this park in Brooklyn, at the corner of Atlantic Ave and Fountain Ave., is the Field of Broken Dreams.
On a recent Saturday morning, one by one the players show up, drop their gear to the ground near the benches, then walk around the chain link fence and out onto the field. Like major leaguers, they are young and old, ranging from their late teens to early 40s. And, for the most part, they are in shape. In their crisp, clean uniforms, some of which bear the logos of major league teams like the Cubs and the Cardinals, or those of famous Dominican League teams, they look like ballplayers. Only a few show a belly protruding over their belts, the vicious sign of aging. Hearing their banter back and forth across the field, their laughs and insults, and the sound of the ball smacking into the glove as they play catch, it is almost possible to imagine they are professionals, warming up before some early-season exhibition game.
A car honks, an ambulance sounds in the distance, and the fantasy evaporates. On the small aluminum bleachers, only a few friends and family members - wives, girlfriends and little kids - sit impatiently, waiting for the game to begin.
On the left-hand side of field, near the restrooms, a group of older former players sit and watch closely, already dissecting the action, pointing out who can still throw hard and who has been hot at the plate. While this may not be professional baseball, these games are taken seriously.
Street vendors selling Dominican dishes set up their fryers on the street and start cooking tostones, crisp, deep-fried plantains. Behind home plate, a group of older men put together a simple public address system.
A tall chain link fence surrounds the field, protecting it from the city. A few advertising banners hang limply in the sodden, summer air. The outfield scoreboard is empty.
Despite the setting, many of the players now warming up on the field are professionals. Or, rather, they once were professionals, once upon a time. Now, at least for a few hours, they are still ballplayers. Every weekend, the Pedrin Zorrilla Baseball League reminds them of that. Here is where baseball dreams have either died, are on life support or never got started in the first place.
an outlet for those who still need the game to complete a life, who still would rather play and fail than not play at all.
For more than 62 seasons the Zorrilla League - named for Pedrin Zorrilla, a scout for the Giants, business executive, politician and owner of the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican Professional League - has provided an outlet for those who still need the game to complete a life, who still would rather play and fail than not play at all. In the 1980s there were nearly 30 primarily Latino amateur adult baseball leagues in New York, many with corporate sponsors. Now, there are only the nine teams in what the locals simple refer to as the Zorrilla. Most of the players - probably 80 percent - are Dominican.
It makes sense. Each year, major league teams sign several hundred amateur players from the Dominican Republic, far more than from anywhere else in Latin American. Only a few make it to the major leagues. The others are often quickly cast aside, most released after only a few seasons. Many return to the Dominican Republic, where they tell stories of their time as a professional ballplayer and try to find work, but others linger behind, marry an American girl or simply overstay their work visas and decide to remain in the United States.
Some of them end up here, in Brooklyn.
One of the men who takes the field most weekends in the Zorrilla League this summer is Emilio King, a powerful looking 23 -year-old. He has the build of a major league player - thick arms, muscular legs - but he is soft spoken and pensive. He is plain faced, dark skinned and clean-shaven. He does not have the appearance of someone whose career has hit a crossroads.
Yet for King, the call came not even a year ago, in November of 2012. He had just finished practice with the Aguilas del Cibao, the storied Dominican Winter League team, and returned home when the phone rang.
The message was quick and direct. The man simply explained to King that he was released.
It was someone from the Houston Astros, the organization that first signed him six years before. The message was quick and direct. The man simply explained to King that he was released. He did not give a reason, and King did not ask. It really didn't really matter. King thanked the team for the opportunity and then hung up the phone.
He was no longer a ballplayer.
King first became a baseball player almost by mistake. A native of Samana in the Dominican Republic, he grew up adjacent to the local field and when neighborhood boys gathered to play, King, both a neighbor and a natural leader, organized the chaos.
"The ball field was like my backyard," King said. "It was my world. It was like if it was my field."
He chose sides, mandated positions for everyone and then helped set up lineups. Inevitably, most of the kids wanted to play the marquee positions, the positions that were the most fun and what young players everywhere think most often get the attention of the professional scouts - shortstop, pitcher, centerfielder - where it is easy to show off speed or a strong arm. No one wanted to catch - it was too hard. But if someone didn't catch, there would be no game, so King, who was the best player on the field, usually played catcher himself.
It was the best decision he ever made - at least until the phone call.
For an amateur organization, the Zorrilla is surprisingly well organized. A board of directors runs the league, the umpires are paid, and the baseballs, at least at the start of each game, are usually brand new. The league plays at City Line Park on both Saturday and Sunday, baseball from 10 a.m. until the early evening. Some players show up early and stay all day, lingering before or after their own game, sitting in the stands or in lounge chairs under the few trees that grow at the edge of the park, talking baseball, telling stories, and watching their friends.
While the games go on, old men provide commentary over the P.A. system as if they are professional broadcasters calling a major league game, but the sound system is so poor, few can hear them. No matter. Here in the Zorrilla, fantasy is as important as reality, sometimes, even more important.
The quality of play varies widely. Ground balls are bobbled, errant throws clatter off the chain link fence or occasionally sail into the street, and sometimes even catchable pop-ups fall to the ground untouched. After all, even professional players make mistakes, and many players in the Zorrilla, even the former professionals, have not played or practiced regularly for years, and it shows. Wrists that once lashed out line drives from 90-mile per hour fastballs now swing through pitches that come to the plate some 10 mph slower.
Then there is a sharp sound and instinct takes over from age. A shortstop ranges far into the hole, his glove reaching expertly for a hard hit ground ball, and then he pivots and suddenly the ball is a white blur streaking across the diamond, the catch and throw as accurate and powerful as any in the major leagues. A few moments later, a hitter turns on a pitch and rockets a line drive off the distant fence, an extra base hit in any ballpark.
These are the kind of plays that once drew the attention of major league scouts, and the kind of plays that still make it possible to put up with the failure.
This is the dream that leads so many Dominicans to baseball.
When King was 15 years old a relative told him that a Houston scout would be at a local tournament in Samana. King played well and at the end of the tournament the scout asked him to stop by the Astros baseball academy. He spent several weeks there, playing baseball almost all day long, before the team offered him a modest contract that included a $30,000 bonus. Even for Dominican free agents, the bonus was small, and represented little risk to the Astros, but to King, it was life changing.
His father ran a tourist gift shop while his mother worked as a housecleaner, but with six siblings, there was no money for any extras. The bonus allowed King to help with day-to-day expenses and to dream. Someday, perhaps, he would make millions, like Dominican players such as David Ortiz and other major leaguers, who return to the Dominican as heroes. This is the dream that leads so many Dominicans to baseball.
For King, however, baseball was not just a dream anymore; it was his duty. Almost from the moment he signed, King felt uncomfortable as a professional. It was not the fun, pressure-free environment of his youth. Now every at bat mattered.
"The most difficult thing for me was having to wake up each day, and not feel like you were playing baseball, but to feel like you had a job," King said. "It was disheartening. It affected me mentally, not so much on the field. Sometimes it would just get so monotonous, every day we would do the same thing, it was repetitive. The feeling that it was a game quickly subsided."
King spent his first two seasons learning to be a professional at the Astros Dominican academy and playing in the Dominican Summer League, a grueling schedule of nearly non-stop baseball almost every day from sunrise to sunset. Then, in 2010, King was sent to play in United States, first for the Astros' Single-A team in Greenville, Tenn., and then in Lexington, Ky., Troy, N.Y., and Lancaster, Calif., places on a map in a country he barely knew.
King had a difficult time focusing on his defensive duties as a catcher while trying to learn how to hit professional pitchers, and after his first season in the U.S., the Astros transferred him to the outfield. It was a relief, and for a while, he flourished. His strong right arm was suited to the outfield and in 2011, one throw to home plate, a perfect strike from right field to home plate, earned a nomination as Minor League Play of the Year. He started to hit and his manager in Lexington told a reporter King was "probably my best player, my team MVP." For a brief moment, he was a prospect. In 2012, however, he slumped, hitting under .200. The Astros lost patience and that is when he got the phone call.
It is easy to look at the men playing baseball in the Zorrilla and dismiss it as unimportant, to deride the level of play, but the participants are dedicated. No one is paying them to play - most have to pay for the privilege and take the field after working long hours during the week. The league is self-sustaining and depends on the commitment of the players themselves and their willingness to volunteer to help and make it work.
No newspaper reports on the results or publishes league statistics. The standings and scores are posted on a Facebook page that has just over 200 followers, about as many players as there are in the league. The local minor league team, the short-season Brooklyn Cyclones, has more than 25,000 followers.
The players still play hard, and to win. They celebrate big hits and home runs, talk about each game for hours afterwards, and argue calls with umpires just as intensely as any major leaguer. There is a video on YouTube of a particularly entertaining argument from last year, a dispute over a home run, in which one member of the league gave a performance worth of Earl Weaver or Billy Martin, eventually being ejected from the game and throwing a trash can on the field. It has received more than 2,000 views.
For Danilo Reynoso, the call came in November 2004. Reynoso, now 31 with a mustached face that makes him seem even older, had spent part of that year trying to rehabilitate an injured shoulder. Then, in the fall, the Mets tried to convince him that he should leave catching behind and become a pitcher. Like King, he had struggled to hit in professional baseball. Such a deficiency is the undoing of many players.
"I had a great arm, could catch really well," Reynoso said. "The only thing I couldn't do was hit."
Reynoso wasn't anxious to start over again by becoming a pitcher. He wasn't sure he would like it and he wasn't certain his injured arm would even allow him to do it. He knew such a request meant the team had soured on him, anyway. Pitching would do nothing but delay the inevitable.
Reynoso had first signed with the Mets in 1998 out of San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. That he had even played baseball was somewhat of a surprise, and it reveals something about his character, and his commitment to his family.
As a boy, one of Reynoso's older brothers was supposed to be the baseball player. Although Reynoso's farming family often had little money, they used what little they had to buy his brother baseball equipment. It was an investment. If the boy could sign a professional contract one day then perhaps the whole family's fortunes would change.
But the boy became distracted with the outside world. He wanted to go out late and chase girls. He soon lost interest in the game. The baseball equipment went unused.
Danilo never had much interest in baseball. He was more interested in raising roosters, but he could not bear to see his family's sacrifice go to waste. One day the teenaged boy told his mother that he was going to become a baseball player.
"You don't have to do that son," his mother said. "I know you don't like baseball."
"Yeah, but I'm going to play and I'm going to get rich so that you guys can have a better life."
Reynoso responded, "I'm going to play and I'm going to get rich so that you guys can have a better life."
Every morning after he had made that promise to his mother, Reynoso got up at 6 a.m. to practice. After sipping on a large cup of oatmeal and cherry juice that his mother made for him, Reynoso would go out into the field and train. He would not finish until 11 a.m., and he did not stray from this routine. Soon, his 5' 10 frame became muscular and chiseled.
"I became a great physical specimen," he said.
Yet that did not mean he knew how to play. He may have looked like a ballplayer, but he did not have the advanced skills of someone who had seriously played the game all his life.
The first time he went to the field was so humiliating that he almost didn't return. When he showed up for that first day of practice at a local league, the 14-year-old Reynoso wore boots, a collared shirt and his grandfather's farming hat.
The other players couldn't stop laughing and nicknamed him "Rooster Boy." Yet despite his shortcomings, he eventually earned his teammates' respect. They soon called him "Burro" because he worked so hard.
In little more than a year, he signed to work with a well-known trainer, a man known as a buscon, who trains young players, alerts major league scouts to promising talent and then serves as their agent, earning a living by taking a portion of their signing bonus and salary. After training with a buscon for almost a year, New York Mets scout Eddy Toledo, a respected man on the island who had signed such players as Nelson Cruz and Jose Reyes, signed Reynoso to a contract.
Reynoso then spent three years honing his skills in the Dominican Summer League while waiting for the Mets to provide a visa to play in the United States. At the time, professional teams had only a limited number of visas to hand out and these were reserved for only the best players, and the best prospects. Reynoso was not yet in that category.
Finally, in 2001, the Mets sent Reynoso to Kingsport, Tenn., to play in the Single-A Appalachian League. He was overwhelmed, both socially and professionally. For all the efforts major league teams put into teaching baseball, not until recently have they begun to recognize the responsibility they have in preparing Dominicans for life in the United States. At the time Reynoso played, few teams provided instruction in English or how to live in America.
Reynoso struggled at the plate and didn't speak English well enough to develop much of a social life. For a long time, Reynoso couldn't even find a way to eat. He was scared to go and order food at a restaurant. Instead, he ate only at the ballpark, often not eating at all from the time he left the park at night until he returned the next afternoon.
Reynoso spent four mostly uninspiring years in the Mets minor league system. His English improved, but his hitting skills did not. Although Reynoso had a good arm, the rest of his catching skills weren't quite good enough to make him a defensive specialist, and create a career as a backup catcher.
When Reynoso turned down the Mets offer to become a pitcher at age 23, he became a minor league free agent. While he waited for another team to sign him, Reynoso, married and with two children, moved to Brooklyn to be close to his wife's family.
It was a difficult transition. Reynoso still wanted to play professionally, but his options were dwindling. It was also winter in New York, and the cold became his enemy. He had never lived in such frigid conditions. Still, Reynoso would wake up every morning and train in the snow. When he returned home after a long practice outdoors, his fingers felt like they would fall off. He would dip his hands in warm water, and the pain would make him scream like a child. In comparison, those early morning practices in the Dominican with oatmeal and cherry juice in his belly were a welcome memory.
That first year in Brooklyn, Reynoso spent seven months out of work. The few dollars he still had from playing baseball barely paid the rent. His wife went to work at a clothing store. He knew no one and had no reason to leave the house, so often he would stay at the apartment the entire day, the entire week. Reynoso was a miserable and lonely. As a proud Latin American man, was ashamed that he couldn't provide much for his family.
One day he spoke to his father in anguish and told him that he felt like giving up.
His father responded, "A man doesn't give up so easily. You have to survive. And I've taught you well. You find work and make it."
Soon after, Reynoso found a job at a liquor store. Then his agent contacted him and he signed a contract with the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Canadian-American Association. Reynoso spent the 2005 and 2006 seasons playing for Worcester, but then the league folded. He eventually signed a contract to play the following season in Texas for the Rio Grande Valley White Wings of the United Baseball League. He dreaded the decision because it would move him so far away from his family. Nevertheless, he still was dreaming of the majors.
It was time to accept that he had failed and move on.
When he returned to Brooklyn after that season, Reynoso was despondent. He shuttled his family between several apartments before finally finding a place near where the Van Wyck Expressway crosses Atlantic Avenue. One weekend day, Reynoso walked by City Line Park and saw a group of men playing baseball. They wore uniforms and he was surprised by the quality of play. Reynoso knew no one at the park, so he sat in the stands and simply watched, intrigued. He started to think that perhaps he could play in the park, too. He soon learned that he was watching the Zorrilla and eventually became friends with some of the players and coaches.
After one disappointing season in Texas, Reynoso made a difficult decision. He could no longer spend his time toiling in independent leagues so far away from his family. It was time to accept that he had failed and move on.
"It was difficult for me to let go of that major league dream," Reynoso said. "My father would tell me, ‘Son, in baseball there are two things: You either make it, or you don't make it. You're going to experience one of those. You have to prepare mentally for both. Do everything possible to get there, but if you don't make it, don't get down on yourself. I never played ball, and I raised all seven of you. You can have a life without baseball.' After that passed, you get hurt, but I had no choice but to find a job, just like my father told me."
For many moments after the phone call from the Astros, Emilio King considered his options. He knew he could try to latch on with another team, but that wasn't very appealing. He knew that now that the Astros, one of the worst teams in baseball, had released him he was tagged as a failure. Signing another contract would simply delay the inevitable.
He hadn't ever regretted becoming a baseball player, but now he started wondering whether he had made the right life choices. King had given almost his entire life to baseball, and had nothing left to show for it except the countless questions about what he would do with the rest of his life, questions that he had ignored while playing baseball.
"Imagine, since you were 16 years old you've been playing, there wasn't any time to study, and all you know is baseball," King said. "You aren't prepared mentally, you make bad decisions, you feel frustrated, because when you sit and think about it, ‘What am I going to do now?' Since I was 16 years old, that's all I know. All those lost years, seven lost years. Maybe I could have been a working professional, maybe a doctor or a lawyer. But life does not stop. I felt support from my family."
He was determined to make something of himself despite the end of his baseball career.
King decided he couldn't spend any more time wondering what might have happened with his life. He was determined to make something of himself despite the end of his baseball career. Baseball had been his career, his passion, but it didn't have to define the rest of his life.
The fear of an empty future scared him. He didn't want to end up like so many other failed Dominican baseball players wasting their lives away at home doing menial tasks for little money. He wanted a better life for himself and for his family, a life with possibilities. He didn't see that in the Dominican. With only a few weeks remaining on his work visa, King decided to take the biggest chance of his young life.
He bought a plane ticket to Puerto Rico to visit a friend. He spent a week there and then headed to Florida to visit a relative in Orlando. Then he took a long bus ride to New York City, where a childhood friend offered him a place to stay and told him he could find work. It was admittedly a risky plan, and also illegal. Once his visa expired, King would not have legal status in the United States.
Still, for the first time in his life, King was taking control of his destiny. He wouldn't have to worry about what scouts or coaches and front office executives thought of him. He would be free from scrutiny and pressure. Success and failure would not depend on his ability to hit a curve ball.
He got a job making furniture. It wasn't glamorous, but it was rewarding, like playing catcher. King was able to work with his hands and build objects that would be meaningful for people. In all his years in baseball, his base hits, and RBIs and walks never amounted to anything for anyone else. In one week at his new job, he knew he had built furniture that would be used by people for years.
He had also found comfort in religion. King's family had always relied on faith, and King needed it now more than ever. Fortunately, he found a church near his friend's apartment. Every Sunday, King sat on the pew and prayed to God for his new life to work out. Through the church, he met many caring people who offered him friendship and kindness.
But there was still something missing: He wasn't happy. A friend suggested to him that perhaps what he missed was baseball, and if he played again he might find happiness. While he might not ever make it to the majors, there was no reason why he could not play the game he still loved. He told King about the Zorrilla. There, he was told, were many others just like him.
Reynoso played in the Zorrilla League for the first time in 2008. Today, he remembers that when he first sat in the stands and watched, he knew no one. Now, he rarely goes a minute at the park without someone calling out, "Burro!" A member of the Cubs, he is one of the best and most recognized players at the park.
The one constant in his life for the past six years has been the league.
His life has changed dramatically: He divorced his first wife and remarried and he's shuffled through numerous jobs and apartments. The one constant in his life for the past six years has been the league. Through Zorrilla, he has made friends and put down roots in a new place. Every spring and summer weekend, it is his salvation, a place that reminds him who he is - "Burro" - how far hard work can take a person and how important it is to have friends. The boy who did not care for baseball, who failed at the game, now cannot live without it.
He is not alone. The league is full of men who share his story. There are even those who still have the dream.
"It's a good league for those kids who still have that major league dream," Reynoso said. "Here they find a league where they can keep practicing, where they can stay in shape and keep that dream alive. Sometimes, scouts will come here secretly. They will check these players and sometimes they sign. They get another opportunity. This is a good league for the young guys."
The league champions each year receive a paid trip to the Dominican Republic to play against teams of prospects, players who have yet to fail and to face the uncertainty those in the Zorrilla have learned to overcome. Reynoso isn't one of those young kids anymore. He lives an adult life with adult responsibilities. It has been years since he even imagined what it would have been like to play in the majors. Yes, his father told him that he could have a life without baseball. But the Zorrilla taught Reynoso that he could have a regular life and a baseball life, too.
He doesn't catch anymore. Now, he plays outfield. Even though the Cubs are struggling, for a few hours every weekend, he is carefree and young, playing for fun.
When Emilio King joined the Zorilla this year to play for the Falcons, he too soon realized his love of baseball had not totally gone away. But since he had little time for practice, he had a hard time adapting to playing again. Even in Zorrilla, despite years of professional baseball, King still sometimes struggles at the plate.
"Sometimes I expect so much of myself because I was a professional player," King said. "But nobody on the team [here] puts that pressure on me. The manager always encourages me. I was thinking about quitting once, but he encouraged me to stay."
So he shows up every weekend at City Line Park. Unlike Reynoso, though, he has not completely given up his dream of playing in the majors - but he knows that it is unlikely he will even play professionally again. Yet by playing in the Zorrilla, at least he has reconciled his relationship with the game. He no longer blames baseball for what he never became.
He can finally just enjoy the game. It's no longer a job.
Perhaps he, too, can find salvation in this league like so many others.
There are literally thousands of boys playing baseball at any point in the day, on any given day, in the Dominican Republic, and it's an absolute certainty that none of them are dreaming of one day playing in the Pedrin Zorrilla Baseball League. After all, this is the Field of Broken Dreams, a place you end up there when you don't make it, when you have no other choices, a place where each player must decide for himself why he plays.
On a recent Saturday, 22-year-old Eliezer Beard, a former pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization from Boca Chica, nervously awaited his first start ever in the league.
He believes there are still long bus rides, half-full minor league stadiums, and, perhaps, a trip to major leagues in his future.
Released by the Reds last year, he works at a Dominican restaurant, but unlike Reynoso, and even King, he sees this as only a temporary setback in his baseball career. He is in Brooklyn for now, but he doesn't expect to remain for long. He believes there are still long bus rides, motel rooms, half-full minor league stadiums, and, perhaps, a trip to major leagues in his future.
At 6'4, Beard still looks like a pitcher, and although his time away from the game has made him put on a few pounds, he's not overweight. He still throws relatively hard - at least for the Zorrilla - and he clings to the fact that in 2010, as a 19-year-old, he had a sparkling 1.81 ERA in the Dominican Summer League, and that after struggling in the Arizona League in 2011, he came back in 2012 and again pitched well in the Summer League. His fastball has touched 90 mph. Every year, there are players who seemingly come from nowhere, who miraculously find success in the majors. He still believes he can be one of these players.
There are no scouting reports here - and, very rarely, scouts. You simply pitch, and try to create a reputation. Beard - who like so many others had heard about the league through word of mouth - spent his time before his first start eating and watching the game before his. He fumbled nervously with his glove to pass the time.
If he were a professional, nobody would speak to him. It is standard professional baseball etiquette to leave a starting pitcher alone in the hours before a game. But this is the Zorrilla, and such protocols no longer make sense. As Beard waits, people drop by to chat, to discuss the game, and to wish him well. Kids run around the park shooting water guns at each other, trying to cool off in the oppressive heat. Loud music from passing cars plays loudly.
Although everything does not hinge on his first start, his playing future may depend on his performance here in the Zorrilla, how he succeeds, and, just as importantly, how he reacts to failure, whether he becomes frustrated and gives up or perseveres. To pitch his way out of the Zorrilla, he will first have to impress the small cluster of fans and players in the stands. Then he will have to make the older men behind the backstop who call the game on the P.A. system bellow out praise for his performance. He will then have to pray that someone tells someone who tells someone about the young man with the live arm in the Zorrilla and he will hope that one day a scout shows up to see if what he has heard is true.
"I know I can become the person that I've dreamed of being," Beard said as he squinted through the beaming sun out toward the field. "I can complete my dream."
Beside him sits a Cincinnati Reds travel bag full of equipment. He wears a Reds uniform and red cleats; he looks like a professional.
The path is laid out before him. The Zorrilla will become either a destination or a temporary stop. Either way, it may provide salvation.
Out on the field, one game ends. In a few moments, another will begin. Beard stands up and walks toward the place where he will determine his future.