By Armando Soldevila
San Pedro de Macorís is the home of many major leaguers. Starting pitchers, relievers, great shortstops, fine outfielders, but few have had Ricardo “Rico” Carty’s self confidence and charisma.
On a very warm afternoon in San Pedro, we sat with him at the Carty Foundation office, which is located on the eastern side of the city. Now 78 years old, the former outfielder might not resemble a former baseball star until you hear him speak.
“You won´t see a hitter like me again,” he said, comparing himself to other Dominican sluggers. “I always gave the first strike to the pitcher. I only started to work after the first strike. That was my style.”
Carty was, as many others in San Pedro during the first half of the 20th century, the son of immigrants from smaller Caribbean islands who came to the island to work in the sugar industry. Most of the sugar processing plants were owned by American companies.
These plants built ballparks all over San Pedro de Macorís. Plenty of the workers and their sons found in them a perfect place to have fun and play a game that almost became religion.
“Boys became ballplayers in the plants,” he said. “When I was a kid I never left the ballpark. It was going to school, then the ballpark, and then take a bath at the river. It was my hobby. People all over the eastern region of the country were blessed by the sugar industry and all the ballparks they built. Some of them had golf courses, but all of them had baseball fields.”
However, the system to help a player develop and become a prospect was nowhere near what it is 70 or 60 years later. Now at a very young age Dominican prospects usually train in specialized programs that teach them all the necessary fundamentals to get contracts from professional teams. Back then everyone was on their own.
“Guys became ballplayers naturally, just playing the game and watching others,” he said. “Even when you made it to the major leagues, you had to show your talent. Nobody was there to help. We started playing different type of ball games in San Pedro, hitting balls made out of socks. That made us good hitters.”
But the hardest part of his baseball journey was not becoming a professional player under those unprivileged conditions. Once he arrived in the minor leagues, Carty, just as many other Latin American players, faced completely new adversities.
“We experienced so many horrible situations in a time when the stench of racism was filling the air,” he recalled.
He mentioned Ozzie Virgil, Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers, Julián Javier, Manny Mota, and himself, as the icons of Dominican baseball.
“You couldn’t sit in the front of the bus,” he recalled. “You had to go to the back. You couldn´t use any bathroom. It was the same with restaurants. It wasn´t like that on the baseball field, the players and coaches did not discriminate against us.”
Carty remembered that in those days many people thought of the Dominican Republic as an island that only had sugar cane.
“People thought we didn’t have television or radio, or anything,” he recalled with a hearty laugh.
After arriving in the majors, Carty showed early that his bat belonged there, hitting over .300 in eight of his first 11 seasons. He won the batting race in 1970 with a career best .366 average.
Carty, who loves telling stories about his playing days, recalled that during the 1964 season with the Milwaukee Braves there were discussions about making him a starter.
He claims that some people did not agree with that, including All-Star Eddie Mathews, and manager Bobby Bragan. He adds that others like Hank Aaron said he could help the squad.
“The fifth of July was my first day as a starter, and I faced a New York lefty named Al Jackson,” he said. “The guys on the team told me he was really tough, but I got a walk on my first plate appearance, a line drive single to right, and then a home run to left center in the eight inning.
“From then on I knew no one could take me out easily. I finished with a .330 batting average, second behind Roberto Clemente, who was just an amazing player. He hit .336, and I hit .330.”
Actually, Clemente finished with .339 average that year, but the point is all the same.
A UNIQUE ERA
Carty shared the field with plenty of stars during his playing days after arriving in the early 1960s. For the Dominican, his era was the best in terms of talent.
And it all started with Willie Mays, whom Carty says was the best he ever saw.
“Mays was the greatest,” Carty said. “His instincts were unmatched. If the catcher lost the ball, even really close, he would score from third, without sliding! There was no one like him, and there will never be. Some people have made comparisons, but no one compares to him.”
Carty smiles when he remembers other hitters from his time.
“Hank Aaron, (Orlando) Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, (Willie) McCovey, you couldn´t throw strikes to those guys,” he said. “Back then you had real hitters, but we can´t take credit away from the guys who are playing now.”
He also took time to name some of the starting pitchers that he faced, calling them “the most dominant pitchers, true pitchers.”
“Marichal was the greatest,” he said. “And you also had Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, (Don) Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Luis Tiant, and many others whose names I can´t remember right now.”
After hearing his list, we brought up the name of Sandy Koufax, considered by many as the best pitcher of all time. Carty told us another one of his amazing anecdotes.
“Koufax was a power pitcher, I wasn´t afraid of him, but he was tough,” he said. “He took me out, but I also got some hits against him. One day I told him ‘I don’t like hitting against you,’ and he told me, ‘I don’t like pitching against you.’”
It is hard to find Carty in a baseball field now. He works at his foundation, helping the poor with medicine, clothes, food, and, sometimes, baseball equipment, depending on the funds he receives, as he explains.
However, there is no denying that when you mention the best Dominican hitters, names like Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltré, George Bell, Sammy Sosa will come up.
There will always be a place on that list for Carty, the first of the greats.
Featured Image: Bettmann
Inset Images: Daniel Peguero