By Peter Duffy
Few baseball fields can boast the history of the tattered diamond with the poured concrete grandstand in the northern reaches of Crotona Park in the Bronx.
In the 1920s, Hank Greenberg, who became a Hall of Famer playing most of his career with the Detroit Tigers, would walk over from his home at 663 Crotona Park North. “Many of us played until we dropped,” he wrote in his autobiography. In the late 1940s, Rocky Colavito, later a perennial All-Star with the Cleveland Indians, stood out there with a legendary local team called the Bronx Mohawks. In recent decades, the hallowed sandlot, which is today called Roberto Clemente Field, has been the home field for a slew of Puerto Rican and Dominican stars.
“The biggest name is Manny Ramirez, who played here one year before he was signed,” said Carlos Gonzalez, the avuncular white-haired commissioner of La Caribe Baseball League, which has been based at Crotona Park since the early 1950s. “He was a good kid,” he said of the Dominican-born, Washington Heights-raised superstar, who now plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For every Greenberg, Colavito and Ramirez, there are hundreds of players likeRolando Segura, 31, who has played in the semipro Caribe League since 2002. Signed as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, Mr. Segura toiled for minor-league teams in places like Fort Wayne, Ind., and Lynchburg, Va., before being released in 2001. He then sought out friends in the Bronx, found a job as a bouncer at a bar near Yankee Stadium, and satisfied his baseball cravings in Crotona Park.
“When I arrived, my friends told me, ‘Oh, we got a league over here,’ ” he said.
A fictional version of the story of Crotona Park ballplayers is captured in a new movie, “Sugar,” which follows the journey of a young Dominican prospect who finds himself in the Bronx after washing out of a minor-league stint in Bridgeport, Iowa. The film’s final scene was shot at Roberto Clemente Field and includes several players from Caribe teams.
In doing research for the film, the two directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, visited Crotona Park three or four times and were surprised at how many players had some level of professional experience. “We expected two or three guys,” Ms. Boden said. “But it was literally every person we met.”
The two were so captivated by the vibrancy of the scene that they decided that their main character’s lonely journey would conclude within its warm embrace. “The atmosphere is amazing,” Mr. Fleck said.
The league, which has eight teams, plays four games a weekend — two on Saturday and two on Sunday — from mid-April to late September. Since more than 90 percent of the players are from the Dominican Republic, merengue and bachata songs are usually blasted at high volume between innings. “Sometimes salsa,” said Mr. Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico. The announcer, Jose Ramos, does not merely introduce the next batter over the public address in the manner of Bob Sheppard, the legendary Yankees announcer, but keeps up a running commentary, playfully needling the players for mistakes. Beer is bought from a store around the corner and sometimes makes its way into the dugouts.
“In lots of ways it’s more fun than a major-league game,” said Meiling Viera-Delgado, who was the league’s secretary for five years. “There’s a familiarity with the fans. You know who you are sitting next to. A conversation will spring up about a play and someone will be reminded about a player from the past. So it will be a history lesson in a sense. Always a history lesson.”
The old-timers concede that La Caribe has seen better days. Mr. Gonzalez recalled the time in 1988 when the Puerto Rican national team played on the field. So many fans packed the surrounding streets that the Fire Department threatened to halt the game, he said. The league once had national sponsors, including Miller and Budweiser, which enabled teams to make trips to play in Latin America.
Roberto Clemente Field has fallen into disrepair. There are holes in one of the fences, and the infield is so pockmarked that even a brief shower creates large puddles. Tree branches jutting in front of one set of outfield lights make it hard for the right fielder to see fly balls during night games. “They haven’t done good work here for almost 15 years,” said Mr. Gonzalez, referring to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “They’ve been saying, ‘We’re going to do it, we’re going to do it.’ ”
The problems are being addressed, said Jama Adams, a parks department spokeswoman.
“Parks would like to renovate the baseball field and is committed to working with elected officials who are able to allocate the funds needed for such a renovation,” Ms. Adams said in a statement.
But the one constant over the years has been the quality of the players. While Puerto Ricans once dominated La Caribe, Dominicans have taken over. Of the roughly 200 players, only a handful have played in the major leagues, but more than half have professional experience, mostly in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
“The movie is close to reality,” said Hamlet Abreu, 28, a player in the league who has a brief cameo in “Sugar.” “The majority of the players don’t really get to make it, and this is where most of them end up.”
It seems as if Mr. Gonzalez and Mario Hernandez, La Caribe’s 70-year-old president, can remember them all. While watching a workout on a recent sunny afternoon, the two reeled off names, among them Omar Minaya, the general manager of the Mets, and Preston Wilson, stepson of the former Mets player Mookie Wilson and a major-leaguer with a handful of teams. Someone brought up Hank Greenberg.
“I’m old,” Mr. Hernandez said with a laugh. “But not that old.”