaster.
We boarded the bus and chatted about our live,s finding a lot in common. He and I have both worked as actors. We both spent many years in New York and in fact lived within two blocks of each other for a while. Most importantly, we are both huge fans of the sport of baseball. One of Coco Loco's boyhood heroes is fellow Dominican Juan Marichal. He claims to know the Cedeño brothers of César Cedeño fame, and he said baseball has been absolutely wonderful for his country. Especially now that Major League Baseball and players have reinvested in the great wealth of talent that has come from this tiny island over the last three or four decades.
I told Coco about a little game I'm playing down here, taking inventory of all the different MLB teams hats I've seen since I've been here. So far, I've seen in order of ubiquity, The Yankees, Blue Jays, White Sox, Reds, Mets, Pirates, Phillies, Indians,Tigers (on a tourist) Braves (also on a tourist). But unfortunately, I'm the only one in a Cubs hat so far.
We talked about the Caribbean World Series which is currently taking place in Puerto Rico. I told Coco Loco that I found it strange that the game I watched had two announcers, but one did the play by play, and the other, who I believe to be the Latino equivalent of James Earl Jones, just announced commercials, which happened after just about every pitch. There were so many "in game" commercials in fact, that the words "Tu vida cambia con Orange" (your life changes with orange) are seared into my brain.
Coco Loco and I yapped in spanglish the whole ride and arrived a half hour or so later across the street from "play."
As a Cubs fan, in a Cubs cap, I couldn't have been more disappointed when it was revealed that the entire complex was dedicated to the children of the Dominican Republic by the Chicago White Sox. I can speak more Spanish than I can understand, depending on how quickly people are speaking, but there was no mistaking the name "Jerry Reinsdorf" while having the origin of this place simply called "play" explained to me in a rapid fire stream of español. Nor was there any mistaking the huge White Sox logo emblazoned on the cantina and the outfield fence. Ahh...el suerte de un fanatico de los Cachorros. (The luck of a Cubs fan.)
The story of my time at "play" can be mostly told in the gallery. There was un equipo (a team) practicing. Boys mostly around the ages of 12-14 and some younger tagalongs, with older boys and young men coaching them. The kids were incredibly friendly and eager to mug for a few photos.
Coco Loco kept telling everyone we met that I was some big time journalist writing about the Chicago Cubs, which couldn't be further from the truth. I kept correcting him saying "No es mi trabajo, es mi pasión." (It's not my job, it's my passion.) I had forgotten the word for hobby (pasatiempo) -- lest he think I was floating around on some kind of BCB expense account of which he would consider himself privy to a portion.
After snapping a few more shots around the White Sox donated field, Coco Loco said we should leave "play" and find a place where there might be an actual game. Before I knew it, I was whizzed off on the back of a moped with a guy wearing a baseball helmet with "Gabriel" scratched into the side. Coco Loco rode with another fellow in a Milwaukee Brewers helmet. Interestingly enough, many of the moped riders wear baseball helmets. I don't know how well they protect you from injury, but I do know that Coco Loco and I were not provided helmets.
Besides the thrill of riding double on a moped through unregulated traffic, the trip was a bit of a bust, as the partido (game) had ended an hour earlier. However, a few of the boys had stuck around to take some swings in the non automated batting cage and were just finishing when we got there -- check out the photo gallery above.
The moped drivers had waited for us while I took photos and chatted with the coach and players a bit. They whisked us back to the bus stop.
On the bus ride back, Coco Loco told me that next Friday he would take me on a Grand Baseball Tour of the entire island. He said, if I rented us a car, he'd take me to all five professional baseball stadiums (two teams share one of them): The training facilities of the Cubs, Red Sox, Giants and Yankees; the birthplace of Sammy Sosa (San Pedro) and also of Starlin Castro, which Coco Loco said is one of the most beautiful places on the island, Puerto Plata. He suggested we stay Friday night together in a place he knows for $12 which sounds disturbingly interesting.
He also reiterated his unfortunate situation with his wife and the cancer and the need for money. I told him I had planned on giving him some money for guiding me, but that I don't have a lot, which is true. He said he could really use some extra cash now for medicine for his esposa (wife), and maybe I could give him more dough today as a down payment for our trip next Friday. Not knowing if I can swing the cost of such an adventure, I nodded my head and looked out the window planning to give him one of the two twenties I had stashed in my wallet.
I took out my billfold, gave him my card and he texted me so I had his numeros to get in touch later.
When we disembarked, I reached into my pocket to lay the stashed twenty on Coco Loco, at which point I realized I didn't have my wallet! I watched the bus, 100 yards away at least, curve out of view. But Coco Loco sprung into action! He whistled over a moped and we both hopped on. I found myself the meat of a moped taxi driver, Coco Loco sandwich hurtling and swerving in and out of oncoming traffic! Coco Loco yelling "Dale! Dale!" (Give it! Give it!) in my ear. We caught up to the bus an exhilarating five minutes later, at which point Coco Loco leapt from the moped and in front of our bus which was just pulling away from the stop. He explained our situation and boarded, returning with my wallet 30 seconds later, all cash accounted for.
I didn't have the presence of mind to grab my camera during the wallet bus chase down. But I did film a moped ride that night to give you a taste. Check out the driver's hat!
We sandwiched back onto the moped and sped back towards la tienda (the shop) where Coco Loco works. I praised our moped driver, named Zeta, for his incredible maneuvering skills, calling him "Mi Salvador" (my savior). I then thanked Coco Loco by pressing both stashed 20s into his hand -- a possible deposit for a Grand Baseball Tour and for medicine for his possibly ailing wife. His eyes widened with genuine thankfulness when I handed him the money. But I would have been out a lot more than 20 dollars had he not acted so quickly. The cancelled credit and bank cards I would have had to deal with from a foreign country, the lost drivers license, it would have been an endless expensive hassle. I had to pay it back, and I'd like to do more for Coco Loco.
I've looked into a bit of the cost of this "Coco Loco Baseball Grand Dominican Tour." Two days of a rental car is at least $100 plus gasoline and the magical hidden fees they hit you with, and I think Coco Loco deserves $100 plus expenses (food/lodging) for bringing me all around the island for a day and a half of total baseball. If his wife truly does have cancer, he deserves more dough, but I don't have it for him.
Just to head off any criticism of "What do you mean you have no money? Mr. Two Weeks in the Dominican Republic?!"
This trip was gifted to me by my girlfriend's mother who wanted to give us a vacation for helping with my girlfriend's father's death from cancer last summer which you can read about in Sordid Travels of a Cubs Fan: Colorado. I've also rented out my Chicago apartment and have to work at my radio job remotely during the week. So I'm working from paraíso, (paradise). But I couldn't be here without the generosity of Catherine Rahmes.
Anyhow, I had an idea to set up a "Go Fund Me" for Coco Loco and the Grand Dominican Baseball Tour. Trust me, no one hates getting grifted by a hustler more than me, but Coco Loco's wallet heroics have proven himself as a man to go above and beyond the call of duty, and I have a feeling we might have an epic buddy movie type adventure together. So let me ask you, dear readers. Is this anything you'd all be willing to partially crowd fund with me? Because I have only $320 to last me a week until I get back to Chicago.
If I can't raise enough dough, I could probably hit at least one or two places with Coco Loco by bus, but it wouldn't be the Grand Dominican baseball tour he promised. He even drew me a map!
What say you? 30 people at $10 each could make this happen. I'll cover the rest, and any extra cash we'd raise, I could give to Coco Loco who quite obviously needs money regardless of the veracity of his family situation. Which personally, I believe him.
I set up the Go Fund Me. If I can raise some cash for Coco Loco, I'll have him drive me around on a Grand Dominican Baseball Tour and then tell you all about it and take tons of photos. If not, I'm gonna post a bunch of selfies with me and dudes in baseball hats. Es solo una broma. (It's only a joke) Whaddya think? You in?