Boston’s best home plate

Ballplayers are creatures of habit. They prefer routines.

Routines give players a sense of control — they find comfort in them.

On a hot streak, stick to the routine: Take the same route to the ballpark. Warm up with the same teammate. Eat the same meal.

Every day.

At the same time.

Till the streak is over.

Home-field advantage involves more than playing at your own ballpark and living nearby. It’s also about knowing where all the spots are: A barber to get your cut just right. The in-place to find your threads. Your favorite place to eat.

Food is more than sustenance, it can provide a whole other level of comfort, of rootedness, of home.

A taste of home

The smell of mangú, tostones or mofongo.

Arroz con gandules, congrí or frijoles.

Pernil, chivo or mariscos.

Whichever your favorite, you can’t go wrong.

Finding Latino food — whether arepas for Venezuelans and Colombians, tacos for Mexicans, or lechón asado for Puerto Ricans — can get complicated on a road trip. This is especially true for Latinos playing in small towns across the United States while in the minor leagues or even in some major league towns.

That is where Héctor Piña has found his life’s calling, to the good fortune of those who live in the Boston area. The Dominican native has made a career of throwing down in restaurant kitchens from Cambridge to South Boston, cooking up the familiar food that helps Latino ballplayers feel at home.

Piña understands baseball’s special place in the hearts of Dominicans, whether they grew up on the island or in the States.

“Baseball is really part of being Dominican,” Piña explained.

As a child in the Dominican, the game was everywhere and anywhere, all you needed was some ingenuity.

“Any piece of lemon you find, whatever, you play baseball with. You improvise, and you have seen that in the kids in Dominican Republic. You get a ball, you get a bunch of kids and you start playing baseball,” he said.

Being able to cook for Latino ballplayers allows the Boston restaurateur to blend two of his great loves — baseball and food.

Fuel for Big Papi

Piña arrived in Boston as the Red Sox were making their 1986 World Series run. Little did he know that the heartbreak of that season — and the Curse of the Bambino — would eventually come to an end, or that he would play an important, behind-the-scenes role by keeping Latino players on the Sox hearty, healthy and happy.

Piña opened his first restaurant in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in 1994.

“I named it Merengue, because it was food from the Dominican Republic, traditional food,” Piña said.

“And ballplayers started coming in. And when they were in town, they always look for it, the Dominican food.”

In 2000, David Ortiz — he wasn’t Big Papi yet — came through Boston as a member of the Minnesota Twins. In search of a place to get authentic Dominican food, Ortiz was told to go to Merengue, about three miles from Fenway Park.

He did, and hasn’t stopped coming since.

“I knew about David because my dad was in the Dominican Republic. He always told me, ‘You know, Escogido has a great player now. His name is David Ortiz.’”

Leones del Escogido (Chosen Lions) are a Dominican winter league team based in Santo Domingo. One of the most successful clubs in the country, the Lions have won 17 winter league titles and four Caribbean Series championships. So, when Ortiz introduced himself after eating at Merengue, Piña replied, “I know who you are. My dad loves you.”

“How come?”

“Because we are Escogidistas.”

The two Dominicans bonded through food and baseball.

As Piña tells it, Merengue became Ortiz’s spot, part of his comfort zone in Boston, even before donning the Red Sox uniform.

“Every time the Minnesota Twins were in town, he went to the restaurant, all three days or four days, or he asked for the food and I sent it to the park.”

Why did Ortiz keep coming?

“He told me, ‘Oh, I love to eat here because every time I eat here, I can hit a couple [of home runs],’” Piña said.

The real deal

Released by Minnesota after the 2002 season, Ortiz was filled with doubt — most Latinos don’t get a chance with a second organization, much less with a third. His buddy Pedro Martínez intervened, imploring the Red Sox front office to sign the first baseman. Although already crowded at the position, management heeded Pedro’s call.

The day after coming in to take his physical and signing with Boston, Ortiz was in the familiar surroundings of Merengue, eating his favorite food.

Now a member of Red Sox, Ortiz’s bond with the Dominican chef grew stronger.

“What they always ask me is: ‘Is he really like that, like the way he portrays himself?’ I always tell them yes,” Piña said. “It’s sometimes really hard to understand how such a big celebrity is such a humble person and such a humane guy.

“People, they don’t get to understand. David is the real deal. What you see is what you get. You talk to David for about five minutes and you forget that he’s a celebrity. He’s just another guy. He’s just another friend. That’s the kind of people David is.”

If your food is the kind that makes Big Papi happy, then other Latinos are likely to follow. No surprise, then, is the fact that Piña brings his food to the clubhouse now.

“We’ve been catering the Red Sox now for 17 years. So, during those days, there’s food at the clubhouse from Merengue. They got rice and beans, and plantains — the plátano power. Even though plátano power wasn’t that popular back then. But Latinos in general, they really need their food, comfort food, to feel that the day is starting in a good way.”

And regardless of the type of Carib Latino food a player prefers, Piña has likely got it covered. In addition to Merengue, he’s also opened Doña Habana for Cuban foodies, Vejigantes for Puerto Rican fans, and his latest spot, La Fábrica Central, which features Spanish-Caribbean fusion dining.

The formula is simple. For Piña, life is about bringing the ingredients of baseball and life together to help Dominicans and other Latinos find home on a plate.

Featured image: Sean Magner / La Vida Baseball

Inset Images: Sean Magner / La Vida Baseball