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O's putting down Dominican roots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - To find the Orioles' future field of Dominican dreams, you leave this town - home to sugar mills and Sammy Sosa - and drive south for about 10 minutes, turning off the paved road in between the sugar cane fields.

From there, you bounce along a potholed road, past a garbage dump, to a decaying farmhouse where a goat rests in the front yard.

There, Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, is wearing a black windbreaker - a new one that replaced the one with the knife marks from the attacker - talking on his cell phone with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and beaming about the possibilities.

Two architects have come with blueprints, describing their vision for a $2 million project.

On this 14-acre plot of farmland, the Orioles have plans for three baseball fields, a new service road, a giant security gate and all-important housing in which Dominican prospects can escape their tattered lives and taste the good life for 11 months a year.

"When we get this thing built," Bernhardt says, "it's going to be one of the top three or four academies down here."

And to know how much that prospect means to Bernhardt, you need only follow the rest of his tour.

Bernhardt winds his truck through a decaying neighborhood in San Pedro de Macoris, a section in which the homes are one-room tin shacks, a place in which children walk through the streets in their underwear.

He pulls over at the field where he has spent the past two years teaching his players the Oriole Way. The field is enclosed by walls topped by barbed wire, and Bernhardt waits for a moment until his assistant comes to open the gate.

Inside, the grass is brown, the bases are dirty, and the orange and black paint is chipping along the cement outfield wall. Bernhardt said the place is still an upgrade over the field the Orioles were using before, in an area 20 miles outside of San Pedro called Quesqueya.

One day two years ago, Bernhardt was working there with a pitcher in the bullpen when an attacker came wielding a knife. Bernhardt managed to escape without harm; the blade cut his jacket, but not his skin.

He told the local authorities but has yet to hear of any arrests. The incident was enough to persuade the Orioles to change facilities.

"I put my life in danger there more than once," Bernhardt says. "It was a very bad neighborhood, and so is the one we're in now. We're trying to get out of there as soon as we can."

Not adequate or safe

The field the Orioles use now doesn't have any water or electricity. There's a new, green batting cage, but the Orioles don't use it because it belongs to the owner of the field, who runs his own academies there.

Last year, there was a break-in at the team's equipment shed.

"They broke the door. They broke the window. They took everything," Bernhardt said. "Baseballs, catching gear, helmets, bats, everything. They don't leave me anything."

The Orioles have a two-year lease that expires July 13. Bernhardt is looking for a temporary solution, somewhere his players can practice until the new complex is completed. He's hoping those new fields will be ready by the summer of 2005.

After hearing Bernhardt's pleas for a better facility, Angelos sent his sons, John and Lou, to start exploring potential new sites. They purchased the land south of the city for about $200,000 in 1999 and hired the architects for another $40,000.

But nothing has happened since.

With Major League Baseball exploring the possibility of a worldwide draft, the Orioles were hesitant to pour money into a facility if it wouldn't help them produce their own talent.

Now that the worldwide draft idea has lost steam, the Orioles are ready to break ground. Peter Angelos plans to visit the site sometime in the next few weeks.

Eventually, the Orioles hope to catch up to the other teams that have built modern academies here, teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Anaheim Angels.

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said he isn't concerned that his team is entering the game too late.

"As long we get our share, that's what it boils down to," Flanagan said. "If we have a state-of-the-art academy down there, we'll start having our share. If you have an academy people want to play in, if you have personnel like Carlos, all those things work hand in hand."

Bernhardt locks the gate behind him and gets back in his truck. He drives a bit and then pulls past a security guard into a complex built about 10 years ago by Japan's Hiroshima Toyo Carp, yet another team that is trying to mine for talent in this baseball-fertile country.

This is the academy where Alfonso Soriano honed his talent before going to Japan and eventually to the New York Yankees, who traded him to the Texas Rangers this month for Alex Rodriguez.

The Orioles are using this facility as a model for their new complex, and their young Dominican prospects are here today playing a game against the Carp's prospects.

Bernhardt, the scout who brought Armando Benitez to the Orioles 14 years ago, watches from the dugout for a moment, and then a look of chagrin comes across his face.

Out on the mound, Juan Roberto Bacilio, a 19-year-old right-hander, uncoils his skinny, 6-foot-4 body and unleashes fastballs that blow right past the opposing hitters.

'Walking backward'

"You see this kid," Bernhardt says, "He's throwing 94 [mph]. But he's going to leave me in two weeks and go home to La Ramona. When he comes back in June, he'll be throwing 86-87.

"Right now, he weighs 190 [pounds]. When he comes back, he's gonna weigh 175."

For Bernhardt, the story has been repeating itself for years. Other teams with on-site housing at their academies can keep their prospects 11 months a year - sheltering them, feeding them, and putting them on weightlifting programs.

The Orioles' budget and their current facilities allow them to house their players for only seven months a year.

"It's like walking backward on a treadmill," said Mike Powers, who represents Benitez and former Orioles shortstop Manny Alexander as an agent and also has been a key adviser to Angelos for the new Dominican complex.

Approaching the last stop on the tour, Bernhardt winds through the downtown streets of San Pedro, past a Payless Shoe Store, past a Pepsi stand, and past a body shop. He pulls up to a smallish, yellow house in which 25 of his players have been living as boarders for the past four months.

Inside, there's a TV room and bedrooms filled with bunk beds. The living quarters are tight, with barely enough room to walk. There's an awning covering picnic tables in the backyard, and several English words have been scribbled on the chalkboard.

Each day, the players are given an hour of language tutoring, as the Orioles try to prepare them for life in the United States as they rise through the farm system. On those same picnic tables, the players will come three times a day for home-cooked meals.

It takes a bus to get here from the field in the ramshackle neighborhood across town. At the new complex, players will be able to go right from the field to the clubhouse, and their sleeping quarters will be right upstairs.

The complex will include offices of a doctor and dentist, a cafeteria and a weight room.

"I'm going to tell you this from the bottom of my heart," Bernhardt says. "I'm the kind of guy that always takes everything with patience. Other people might not know this, but Mr. Angelos is doing everything he can to make the Dominican academy better for the Orioles."

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