SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The street outside Ramon Martinez's new house is really just an unpaved alley dotted with gravel, craters, rubble and the occasional steaming mound of dirt.
The street is unmarked and isolated, separated from the main road by several cluttered blocks lined with men playing dominoes and loud stereos. The music is salsa, the atmosphere is chaos.
Yet none of it stops the children.
Every afternoon, with their thin sticks, rubber balls and dreams, they gather outside Martinez's wrought-iron gate. Some of them have no shoes and many have no shirts, but all have voices.
On afternoons when Martinez is sitting in his living room--the front door is always open--he hears them.
"They are always shouting, 'Ramon, Ramon, come out and play!' " a smiling Martinez recalls while sitting on a shiny wicker chair in that living room. "They always want me to pitch."
The request is natural, considering that Martinez pitched so well for the Dodgers last year that he made the All-Star team and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting.
Perhaps what is not so natural is that Martinez often obliges.
"Sometimes I just go out to watch, maybe to bring them some batting gloves or something," Martinez says. "But then when I get out there, sometimes I just have to play.
"I mean, those kids, I used to be them."
In many ways, as fans saw last year, Martinez still is.
It was visible in his wide-eyed excitement the night he struck out 18 Atlanta Braves. It was visible in his youthful bravado at the All-Star game, when he retired Oakland's Jose Canseco by throwing nothing but fastballs.
More than any other time, though, the child in Martinez emerged after a complete-game victory, when he would toss the game ball to a child in the stands.
Some wondered if it was all an act. A visit to his hometown confirms that it was not.
This is where Martinez grew up in a shack without a flush toilet.
This is where he grew up incredibly thin, not because of his genes, but because there wasn't enough money for proper food.
This is where the son of school maintenance workers showed up for his Dodger tryout with no socks. And a torn cap.
This is where Martinez grew up dreaming only that a major leaguer would one day toss \o7 him \f7 a game ball. Actually, he would have taken any sort of baseball, from anybody.
"I don't want to get too far away from those days," said Martinez, 22, who last year became the youngest Dodger to win 20 games since Ralph Branca in 1947. "I want to stay close to where I'm from. If you see me here, you know that I am not that different from then."
In fact, on a recent day at a park he had once frequented near his childhood home in the poor suburb of Mano Guayabo, there was still no baseball.
A dozen children searched the outfield weeds for a ball so they could begin their game. They did not dare search the infield, a swamp reeking of garbage and surrounded by mosquitoes almost as big as their bare feet.
After hacking fruitlessly through the high grass like farmers with sickles, they finally gave up the hunt and rushed toward some visitors in hopes that they had brought a ball.
This being a potentially historic place, it seemed appropriate for a history lesson, so the children were questioned.
Had they heard of Babe Ruth?
Had they heard of Mickey Mantle?
Had they heard of Ramon Martinez?
"Si! Si! Si!"
One brave lad then spoke up, saying: "Ramon Martinez played here 10 years ago. If he pitched for the Dodgers, then we can also pitch for the Dodgers."
Up the bumpy road, in a collection of shacks on an adjoining dirt path, impressions of Martinez are even stronger. The shack where he grew up is the one just beyond the wild-eyed woman who is complaining about her husband, down near a flock of roaming chickens.
Appropriately, it is painted blue. But there is nothing else about the faded, ramshackle structure even remotely suggesting the Dodgers, Los Angeles or even much of the Western World.
The smaller shack nestled in the trees in the back yard is the outhouse. The women standing over the big tubs in the side yard are doing the laundry.
There are holes where the windows should be, and the roof appears barely high enough to have accommodated Martinez, who has since grown to 6 feet 4.
"We are so proud of Ramon, mostly because he is still a good boy, a nice boy," says Maria del Pozo, a cousin who lives in the adjacent shack.
Agueda Herrero Jaime, another cousin, adds, "He is our hero because he is the same person he has been in other years."
Well, not quite.
For one thing, when he left the shack for the Dodgers' Campo Las Palmas academy at age 15, he weighed only 135 pounds. And you thought he looked thin last year!
A lifetime of poor nutrition had left his body years behind those of his peers. He could not throw a ball faster than 80 m.p.h. He had poor endurance. The Dodgers had no competition for his services.