By Ramon Santos Lantigua
Santo Domingo, Apr 7 (EFE).- The word “vitilla” probably means very little to most fans attending Major League Baseball games in the United States.
But that street sport, played primarily in the Dominican Republic and parts of the US with large Dominican populations, explains much of the outsized big-league success enjoyed by ball players from that Caribbean nation.
A popular variation of stickball, it is a competition between two teams of four or five players who use a broomstick instead of a bat and a large plastic water bottle cap, known as a vitilla, in place of a ball.
Dominican children, adolescents and adults use streets, parks or any other available space as a playing field for vitilla, one of whose many expert practitioners was slugger Vladimir Guerrero, a Dominican outfielder for the Montreal Expos, Los Angeles Angels and other MLB teams who was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 2018.
Guerrero’s agent, Virgilio Rojo, told Efe that the peculiar batting style of his client, who was especially known for his ability to make contact with pitches well out of the strike zone, had its roots in vitilla.
Other Dominican MLB stars like second baseman Robinson Cano, first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielder Nomar Mazara used that popular pastime to hone their vision at the plate and ability to hit sharply breaking curveballs at the Major League level.
“With vitilla, baseball athletes learn how to hit the different pitches that come from the mound, like meteoric fastballs and curves, the slider or the sinker. This game is more important for the batter than for the pitcher. It also benefits players when they’re on defense,” coach Nelson Geronimo said, referring to the difficulty in fielding a fast-spinning bottle cap with one’s bare hands.
Most arrive on foot, although some ride in on motorcycles.
Young men from Maquiteria, a neighborhood on Santo Domingo’s east side, meet every afternoon in the parking lot to the right of the Columbus Lighthouse, a mausoleum monument built in honor of the discoverer of America.
The sun’s rays and low relative humidity provide perfect conditions for a series of games, each lasting a maximum of three innings. The team that scores the most runs in each contest will be the winner.
But the lack of an umpire and no instant replay inevitably lead to heated arguments about close plays, with some vulgar language thrown in for good measure.
Batters who succeed in striking the wildly spinning bottle cap and putting it out of the reach of fielders try to advance around the field of play, which consists of just two bases (instead of three) as well as home plate.
Those “bases” are painted onto the pavement, as is the batter’s box. There is no home-plate umpire behind the hitter, but a piece of cardboard held up by a tire and several stones serves as a strike zone.
The “bat” is around 1.25 meters (four feet) long and the “ball” has a diameter of about an inch and a half. A pitcher, a catcher and two fielders around the bases make up the defense.
In games played at this venue, a powerful blast over the wall that separates the ample greenery surrounding the Columbus Lighthouse from nearby houses would constitute a home run.
“Vitilla helps us a lot (to stay away) from crime, all the bad stuff. We come here for recreation. Generally we play four or five hours, then we go home,” 18-year-old Rafael Emilio Cordero told Efe. “Most of us don’t have steady jobs, and we have fun here playing vitilla.”
“It’s a sport where you feel good. You’re not (going around being) a trickster. You’re exercising your mind and your body,” Angeolis Vargas Martinez, one of the other players, said. EFE