It's a world away, but Americans now find some comforts of home


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- "Hey," said the very American relief pitcher, listening to the salsa music between innings, "I see where Maryland's football coach resigned."

The equally American reporter from Baltimore, who was sitting on the bench in the visitors' dugout -- the manager had invited him -- looked up. "Where did you hear that?" he asked.

Said the relief pitcher: "I get CNN at the hotel. . . ."

CNN? Hotel?

"Yeah," he said. "I get HBO and the Movie Channel, too. All the American networks. I think also Showtime."

Of course. Certainly. Showtime, too. And that is all you need to know about the formerly hardy existence of the American players who venture to the Dominican Republic for winter ball.

Once upon a time, as they moved from the comforts of home to this country of widespread poverty, they had to survive six-inch cockroaches, brown tap water, no electricity. Television? News from home? Don't laugh.

No more. Now, they stay in luxury hotels, watch "SportsCenter" and order takeout pizza. "It's really not much different from the States," said Scott Meadows, a Baltimore Orioles farmhand who played for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings last season, and chose to spend this winter playing for the Estrellas Orientales in San Pedro de Macoris.

Not that life is without hardship. Driving is a shrill adventure. Policemen stop foreigners for no reason, looking for bribes. You still can't drink the water. Eating fish and salads -- anything raw or treated with water -- is patently hazardous.

But it is luxury compared with the way things used to be, before cable television and the collapse of the local economy. Now, anyone holding dollars lives like a king.

"It's gotten a lot better the last few years," said John Pulowski, a relief pitcher in the California Angels organization, who pitched for Estrellas in 1987, 1988 and again this year.

The first year Pulowski came down, he stayed with his American teammates at a beach villa outside San Pedro, an hour from Santo Domingo.

"The villas were great, but sometimes we'd go seven or eight hours without electricity or water," he said. "They'd turn it off without warning, and we didn't have a generator to keep it going. One time, one of the players was washing his hair in the shower and, bam, there goes the water. He had to rinse his hair in the pool."

It made eating a day-by-day proposition. "You couldn't plan ahead, because you never knew when the freezer might go out and not come back on for days," he said. "I ate a lot of rice and soup. I probably lost 15 pounds."

Beginning last year, though, the team owners moved the players to a hotel in Santo Domingo, in which, like any Third World capital, there are pockets of wealth. The players can find pizza, Chinese food, hamburgers.

"We had a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, which was nice," Meadows said. "It was a little funky at first, not knowing where to go. But it's like anywhere, you meet people and figure it out."

Still, even though the living is easier, the only Americans coming down now are, like Meadows and Pulowski, minor-leaguers looking to make the final jump to the majors. Major-leaguers used to come for the sun and money, but no more.

"There's just too much money in the States now," Meadows said. "It isn't worth it for major-leaguers to come down and face the hassles. The money here is OK [between $2,000 and $2,500 a month], but nothing compared to the States."

But Meadows gets brownie points with the Orioles for coming down, showing his willingness to work. Also, if he gets lucky, he might stumble across a solution.

The Orioles' Glenn Davis says he found his home-run swing in Santo Domingo, where everyone called him El Jumbo Azul -- the big blue -- because he was so productive in Licey's blue uniforms.

The Orioles' Joe Orsulak also probably owes his career to winter ball. The Pittsburgh Pirates had given up on him when he played for Estrellas in 1987. But he played well, and Estrellas' manager that winter was John Hart, then with the Orioles. Hart recommended that the club trade for him.

Of course, a player isn't likely to come back once he makes it to the majors. Who wants to run the risk of hitting a goat with your car?

"Driving is insane," Meadows said. "Especially at night. The lights are out half the time, and people just make their own way. The police are looking to stop you. The thing you learn is, just keep going. And if they stop you, don't give them your license. It'll cost you at last 200 pesos to get it back."

The Americans drive everywhere together in a rented van, alternating driving. A couple of years ago, someone ran into a horse.

"Things may be nicer down here," Meadows said, "but they're still real different."

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