Biertempfel: Pirates' large Dominican contingent shares special bond
On April 27, the Toronto Blue Jays became the first team to have six players from the Dominican Republic in their starting lineup.
This year, there were 82 Dominican-born big leaguers on Opening Day rosters. The country has produced the most foreign-born players each year since Major League Baseball began tracking such data in 1995.
“I'm not surprised because for us, baseball is the No. 1 thing,” said Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, who grew up in Santiago Rodriguez. “Everybody plays. We love baseball.”
The Pirates have two Dominican-born position players, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte, in their everyday lineup. That number will rise to three when Gregory Polanco is called up.
There have been 63 Dominicans among the hundreds of pitchers who have made at least 25 major league starts. Of those, the Pirates have three — Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez — in their starting rotation.
“That's special,” Rodriguez said. “I can't think of another team that's ever done that.”
Liriano, Volquez and reliever Stolmy Pimentel, who's also Dominican, have their lockers side by side in the clubhouse at PNC Park. Rodriguez stowed his gear in that area, too, until his locker was bumped across the room while he was on the disabled list. It is not uncommon for them to hang out together before games.
“You want people you can trust in your life, people you can listen to, so they lean upon each other,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “To have three countrymen together, I'd have to think it helps — not only when it's going good, but when it's not going good. You can have some pretty good heart-to-hearts that you otherwise wouldn't have if it wasn't in your native tongue, especially with them all being pitchers.”
That feeling of solidarity extends beyond the clubhouse. Although the Dominican Republic is the second-largest country in the Caribbean, its countrymen in the big leagues are a tight-knit group.
“When we see other Dominican players before a game, we're friends,” Rodriguez said. “But when the game starts, we're enemies. We all try to play our best.”
Volquez and Liriano, both 30, have offseason homes about a mile apart in the capital city of Santo Domingo. They have known each other since they played in the same youth league as 12-year-olds.
“After that, we never played together on a team so close like we are now,” Volquez said. “I saw him once in Double-A or somewhere. Then we were together in the Futures Game in 2005. But it's crazy when you play in the Futures Game, people all over and you don't have much time to talk.”
A few years ago, Volquez and Liriano squared off in a Dominican Winter League game. The two friends looked forward to the showdown, but it did not play out as they'd hoped.
“It wasn't good,” Volquez said, laughing. “I did my best to pitch a real nice game, and he did, too. But we only lasted like two innings and gave up seven runs each. There were a lot of people who came to the stadium that day just to watch us pitch against each other. But it was really bad, and we heard a lot of bad words from the fans. I think we threw more pitches in the bullpen than we threw in the game. He was looking at me, and I was looking at him and it was, ‘We've got to get out of here. Let's go home.' It was crazy.”