Los Angeles Dodger scout Ralph Avila shifts the Land Rover into four-wheel drive and fishtails through the spume of a mountain stream. Behind him lie five hours of hot dust and jungle. Ahead looms the jagged cordillera that forms the Dominican Republic's border with Haiti.
Avila's destination is La Meseta, a torpid Dominican village of 30 families that bureaucrats back in Santo Domingo prefer to overlook. The town has no paved streets, plumbing or electricity. Its sole civic improvement is a rock-strewn baseball diamond. In a farming community without irrigation or fertilizer, that field is arguably La Meseta's most fertile plot of ground, for it has produced Edwin Aquino Tapia, a young pitcher whose power and poise remind Dodger scouts of Sandy Koufax.
"This boy can throw 86 m.p.h. and he's only 20," Avila yells as palm fronds rake the roof of the lurching car. "He's already got the strength of a major-leaguer. Just think what he'll do once Larry Sherry and Johnny Podres get hold of him. In three years I bet he'll be throwing 90 m.p.h."
Tapia had been seen several months before by Dodger scout Eliodoro Arias at a semipro game in the Dominican city of San Juan. "It was the ninth inning of a lopsided game, and all the other scouts had gone home," Avila, a Cuban, says with a wink. "We've been in contact ever since, and Eliodora says the boy's amazing. I think we're the first baseball scouts ever to make it all the way to this village."
Pascual Aquino, his wife Damiana Tapia, their 10 children and the family burro all are on hand to greet Avila. At 6 feet 3 and 181 pounds, Edwin is not hard to spot. On this scrubby plateau, deep within the island of Hispaniola, only the banana trees are taller than he. The boy is all ankles and arms, a jungle sprout with the fingers of a concert pianist. "Edwin began playing ball when he was 12 right out there," his 56-year-old father says proudly, waving his sweat-stained fedora toward a fallow bean field. "We should be getting some rain," he sighs, surveying a distant stand of withered corn. "It's going to be awfully dry come summer."
Inside the Aquinos' small clapboard home, chairs are gathered around a homemade table that Avila quickly covers with glossy brochures. For Edwin and his parents, it's like a sneak preview of heaven.
"This is the pool where Jackie Robinson used to swim," Avila says, "and these are our classrooms. Just look at that dining room. A lot of clubs put their rookies in motels and give 'em $10 for meal money, but at Dodgertown, Edwin eats with Valenzuela and sleeps in a room identical to Pedro Guerrero's. And if he's fortunate," Avila says, pointing to a picture of a sellout crowd in Dodger Stadium on a smogless day, "this is where he'll be working in a few years.
"Some second-division club may offer you a bigger bonus, but if you sign with them, remember that the only money you'll ever get is your salary," Avila explains to the rookie. "Players earn extra for getting to the playoffs and the World Series. You want Edwin to get that playoff money, don't you?" he asks, turning back to the parents. "Well, he's got the opportunity with the Dodgers because we're always pennant contenders."
"The life of a professional ballplayer isn't easy," Avila says, and heads nod in agreement. "Joaquin Andujar is a millionaire today, but he had to suffer first. You don't make a great deal of money your first three years."
"I understand," Edwin's father says. "But there's nothing to be afraid of in the U.S. I'm just happy he's got a chance to travel away from here."
"There's a lot of temptation in the U.S.," Avila says with a sigh and a slight uplift of eyes. "Cars are very important up there, and Edwin will want a Chevrolet. But he can't afford to play around if he wants to be a success."
" Exactamente, " says Damiana with a stern look at her son. "No fantasies now!" she says in mock reproof.
"Edwin, do you want to be a star?" Avila asks.
" Si, senor. "
"Well, then give me three years of sacrifice. Practice eight hours a day. Go back home and rest at night. You have the skills to earn $80,000 in three to four years, and if you work hard, I think you will."
Outside the house, a neighbor squats in the shade, preening his fighting cock. Children scamper through the swirling smoke from a cooking fire. Inside, Avila takes a yellow player contract from his briefcase, pushes his Dodger cap back off his forehead and hands a pen to the parents. In return for their signatures, the family receives a $4,000 bonus, almost three times their annual income. Avila gains a pitcher whose earned-run average over the last 60 innings of semipro ball is 0.61.