Baseball in the Dominican Republic: Freedom or Oppression?
October 13th, 2013. The Red Sox trail the Detroit Tigers five to one in the bottom of the eighth inning in game two of the American League Conference Series. The bases are loaded and there are two outs. Into the plate saunters David Ortiz, benevolently known to the city of Boston as “Big Papi.” He turns on a first pitch slider, hammering it over the right field wall for a game-tying grand slam. The stadium erupts, the city erupts, and the Red Sox go on to win the 2013 World Series. The story of Ortiz, a player from the Dominican Republic growing up with very little means making it big in the United States as a star baseball player, is one common in Major League Baseball: At the start of the 2019 MLB season, more than 10% of players on opening day rosters hailed from the Dominican Republic. Like many other Dominican natives, Ortiz has been quoted as saying that he used to dream of playing in the big leagues when he, as a child, was hitting baseballs with a bat made out of plywood. For him and a large but select group of others, his baseball talent represented a ticket to a better life.
Baseball and the power dynamics of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic give us a clearer insight into Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s modern dance performance Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land. In this performance, the pair argues that dance is a powerful tool for the freedom and the facilitation of clear identities of African Americans. In this paper, I will argue that baseball mirrors Jones and Zane’s idea of the effect of dance. For millions of afro-dominican children, baseball is a way to form a sense of identity. For the small percentage of players that are recruited to play in America, the sport offers freedom; this is much like the story of Eliza from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the Major League Baseball complex is also rooted in a continuation of the United State’s colonial and imperial history. In the modern day, wealthy Americans are continuing to profit off the bodies and talents of afro-dominican players. Wealthy owners are able to pick from a vast pool of talent, offering the hope of a better life in order to profit off the labor of those good enough to fill the stands and win games. I will delve into this complicated relationship between the sense of identity and freedom that baseball offers, and the neocolonial aspect of the game that persists today.
In three separate responses to Jones and Zane’s dance piece, authors Randy Martin, Ariel Nereson and Jaqueline Shea Murphy share their interpretations of these choreographers’ intentions. In his essay “Overreading the Promised Land,” Randy Martin describes the dangers of “under-reading” dance performances. Martin defines under-reading as the shallow attributing of one’s own pre-existing notions to a performance, or “generating a divide between what is inside dance and what is external to it.” Instead, he champions the idea of “over-reading”, which he describes as “mobilizing the text in service of context”; it is through over-reading that dance’s power to fight racial inequality is fully realized. Throughout his piece, Martin commonly criticizes the political right wing for under-reading performances; he also pushes back against this reaction to Jones and Zane’s work. He writes, “There is a common context in which both dance and politics get under-read…a rightist idea in the reception of culture.” Martin is particularly interested in the power that dance has to facilitate political progressiveness; specifically, in the fight towards racial equality in America. Like both of the other authors, Martin sees great power in dance, and hopes to facilitate this power further.
In her essay “Counterfactual Moving in Bill T Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Promised Land,” Ariel Nereson focuses on the power that dance has when viewed through a counterfactual lens, (an analysis of historical events through the question of “what if?”), specifically referencing the five Eliza’s in Eliza on Ice. In Jones and Zane’s performance, they show five different possible scenarios of Eliza, a runaway slave from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, escaping to Canada. To explain counterfactual learning, Nereson refrences the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, and asks if the First World War would have started had he not been killed. Throughout the essay, Nereson argues that this counterfactual reliving has a therapeutic power for African Americans, and helps to understand the effect that past experience has on current bodies. She writes, “Counterfactual moving can have causal force through its vehicle of embodiment in rerouting lived experience.” Dance, Nereson argues, can dramatically help those discriminated against in the past understand their identity when viewed through a counterfactual lens.
Finally, in her essay “Unrest & Uncle Tom: Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” Jaqueline Shea Murphy describes the tremendous power that dance has in creating identities. She specifically focuses on Adolf, the personal servant of Augustine St. Claire in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and how he uses dance to try and create an identity. Murphy describes how Adolf adopts “the style under which [St. Claire] moved” and wants to “appropriate the dance floors and dance forms of the upper class men of New Orleans.” Adolf desperately desires to be accepted into the upper class world which he admires so much, and he uses his style of dance to pursue this identity. Murphy believes that dance, and one’s style of dance, holds great power in creating an identity for marginalized groups in America.
Thus, the parallels between dance and baseball and their effect on marginalized bodies becomes clear. Not only does baseball offer individual freedoms to players in the Dominican Republic, it also facilitates a sense of national pride and identity. Rob Ruck writes for the Institute of International Affairs, “No nation [other than the D.R] has used baseball more to tell its story to the world. That story is about perseverance, about people who worked hard cutting cane and tending to small farms but played even harder, who overcame the 31-year-long Rafael Trujillo dictatorship, withstood occupation by foreign powers not once but three times, stared down racism in the major leagues, and in the end, beat the “Yanquis” at their own game.” In the very same way that these three authors find political power in dance, those in the Dominican Republic find it in baseball. Specifically regarding Nereson’s reading of Jones and Zane’s performance, we can see that both the activity of expression oneself on the dance floor and on the baseball diamond have therapeutic undertones.
The Dominican Republic is a nation whose history is wrought with foreign occupation, slavery, and injustice. Yet, for a county of 10 million people, it is perhaps the greatest baseball powerhouse in the world. In the very same way that dance, a seemingly-inconsequential activity, has the power to unite people and force change, baseball can stem revolution. For the more than a century that it has existed in the D.R, baseball has brought hope and pride to a country so wronged by the world. Just as dance is one outlet for a group of people whose history is scarred by racism and slavery, baseball give rememberance and optimism toanother group of people with a shared experience.
Another way that baseball can give insight into Jones and Zane’s performance is how injustice is still being perpetuated against both the marginalized groups discussed in the performance and those playing baseball. The United States has far more self-serving interests in the Dominican Republic than the freedom and national identity of that country’s citizens. According to an article posted in the Global Citizen, Dominican players in the America and MLB training facilities in the D.R. generate over 1 billion USD in revenue. While some of this money goes back to the Dominican Republic, a large percentage of it finds its way into team owners and league officials in the United States. Beginning in the 1980s, Major League Baseball teams began to set up “training academies” in the DR. Because these teams are only given 24 work visas to use on international players, the training academy system is a way to test many more players than there are roster spots, in the hopes of correctly choosing the players that will become stars. These academies operate like a boarding school, with dorms, cafeterias and weight rooms; one player was quoted as saying that “it was the first time [he] ate nutritional food and slept on a real bed.” Using the offer of freedom and money, these academies pit hundreds of hopeful and desperate young adults against each other in the search of the highest economic profit. After thirty days, a few are offered contracts, while many more are sent back to homes where they share bedrooms with four family members; four in ten of the boys that attend these academies live in poverty. These training academies ask young men to quit school, and their allure causes many to do so. According to an article published by NPR, “You’ve been a dream merchant, telling these kids they can get rich, that they can have a successful career through baseball. So you’ve got kids dropping out of school at 13 or 14 to prepare themselves for baseball. Yet, only about 2% of them make a living in baseball.” For those 2%, baseball has lived up to its promise to give them identity, freedom, and a better life. Yet for the other 98%, their dreams and future lives have been dashed by a system that exploits them for profit.
This intrusion by the United States stems from the days of manifest destiny. America, the imperialist, poaches the bodies and resources of the Dominican Republic for economic gain. According to an article published in the journal “Latin American Perspectives,” Alan M. Klein, who lived in the Dominican Republic for nearly twenty years to study the culture of baseball in the country, writes “For developing countries dependent on foreign aid, trade, or World Bank loans, the open expression of resentment and overt forms of resistance are fraught with danger…Hense, baseball, a cultural institution developed by colonial powers as part of their enterprises, remains an unchecked system of oppression in the Dominican Republic.”
Upon a closer reading, very little has changed in the United States’s relations with Latin American countries in the last 200 years. Although some Dominican players do end up escaping like Eliza, a large portion of them are spit out by the very system of oppression that Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane are attempting to combat through dance. Yes, baseball brings the Dominican Republic together, and it does facilitate a sort of national identity; yet, it only does this through fleeting promises of freedom and money that it rarely produces. Major League Baseball needs to recognize that it continues to perpetuate the kind of colonial domination that the United States blatantly used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A place where league leaders can mitigate the oppressive effect of their sport is the closure or rethinking of training programs. Baseball can no longer leave its unwanted uneducated and unprepared for the real world. Despite this, baseball will always have the capacity to make progressive change in the lives of Dominican citizens. It brings the country together, and helps many transcend their facticity; to benefit even more lives, Major League Baseball and the United States need to foster a heightened culture of equality in the Dominican Republic.
Baseball, in the way that it so closely mirrors the effect of dance, gives us a deeper insight into the meaning of Jones and Zane’s performance. Just as dance has the power to reflect on past injustice while creating unique modern-day identities, baseball is a way for the nation of the Dominican Republic to remember their difficult past and create a sense of unity in the present. It is through the continuing imperialist structures that Major League Baseball has set up in the D.R. that we can also see how dance must fight against the racism still alive in the United States today. Each much more powerful than the simple activities they may be on the surface, dance and baseball are important ways to revolutionize our persistently unfair world.
Associated Press. “Dominican Players in MLB Right Now.” The New York Daily Post. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/ny-sports-dominican-players-mlb-20190329-uov3vwsx5vhrnctzj5p5tg233i-story.html.
Klein, Alan M. “Culture, Politics and Baseball in the Dominican Republic.” Latin American Perspectives 22, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 111-30. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2634143?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
LaGuesse, David. “Baseball Is A Field Of Dreams — And Dashed Hopes — For Dominicans.” NPR. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/03/472699693/baseball-is-a-field-of-dreams-and-dashed-hopes-for-dominicans.
Martin, Randy. Overreading the Promised Land. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1998. Accessed February 15, 2020. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/41g389p13t2l50c/AAB0fXrImdixyiJgBEy1IrSsa?dl=0&preview=Martin-Overreading+The+Promised+Land.pdf.
McCarthy, Joe. “The Financial Impact of Baseball in the Dominican Republic.” The Global Citizen. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-baseball-has-transformed-the-dominican-republi/.
Murphy, Jaqueline Shae. Unrest and Uncle Tom. Rutgers University, 1995. Accessed February 15, 2020. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/41g389p13t2l50c/AAB0fXrImdixyiJgBEy1IrSsa?dl=0&preview=Shea+Murphy-Unrest+and+Uncle+Tom.pdf.
Nereson, Ariel. Counterfactual Moving in Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land. Theatre Survey, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2020. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/41g389p13t2l50c/AAB0fXrImdixyiJgBEy1IrSsa?dl=0&preview=Nereson-counterfactual_moving_in_bill_t_joness_last_supper_at_uncle_toms_cabinthe_promised_land.pdf.
Ostrum, Reid. Rethinking Baseball in the Dominican Republic. Washington and Lee University, n.d. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://repository.wlu.edu/bitstream/handle/11021/33977/RG38_Ostrom_LACS_2018.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
Ruck, Rob. “The Tropic of Baseball: Dominican Talent and the MLB.” Institute of International Affairs. Accessed May 13, 2020. http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-tropic-of-baseball-dominican-talent-and-the-mlb/.