Sometime during the second inning, I climb past a dozen rows of empty yellow seats toward the usher at the top of the section. “¿Cuando vienen todos?” I ask when she looks up. When are they all coming? This is my first Dominican Winter League game, and I was prepared for pandemonium: the energy, the blaring music, the crush of the crowd. Instead, the stadium is desolate.
The usher looks confused by my question, and I worry that my iffy Spanish is to blame. “¿Quién?” she asks. Who?
We look around the empty stadium, and though we say the exact same thing at the exact same time, our inflections couldn’t be more different. Mine is declarative: “La gente.” The people. Hers is interrogative: “¿La gente?” I realize that she wasn’t confused by my grammar; she was confused by the fact that I expected anyone to be here in the first place. My ears are too slow to process the entirety of her explanation, but I catch enough. This game doesn’t matter. The semi-final round of the playoffs begins in a few days and both teams have already clinched their spots. Nadie viene. Nobody’s coming.
Maybe it’s because I read “The Thrill of the Grass” too many times as an adolescent, but I’ve always loved an empty ballpark. When I lived in Queens, I’d make a point of visiting Citi Field at the end of September, when the weather was still nice and the Mets had long been excused from playing baseball of any conceivable consequence. On nights like those, you could have a whole section to yourself, watching the planes on their way in and out of La Guardia and checking in on the baseball whenever it suited you.
I find a packed ballpark stressful. The truth is that ballparks aren’t designed to be pleasant environments when they’re full. With a capacity crowd, everything you do comes with jostling and a long line. Everywhere you go, you’re in someone’s way. Any errand that takes you away from your seat is likely to cost you an inning or two. Even the stadium seats make it clear that they don’t really want to be used. Whenever you stand up, the seat bottom swings right up with you, rejoicing in its newfound freedom. Each time you sit down, you have to subdue it anew, subjecting it once more to the tyranny of the human butt.
(I actually called a manufacturer of stadium seating to ask what makes the bottoms swing back up like that. A nice Australian man named Ken told me that some seats use springs, but counterweights are preferred because they don’t wear out over time. He also told me that the bottoms rise up not because of an indomitable spirit, but in order to maintain the proper amount of space between one row and the next. The technical term for that space is the ‘envelope.’ Ken really knows his stuff.)
It’s our first full day in the Dominican Republic, and my wife and I spend the morning wandering around Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial. We visit a market, traverse the ruins of an old fort, and marvel at the Santa Bárbara Military Cathedral. Everywhere we go, we see people in Licey hats, royal blue with a white, cursive L. We also walk past a shop that might serve as a backup employment plan for me in case this whole FanGraphs thing doesn’t work out:
We arrive at the park at 6:45, half an hour before game time. We know we won’t be able to stay for the entire game, and we want time to explore. Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal is the home of both Tigres del Licey and Leones del Escogido, the two Santo Domingo teams. The concourse is split in half: Licey blue on the third base side and Escogido red on the first base side. We walk around for a few minutes, the only fans on the concourse, then decide to find our seats. After we recover from the daze that comes from passing through the tunnel and glimpsing the beauty of the field for the first time, we realize that we’re the only fans out here as well. There are concessionaires in the concourse, ushers in the stands, and players warming up on the field, but we’re the only people in the entire stadium who aren’t getting paid to be there. I’ve never been the only fan in a stadium before.
We wander some more and other fans start to trickle in. On the Escogido side of the concourse, there’s a wall of fame with pictures and plaques of famous players throughout team history. Some of the names I know and some I don’t. The Licey side is more subdued. It holds a dry erase board featuring the lineup del día from last night’s game:
We’re here to see Escogido take on Gigantes del Cibao, and though I’ve reconnoitered the entire stadium, I can’t find the lineup for tonight’s game anywhere. At 7:15, the scheduled start time, I ask an usher what time the game will begin. She says 7:30. We load up on chicken tenders and Pizza Hut breadsticks and return to our seats.
They are easily the best seats I’ve ever had. We’re in the front row, just past the infield dirt on the third base side. This is the home side of the stadium when Licey is playing, but the away side when Escogido is playing. There’s nobody else in our section. In fact, there isn’t a section on our side of the ballpark that’s occupied by more than one group of people. Most of them are entirely empty. There’s a family in the front row of the section to our left, the last at field level, abutting the bullpen. After the game starts, a father and son take their seats a few rows back in the section to our right.
Estadio Quisqueya seats 14,469 people, with no second deck and no seating along the outfield wall. It’s not a huge stadium, but it feels absolutely cavernous when it’s empty. The game starts at 7:45, and when Gigantes leadoff batter Melvin Mercedes comes to the plate, the ambient hum of the small crowd dies completely. It only lasts for a few moments, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The stadium is literally silent.
I never do find the lineups posted anywhere, and that ends up being one of the most fun parts of the night. Each new batter who comes to the plate is a complete surprise, and I get a little hit of dopamine each time I recognize a name. Jose Siri comes up next, and I excitedly give my wife a scouting report. He’s an incredible center fielder, the player to watch when it’s Escogido’s turn to hit. He’s got plenty of power, but he whiffs too much and I wouldn’t throw him anything straight until he’s taken at least one ball. Siri graciously makes me look like I know what I’m talking about, flailing at three straight breaking pitches off the plate.
That’s more or less how the entire game goes for Gigantes. Escogido pitcher Tyler Alexander strikes out nine and allows just one hit over six innings. Relievers Yosver Zulueta, Alex Colomé, and Jeurys Familia add four more strikeouts, allowing just one baserunner over the next three innings. Gigantes is sloppy on defense as well, getting dinged for two errors. It could easily be four, as second baseman Luis García and third baseman Hanser Alberto both drop tough but catchable pop-ups in foul territory. In the second inning, around the time I’m embarrassing myself by expressing curiosity as to when the fans might show up, Escogido puts a run across. Orlando Calixte laces a ball into the right center field gap to bring home Erik González. Siri makes a great play to cut the ball off and hold Calixte to a single, but he’s got no chance at catching González.
There are plenty of players I don’t know, and I start to take notes, but I’m having too much fun to do a good job. Wendell Rijo, the Escogido second baseman, has a huge stride and ends up with his weight way out front by the time the ball arrives. I can’t imagine he’ll ever be able to really get hold of a ball that way, but he does manage a solid single over the second baseman’s head. The only other note I make is that first baseman Aderlin Rodríguez has an absolute banger of a walk-up song.
In the bottom of the fourth, the father and son in the section to our right pull out a bag of red lollipops and catch the attention of Alberto at third base. Apparently, tossing lollipops to the players is a thing that happens at LIDOM games. When Alberto turns, the father heaves one over the net and it falls at Alberto’s feet. As quick as lightning, he scoops the lollipop off the dirt, unwraps it and pops it in his mouth, secures it deep in his cheek, wrenches the stick out by force, then stashes the stick and the wrapper in his back pocket. It’s the oddest feat off strength I’ve ever seen, and he manages to do all of it in between two pitches. I try to get a picture, but Alberto is way too quick for me. He’s back in position by the time my phone is out of my pocket:
This is why he’s a professional athlete and I’m not. After the next pitch, the Escogido third base coach turns around and calls for his own lollipop, catching it on the fly. The umpire signals for one as well, but he can’t make the play, and I manage to get a picture as he stoops down to grab it from the grass:
Both the third base coach and the umpire put their lollipops in their back pockets for safekeeping.
People do start to show up eventually. I doubt the crowd ever reaches a thousand, but over on the Escogido side, there are a few sections where a majority of the seats are filled. By the fifth inning, there are even a few diehards playing horns and banging on drums.
We have to leave after the sixth. When we get back to the hotel, I pull up the game on MLB.TV. I also pull up Aderlin Rodríguez’s walk-up song on YouTube. We play it on repeat as we brush our teeth and watch the game’s final frames. Although Gigantes never challenges for the lead, things get more exciting in the ninth. Siri finally gets a chance to make a fantastic running catch, and Franmil Reyes and José Marmolejos both homer, bringing Escogido’s lead to 4-0.
Weeks later, when I sit down to write about the experience, I find out just how right the usher was. This game didn’t matter at all. I try to fact-check my notes, but I find shockingly little evidence that it even happened. There’s no full-game replay on YouTube, or even any highlights. Due to torrential rain the previous night, it was the second game of a doubleheader. Searches for a box score or a game summary on that date almost exclusively yield results for the first game. That contest featured a thrilling comeback, with Escogido trailing 1-0, then scoring once in the eighth and twice in the ninth, all on balls that never left the infield. The second game, its sloppy younger sibling, has seemingly already been forgotten.
I finally think to check the official team social media accounts. I find just one highlight, posted by Gigantes, the team on the wrong end of the one-hit shutout. The play took place while we were in the taxi back to our hotel, so it’s my first time seeing it. In truth, it’s a lot less impressive for Gigantes than it is embarrassing for Escogido. Leadoff man Junior Lake tries to tag up from third on an extremely shallow fly ball to left, then compounds his mistake by looking over his shoulder at the left fielder rather than running hard. The ball beats him to the plate by a good 15 feet for an inning-ending double play:
The play is somehow both bizarre and banal, a bad decision that Lake just can’t help himself from making. I search for an analogy as I watch him running with his head craned around like that. The only thing that comes to mind is the feeling of getting back together with an ex who treated you poorly the first time around. You know it’ll end badly, and while that knowledge isn’t powerful enough stop you from doing it, it is powerful enough to poison the experience before it even starts, so you spend the whole time regretting your decision rather than getting what joy you can from it.
As I watch the play again, I realize that if we hadn’t left early, we’d be right there in the middle of the frame, just behind Lake as he takes off. Instead, our section is completely empty. I guess that’s an appropriate reflection of the evening. The third base coach stands there impassively, not wanting this play to count toward his record. As I hit play one more time, I remember that he has a lollipop in his back pocket.