Alan Klein’s Sugarball is both a historical overview and cultural study of how citizens of the Dominican Republic not only enjoy baseball but use it as a means of cultural self-expression and, more importantly, resistance to American domination of their small country. Though not openly hostile to the United States, the Dominican public uses baseball as a means of asserting pride and equality in the face of long, formidable neocolonial domination.
Baseball is a specifically American entity only partly because it was created and evolved in the United States, where for decades it remained the dominant spectator sport. More importantly, Klein asserts, baseball is uniquely American in how it has spread to other nations and dominates the game elsewhere. It has the largest and strongest organization, the richest teams, largest fan base, most lucrative broadcasting and advertising contracts, and most extensive networks for scouting and player development.
Baseball’s presence in the Dominican Republic (among the western hemisphere’s poorest nations) is also uniquely American because, as with other aspects of American culture, it was brought there as American domination spread throughout the Caribbean American interests assumed control of the Dominican economy.
However, unlike other American corporations, Major League Baseball did not provoke widespread, unmitigated resentment, but is for the most part supported by the nation’s people. In addition, the methods long used to scout and sign Dominican ballplayers is similarly dubious and rifer with duplicity; Klein calls their methods “so reminiscent of those of the West African slave traders of three centuries earlier” (42).
In terms of the game itself, the rules and style in each are generally the same, and while Dominicans play the game with an intensity equal with Americans, their approach to other aspects of baseball are more casual, reflecting that society’s leniency and lax approach to time. While Dominican players play as hard as their American teammates and opponents, they embrace a much more casual attitude toward time, frequently showing up late for meetings or practice unless specifically required to be punctual. In addition, they tend to be more exuberant and unrestrained; playing the game seriously is not equated with a somber demeanor.
Most of the differences lie off the field, particularly in the atmosphere of a stadium on game day. The fan culture is radically different; where American fans are more restrained, often get to games on time, and can sometimes be confrontational with other fans, Dominican fans are generally louder, more physically and temperamentally relaxed, more effusive (even with strangers), and, despite the demonstrative body language and shouting shown in arguments, there is far less violence than at an American ballgame.
Klein attributes this to the fact that “[Dominican fans] are far more social than North Americans, more in tune with human frailty. Because they see so much human vulnerability, because they are closer to the margins of life, they are more likely to resist the urge to bully and harm” (148).
Economic power essentially defines the relationship between American and Dominican baseball, because Major League Baseball develops and signs much of the local Dominican talent, leaving the Dominican professional league and amateur ranks underdeveloped and subordinate to the North American teams who establish baseball academies and working agreements with Dominican teams.
Since 1955, when the major leagues established working agreements with Dominican professional clubs (and, more significantly, eliminated the “color line” that prevented most Dominicans, who are predominantly mulatto, from playing), American baseball has shown its hegemony over its Dominican counterpart, turning the latter into a virtual colony by taking its raw resources and giving back very little in return. Klein comments: “The lure of cheap, abundant talent in the Dominican Republic led American teams to establish a more substantial presence there . . . [and the] bonds between American and Dominican baseball came increasingly to resemble other economic and political relations between the two countries” (36).
Klein writes that most Dominicans accept American dominance of their baseball, adding that “whereas giants such as Falconbridge and GTE are resented, major league teams are largely supported” (2), mainly because Dominican players have such a notable presence and bring positive attention to their impoverished homeland. This support is by no means unconditional, though; they steadfastly refuse to approach the game with American businesslike gravitas; instead, they treat the game itself somewhat like Carnival, with joy coexisting alongside energetic, intense play.
Resistance appears in the way Dominican players relax at home, interacting more freely with fans, who themselves resist American baseball’s decorum by being themselves and creating a festive, effusive, Carnival-like atmosphere. According to Klein, “The game remains American in structure, but its setting is Dominican and it has become infused with Dominican values” (149). Indeed, the park fosters a microcosm of Dominican society, particularly its impoverished economy, and unlike the more slick American baseball business, it does not exclude its marginal activities.
In addition to the paid vendors and park employees within the stadium, an illicit economy flourishes both within and on the outside, with self-appointed “car watchers,” vendors, and ushers (adults and children alike) plying their trade for small fees, and bookmakers work openly, often in the presence of the police, who turn a blind eye to most illegal activity aside from the rare fight.
Dominican baseball’s symbolic significance is not a sense of the pastoral heritage, like some in America interpret it; instead, it reflects Dominicans’ sense of themselves being dominated by the United States, and offers a symbolic outlet for striking back.
In his preface, Klein writes: “The tensions between a batter who has two strikes against him and the opposing pitcher are a metaphor for the political and cultural tensions described in this book” (xi). Indeed, the Dominican republic’s deeply entrenched poverty and long domination by foreign powers give it a feeling of vulnerability and compel its people to seek some means of besting the dominant power – if not politically or economically, then at least athletically.
At the start of the book, Klein states that “every turn at bat is a candle of hope, every swing is the wave of a banner, the sweeping arc of a sword” (1). Indeed, when a Dominican reaches the major leagues and excels, it is not merely an athletic success story but a symbolic invasion and conquest of the conqueror’s territory. (The United States twice occupied the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century, an ever-present fact in Dominicans’ minds.)
Also, the atmosphere in the crowd of a Dominican professional game serves as the country’s symbolic assertion of its culture in the face of American dominance. At Santo Domingo’s Quisqueya Stadium, one witnesses “a mass spectacle that makes simultaneous use of American and Dominican elements. . . . [Baseball] at Quisqueya embodies many of the things that North Americans find blameworthy in Dominican culture – lateness, overly casual behavior, inefficiency. But the Dominicans see these characteristics as a source of pride, and they take their game seriously” (150).
The Dominican baseball press is a source of more open resistance; says Klein, “the press has inadvertently created a Latino universe of discourse, one in which North Americans are conspicuously absent” (127). Its journalists display an obvious bias by devoting so much attention to Dominicans in the major leagues that one hardly knows other nationalities even participate.
In addition, Dominican baseball writers openly blame Dominican baseball’s problems on American control, protesting a skewed economic relationship that mirrors the larger political and economic imbalance. They promote much of the public’s pride, says Klein, but that pride is “tempered by the view that Dominican baseball is still an adjunct to the American game” (121). Dominican resistance is thus aimed at countering this uncomfortable fact.
In baseball terms, American culture interacts with Dominican culture by treating it with some degree of condescension and insensitivity. Many American baseball professionals are impatient with Dominicans’ loose sense of time, quickly deeming Latino players uncoachable “head cases,” without looking at the cultural differences.
Among Dominicans, says Klein, “There is none of the regimentation, guardedness, and nervous tension that characterizes players in the United States. North American managers must take this looseness into account when they go to the Caribbean, for the players’ conception of the game and of time is as elastic as that of other Dominicans” (148).
Despite the United States’ long domination of the Dominican Republic, the small nation’s people feel less anger than a mixture of muted resentment and aspiration to attain American material prosperity and stability, which for most are a distant, unreachable ideal. Thus, when Dominican ballplayers reach the major leagues, their large salaries represent a sort of victory and source of immense pride for the small island nation. Says Klein, “Much as archeological treasures attest to a rich Dominican past, salaries attest to the present” (128).
Klein’s study pays keen attention not only to Dominican history but also to the ways in which Dominicans embrace this imported sport but also use their prowess to offer their own subtle response to American political and economic dominance. The dynamic he describes illustrates not only American hegemony, but also how subordinated peoples’ identity and spirit can thrive even in the face of foreign domination.
Klein, Alan M. Sugarball. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.