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In league with baseball, beaches

The West Indies nation is devoted to the game, but its water sports and spirit of fun are more than between-inning attractions.

October 05, 2008|Dean R. Owen | Special to The Times

SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — It is sunday morning, and the bell atop the oldest cathedral in the New World is ringing throughout Zona Colonial. But instead of kneeling in a pew and studying the Bible, I'm three blocks away in a courtyard, kneeling at a vendor's stall, studying the edges of a Joe Torre baseball card.

The card is one of about 100 overflowing a wooden cigar box.

Tucked under Torre is a 1961 Henry Aaron MVP with paint splotches on the back. But the 1968 Torre is crisp, clean and firm, just like the one I acquired 40 years ago in a pack with four other cards and a stick of bubble gum.

"¿Cuantos pesos?" I ask the gray-bearded proprietor of a stall in the Pulga de Antiguedades, a weekly gathering of people selling crafts, antiques and thrift store fare.

"Oh, a Joe Torre. That's 10 bucks," he says in an unmistakable New York accent.

Turns out the card dealer is a native of Staten Island now living in Santo Domingo who travels several times a year to the U.S. to buy and sell baseball memorabilia.

It is Day 2 of a 10-day excursion to the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation more passionate about America's pastime than America is. Beisbol is not just a sport here; it competes with Roman Catholicism as the national religion.

Signs of this other religion are ubiquitous. Outside the airport, a road sign announces you're driving on Sammy Sosa Parkway heading toward the capital, Santo Domingo, the hometown of longtime Los Angeles Dodgers player and coach Manny Mota.

Although it's late February, a few weeks after the Caribbean Series, evidence of the game's influence is everywhere. In this city of more than 2 million -- the size of a large Southern California mega-mall -- about half the men and a good percentage of women wear baseball caps, jerseys and other branded clothing of their favorite U.S. teams; televisions in restaurants and bars are locked on Spanish-language ESPN.

Baseball fans are in for an unforgettable experience in a regular-season visit, says John Lombardo, director of player development for the Texas Rangers and a regular visitor to the Dominican Republic.

"It's an unbelievable atmosphere," he says. "Home-cooked food being sold, rum, loud, energetic merengue music and cheerleaders on the dugouts."

A regular-season game has all the excitement and passion of a major league playoff game in the U.S., Lombardo says, with "loud cheering and very lively, sometimes aggressive, banter between fans."

But the Dominican Republic has more to offer visitors than baseball.

Several five-star beachfront resorts beckon Americans, Canadians and Europeans. The American Assn. of Travel Agents ranks Punta Cana, on the Dominican Republic's southeastern tip, its clients' sixth most popular international tourist destination -- just above Venice, Italy, and just below Jamaica.

"It's the beauty of the white, sandy beaches," says Vice Minister for Tourism Magaly Toribio. She also cites the proximity to U.S. cities, high-quality hotels and aggressive marketing efforts by the private and public sectors that attract visitors to the resorts, which contributed substantially to the Dominican Republic's $4 billion in tourism revenue in 2007.

For those who love windsurfing, snorkeling and kite boarding, or just playing in warm, turquoise water, Punta Cana as well as Puerto Plata in the north are unmatched and easy to get to with their own international airports.

The resort approach enables travelers to bypass the crowded capital as well as the rugged interior mountains. Regrettably, those who go that route miss out on some of this nation's most compelling historic and cultural offerings.

An hour after politely refusing to negotiate for the overpriced Joe Torre baseball card, I am climbing up a dark, wide staircase to the second floor of the Boutique de Fumador, one of the many cigar shops in Santo Domingo. The creak of ancient wood resounds under my feet as I climb to the shop's cedar aging room.

Even before Mayra Pouerie, the assistant to the shop's manager, beckons me inside, the aroma of aging tobacco stops me in my tracks. Catching my breath, I peek beyond the doorway and glimpse a few of the thousands of cigars packed tightly in a room the size of my home's master bath. The experience is overwhelming -- and a bit tempting -- even for someone like me who has never smoked a cigar.

Outside, the fresh air is less enticing than a $6 stogie, but my head is clearer. After a 15-minute walk through Zona Colonial, I arrive at the home of Christopher Columbus' son, Diego. The Alcazar de Colon, with its two stories of stunning arches flanked by palm trees, is one of the most striking buildings in Santo Domingo, and one of the nation's finest examples of its colonial heritage.

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