Disgraced ex-ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd was a fool when he argued that baseball can’t be very “complex,” since one-third of pro players are from the Dominican Republic. But he was correct in hinting that Dominicans now seem to be dominating our national pastime, with stars from Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico also making an impact. What’s crystal clear to me is that a passion for pelota is alive and well among Spanish-speaking countries in our hemisphere, a sentiment that is no longer the case here in the States. While I hate to beat a dead horse, this is an issue that media idiots like Cowherd fail to understand.
Even though baseball isn’t necessarily a sport for the wealthy, it does require plenty of gear, which is sometimes out of financial reach for less fortunate children. So it’s often necessary to adjust and improvise. It’s that spirit and a love for the game that created vitilla, the Dominican version of New York stickball that has enabled youngsters to develop an advanced skill set at an early age.
Vitilla is a game that was born in the Dominican Republic sometime during the 1970s. The only requirements to compete are a small, disk-shaped object called a vitilla (usually two plastic water jug caps that are pressed together) and any kind of long stick. The game can be played with or without bases, and informal street games usually consist of only three players: the pitcher, catcher, and the batter. If the vitilla is caught in the air or is picked up before it stops rolling, that’s an out. But hitting the vitilla is not an easy thing to do. At an early age, most youngsters learn how to grip this small weapon to make it drop or curve like a Wiffle ball on steroids.
At an early age, most youngsters learn how to grip this small weapon to make it drop or curve like a Wiffle ball on steroids.
“That thing can really move funny, and it’s great training for the eyes,” says veteran Colorado Rockies shortstop José Reyes. “Any Dominican major league player who says he never played vitilla is lying.”
Many scouts (including me) widely believe that the game of vitilla dramatically helps hand-eye coordination. That’s why so many great Dominican players of the past, like Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa, and most notably, Vladimir Guerrero, were excellent “bad ball” hitters. The down side to that theory, of course, is that while vitilla is awesome for hand- and upper-body quickness, it does little to develop lower-body strength and power. A reputable buscón (trainer), however, is keen on doing a lot of tee work with youngsters on the side. With constant repetition, this swing exercise allows a player’s hips to catch up with his hands and develop better balance.
With so many Dominican icons now playing in the big leagues, it’s understandable that word is starting to spread about the magic of vitilla. A 2007 documentary, Rumbo a las grandes ligas (Road to the Big Leagues), reflects on the struggles of Dominican youth and their ultimate dream to escape poverty and sign an MLB contract.
Vitilla has become a part of Dominican culture.
The film seems to capture the fact that kids use vitilla as a tool to “hit their way off the island,” and it gave the American public its first glance at the game. What outsiders fail to realize is that vitilla has become a part of Dominican culture. Games in big city barrios take on an almost carnival atmosphere, with music, dancing, and plenty of food and drink to celebrate the proceedings. It’s not uncommon to see entire blocks closed off to traffic for these extravaganzas.
Not surprisingly, Red Bull now sponsors annual events in the D.R., and on September 20, Joseph Yancey Track & Field, next to Yankee Stadium, will play host to a 16-team tournament. There will be two categories for experienced and novice participants, and I would imagine that several self-proclaimed pros from Washington Heights will be making an appearance. Now there’s even equipment being marketed under the trade name Beteyah Products in Providence, R.I. Slickly-manufactured “beteyahs” sell for $9.99 a dozen, while specialized bats go for $11.99. And if you want to splurge, you can buy a game player’s set complete with a strike zone target for $69.99.
The intention was to start a pick-up game, armed with a single ball and a worn bat.
Baseball has always taken on a simple approach in Latin America, and even with all the glistening academies, that will never change. A friend of mine once witnessed a group of boys in rural Nicaragua chasing some grazing cattle off a pasture. The intention was to start a pick-up game, armed with a single ball and a worn bat. Youth in Panama, including Mariano Rivera when he was little, are used to playing baseball barefoot on the beach every day. It’s also a true story that Miami Marlins’ star pitcher José Fernández used to throw rocks against the wall as a 10-year-old in Cuba, all while coached by his savvy abuelita. With that in mind, is there any wonder why the concept of vitilla is turning heads?
I have to say, I was shocked when the mighty Dominican team went two and out this year in the Little League World Series. I mean, seriously, how the hell could this happen? After some lengthy speculation, I figured it out – prior to leaving for South Williamsport, these young phenoms obviously didn’t play enough vitilla.