by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Robinson Vasquez straps on a black catcher’s mask and chest protector, picks up his catcher’s mitt and makes his way behind home plate. He is thinking about more than the 60-mph softball about to come at him, or about handling his pitcher. He is also thinking about his home town in the Dominican Republic, the baseball he played there, and the culture he left behind when he moved to Nantucket three years ago.
Vasquez grew up playing baseball in Santiago de los Caballeros, a city on the north side of the DR where, he said, everybody was in love with good food, family and baseball. Naturally, he developed a passion for the sport at a young age.
More than 20 years later, working as a landscaper with Ernst Land Design on Nantucket, he found a way to rekindle that childhood passion. He joined a men’s league of Dominican fast-pitch softball players that meets every Sunday from May to September at a diamond in Tom Nevers. It’s called the ACK Dominican League.
“All of us played baseball or softball back home, so when we come here for the summer to work and stay here, and when we work all week, we might as well come play softball on the weekend,” he said.
“It’s a pretty big journey from the Dominican Republic to this country, so each day we have something, like sports, to connect back to our home, it’s important.”
He started playing in the league three years ago. Vasquez is both the catcher and the manager of 16 Dominican players on one of three teams in the league. His is called the red team. Every player in the league was born in the Dominican Republic.
Like many of them, Vasquez came to Nantucket in search of a job that would pay better than a job in his home country. He chose Nantucket because he had friends on the island. Some of them are also from Santiago de los Caballeros, and some are from the capital and largest city, Santo Domingo. But the majority of players are from Cabrera, a town roughly the size of Nantucket, on the north shore of the island.
One of them is Christian Cuello, who plays on the same team as his nephew, Orvis Cuello. Two years ago, Orvis was playing spring baseball at Snead State Community College in Alabama.
Christian came to the island in 2002, after 11 years in New York. Eight years later, he was walking around a nearly-empty Tom Nevers park with several of his friends. They had a wooden bat, a couple balls and some gloves. It was a Sunday. They started a pick-up baseball game on the LittleLeague-size field.
“We grew up playing baseball together back home. We just came over on Sunday, said let’s just go to Tom Nevers, have a barbecue, play a game. It was fun. It was nice to just come over, have a couple beers, play a couple games, no permits, nothing,” Cuello said.
“And, of course, we were bad, just really bad. We sucked at it. But we had a group over here, and we decided it was a good idea to turn it into a softball thing.
We brought a few friends over, and 30 guys showed up the next week.”
They were still playing a year later. Three years later, they had their own uniforms, in Los Angeles Dodger blue and St. Louis Cardinals red. It was the beginning of a league, which is now permitted through the Nantucket Community School. It has since changed one of the team’s colors (from blue to black), and added a third team, sporting Baltimore Orioles orange.
“Knowing a bunch of people, people from Cabrera, people from Santiago, the friendships we make are incredible. Some of them are good ballplayers,” Cuello said. “Some of them played in college. They used to play in really good baseball leagues back home, and now they just have a chance to have some fun.”
Cuello started a carpentry business on-island several years after he moved from New York, called Christian Carpentry Inc. But on Sundays, he plays softball. A career in woodworking put a strain on his knees that moved him from third base to first base, where he does not have to run as much.
His nephew, Orvis, works in carpentry with him, as well as with several of his friends’ companies. He brings his eight-month-old daughter to the field for games. She sits on a bleacher beside the third-base line, between the softball game and a pick-up soccer game being played by
a group of Salvadorans on another field. There are spectators along both sides of the field. Reggaeton, salsa and bachata music is playing from a car speaker nearby, and food, prepared by several players and their families, is served on a table behind
Last month, it was a Dominican sweet
rice dish called arroz con dulce. The week before, it was hot dogs and quipe, a Dominican deep-fried beef dish, with onion, garlic, pepper, bulgur and cilantro.
“If you have a kid, you can bring them to the park, you can make more friends, you can play to win, or you can just play to play. When I’m here, I can just keep playing,” Orvis said.
Samuel Taveras moved to the island in 2012, after playing baseball in Cabrera, and later, as part of another Dominican softball league in Manhattan. Like many of his teammates, he came to the island to make a living, and started working in carpentry. Softball was a way for him to connect with the culture he left behind.
“We are Dominican. We’re born with the blood of baseball, so it’s important for us to keep playing the game,” he said. “I don’t have nothing else to do. I like playing softball more than going to the beach. With softball, it’s like you’re home, like you’re with family.”
The games run through September, when two of the three teams play one final game for the league championship.
Taveras, Vasquez and the Cuellos are four of nine people who help organize the games each year. That group also includes Nicole Tejada, Marcel Faña, Ranniel Pereyra and Jorge and Jenner Olivo.
This September will close out Vasquez’ third year playing in and managing the league. In the weeks that follow the championship, he plans to start working more on the weekends. Finding time to play softball is difficult in the summer, he said. But it’s something he would not trade.
“Sports, family and education are always a compromise for time,” Vasquez said. “We come here, and we’re going to have jobs, but we’re also going to have a connection to this country like we have to the Dominican Republic. So, we try to hold on to sports because it’s something distinct that has a connection not only to there, but to Nantucket.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.