- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

An elderly farmhand in the Dominican Republic looks at the camera, a smile across his sun-baked face.

“Baseball for us Dominicans is food — it’s our food and our sustenance,” he says.

Hyperbole, perhaps. But with a country of just 9 million people providing more than 10 percent of all major league players, the love of the game in the poor island nation is quite clear.

That love is on display in the documentary film “Republic of Baseball,” a part history lesson and part tribute to Dominicans who first entered the major leagues a half-century ago.

D.C.-based filmmaker Dan Manatt, using interviews with Juan Marichal, Ozzie Virgil, Felipe Alou and other pioneering Dominicans, created what is believed to be one of the first films profiling the contributions of these players, many of whom first broke into baseball with the San Francisco Giants of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The film will be screened tomorrow night at the downtown headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America, and will begin airing next month on PBS stations, including WETA in Washington.

“In the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of movies that explore the social history of baseball,” said Manatt, who is also an editor and producer for PoliticsTV.com. “The Dominican story was not being told.”

Manatt, the son of a former U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was inspired to make the film after reading “Tropic of Baseball,” a book about Dominicans in baseball by University of Pittsburgh history professor Rob Ruck. Manatt and Ruck collaborated on the film, and produced it for about $100,000, using some of their own money and a variety of donations. Major League Baseball gave permission to use game footage but was otherwise not involved in the production of the film.

The film focuses almost exclusively on five players: Marichal, Alou, Manny Mota, Orlando Cepeda and Virgil, who celebrates the 50th anniversary of his debut this year. It follows them from their days as young players on the Dominican Air Force team in the 1950s to their appearance in the 1962 World Series with the Giants.

Scattered throughout the film are interviews with current Dominican players, including Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez, Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and Nationals outfielder Alfonso Soriano.

“They are very special men,” Soriano says in the film. “They paved the way for us to succeed and shine in our careers.”

The Dominicans’ baseball exploits are well-represented, but the film spends considerable time delving into the Dominican mind and its fascination with America’s national pastime.

“Dominicans, perhaps more than any other group of people, have used sports — particularly baseball — to tell their story to the rest of the world,” Ruck said. “They used baseball to tell their stories, to feel good about themselves.”

Manatt and his subjects also spend much of the film explaining the hardships Dominican players faced both at home and after arriving in the United States. In great detail, Alou in particular outlines the experience of playing under the watchful eye of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, only to leave for the United States and face intense racism while playing minor league games in the segregated South.

“I had no idea what was waiting for me,” Alou recalls in the film. “I was shocked because we always looked up to the United States … It was a democracy, and that was big to us because we were living under a dictatorship.”

Alou also expresses his frustration with being cut from the Giants after writing a sharply-worded article calling for better treatment of Latin players in baseball.

“We felt it was essential to tell the story with an eye to the cultural, political and racial challenges they faced,” Manatt said.

“Republic of Baseball” made its public debut at a film festival this winter in Newark, N.J. That preceded a screening coinciding with the World Baseball Classic in San Diego in March. The Mets and Giants are also planning screenings at upcoming home games. The film is debuting at a time when the contributions of Latin players have garnered new attention.

Though Major League Baseball was not involved the production of “Republic of Baseball,” the league has made strides in recent years to honor the greatest Latin players of all time. Six Dominicans, including Marichal, Martinez and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, were honored as part of a special “Latino Legends” team during the 2005 World Series. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, meanwhile, is planning a roving exhibit on Latin ballplayers.

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