With uno, dos, tres, cuatro Dominican-born players atop their batting order, the Toronto Blue Jays have caught the attention of two fan bases: one with hockey in the DNA, the other with baseball in their blood.
Batting lead-off: Jose Reyes of Santiago, Dominican Republic.
Batting second: Melky Cabrera of Bajos De Haina, Dominican Republic.
Batting third: Jose Bautista of Santo Domingo.
Batting fourth: Edwin Encarnacion of La Romana, Dominican Republic.
“I don’t see it, ever, in the big leagues,” Reyes says.
Based on multiple interviews, nor has anyone associated with baseball. What’s more, when Emilio Bonifacio is placed in the No. 9 slot Tuesday as a so-called second lead-off hitter, the Jays have five Dominicans hitting consecutively in a 9-1-2-3-4 formation.
Bonifacio comes from Santo Domingo, as does the sixth Dominican on the active roster, relief pitcher Esmil Rogers.
“It is going to be a great moment for us,” Encarnacion says. “In this game, you’ve got to have fun. That is the way we play. … We bring a lot of energy to the team. Everybody is going to see how we are going to play.”
Behind scout Epy Guerrero, the Blue Jays once competed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the attention of Dominicans.
In the 1980s, the lightning rod of a slugger, George Bell, batted in the slot now occupied by Encarnacion, and played left field in the spot now occupied by Cabrera. The Dominican double-play combination consisted of Damaso Garcia at second base (Bonifacio) and shortstop Alfredo Griffin (Reyes). Later, Tony Fernandez took over for Griffin. Fernandez, Griffin and another Dominican, Juan Guzman, earned World Series rings with the team.
The Jays slipped in popularity in the Dominican Republic over the years, as other teams invested in player development. Now, the influx of this group of players dovetails with the team’s renewal of a player procurement and development strategy in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Three years ago, the Jays joined the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers in a compound in San Pedro de Macoris that can handle 50 players.
“Right now, with the people on the streets, on TV and radio, you see the Blue Jays everywhere,” says Ismael Cruz, the club’s special assistant for Latin operations. “People see five Dominicans in the lineup now. When I go to a house [to recruit players] and say, ‘Do you want your son to be with the Blue Jays?’ Of course they are going to say yes.”
On the 30 opening day rosters, there are 241 players born outside the United States, led by Dominicans (89), Venezuelans (63), followed by Canadians (17), according to Major League Baseball.
As hockey is to Canada, baseball is to the Dominican Republic – beyond being the No. 1 spectator sport, it is ingrained in culture and society. With their major-league résumés and with their words, the Dominicans with the Blue Jays promise to deliver speed, power, passion and aggressive play, all while having some fun at work.
“We have a lot of passion for this game,” says Reyes, who was obtained with Bonifacio, and pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, in the 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins last November. “It’s the only thing I wanted to do since I was a little kid. In the Dominican, that’s what we do. We play baseball. We grow up wanting to be baseball players.”
With a .347 on-base percentage, compared with the major-league average of .319, Reyes stole 40 bases for the Marlins in 2012.
Cabrera, a reliable contact hitter with power, had a National League-leading .346 batting average with 46 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases for the San Francisco Giants in 113 games, before his suspension for a performance-enhancing substance.
Bautista missed almost half of 2012 with a wrist injury, yet leads all major-league hitters with 124 home runs since 2010, and last season, his on-base percentage was 11 points higher than Reyes’s.
Encarnacion broke out, clubbing 42 homers, driving in 110 runs and tossing in 13 stolen bases. The speediest of the group, Bonifacio, stole 30 bases and walked 25 times in only 64 games, getting caught three times.
“It not just Dominican guys,” Encarnacion points out. “We have American guys. We have a Canadian [Brett Lawrie]. So we are going to try to … bring the Dominican energy, bring the Canadian energy, bring the American energy, and see what is going to happen.”
Toronto Blue Jays:
SS: Jose Reyes
LF: Melky Cabrera
RF: Jose Bautista
1B: Edwin Encarnacion
DH: Adam Lind
C: J.P. Arencibia
CF: Colby Rasmus
3B: Maicer Izturis
2B: Emilio Bonifacio
SP: R.A. Dickey
CF: Michael Bourn
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera
2B: Jason Kipnis
1B: Nick Swisher
LF: Michael Brantley
C: Carlos Santana
DH: Mark Reynolds
3B: Lonnie Chisenhall
RF: Drew Stubbs
SP: Justin Masterson