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NY Dominicans Love/Hate A-Rod -- DR Dusted in WBC

New America Media, News Report, Words//Photos: Russell Morse Posted: Mar 11, 2009

NEW YORK -- It would be an understatement to say that Alex Rodriguez has had a difficult month. Early in February, Sports Illustrated reported that he tested positive for steroids in 2003. Days later, his admission came. He faced controversy and criticism surrounding his decision to play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and not the United States, his country of origin (though he has dual citizenship).

Last week, it was revealed that he would need hip surgery, which he went in for on Monday. That decision meant sitting out the World Baseball Classic and missing the first full month of his sixth season with the Yankees. The day after his surgery, his chosen team, the Dominican Republic, was eliminated in the first round of play, a monumental upset.

As bad as this sounds, its hardly atypical for A-Rod. Since his arrival in New York in 2004, hes been the Yankees whipping boy, earning nicknames like A-Fraud and The Cooler. Criticism has come from local media and Yankee fans all over the boroughs, blaming him for a string of disappointing seasons.

The one pocket of fans in New York who have had his back through all of this adversity is the citys Dominican population, who have embraced and celebrated him since his arrival. Curiously, his recent steroid admission has done little to change that, although his decision three years ago to play for the United States instead of the Dominican Republic in the previous World Baseball Classic still leaves some fans confused and frustrated.

Rodriguez initially opted to sit out the classic to avoid the decision, then caved in to pressure from the league, agreeing to play for the United States in the 2006 WBC. He explained his reluctance by saying that the decision to choose between his country, the United States, and his Dominican heritage, would force him to dishonor one or the other. His explanation confused some in the Dominican American community, who felt slighted.

Pablo, a young physician who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic five years ago, is one of those who is frustrated. If he doesnt want to claim us, thats fine, he says. We dont want to claim him either.

Pablo says he is one of the few Dominicans who doesnt follow baseball, but he has strong feelings about A-Rod nonetheless.

Washington Heights, at the northern end of Manhattan, is the unofficial headquarters of the Dominican population in New York. This is where Alex Rodriguez was born 33 years ago. Today, the countrys distinctive flag hangs from most fire escapes, kids run around in Rodriguez jerseys and old men wearing Yankees caps sit on the hood of their Town Cars, offering rides. Past where Saint Nicholas Avenue turns into Juan Pablo Duarte Boulevard, tucked among the produce stands, fish markets, discount clothiers and empanada carts, is the All Star Barbershop, a neighborhood institution.

Most days, you can find a group of guys inside playing dominoes, listening to music and, most importantly, talking baseball. Edison Sanchez is a barber there and his workspace is a veritable shrine to Dominicans and baseball. A small television next to the mirror is always tuned to ESPN and he is generally wearing either a DR or NY hat.

He laughs when he explains his passion for the game. Its our culture. All Dominicans like baseball. Since youre a little kid, thats all you see: everybody playing and trying to go to the Major League. You have it in your blood.

Sanchez moved to Washington Heights six years ago from the Dominican Republic and says he was already a Yankee fan. That was just before A-Rod came to New York from Texas and Sanchez can still remember the day he heard the news. Dominicans in general supported him from the beginning.

He says the steroid admission is disappointing but ultimately a minor distraction. I felt bad because I never thought that he would take steroids. A lot of players do that, a lot of players did that. It changed my opinion of him a little bit, but hes still gonna be one of the best players of all time. And when he did it, he was not playing for the Yankees.

What troubles Sanchez is Rodriguezs initial decision to play for the United States in the World Classic. We were crazy because we thought he was gonna play with us. People were very upset because people felt like he wasnt Dominican when he did that. He was acting like an American, not a Dominican.

Alexandra Tirado, a college student who grew up in Marine Park, Brooklyn, seconds Sanchezs disappointment, even if she phrases it less delicately. Now he wants to be Dominican again? It sounds like a douche bag thing to do. I think hes just a tool.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be said that Tirado is an earnest and passionate Mets fan. She even led a chorus of Yankees suck at Shea Stadium. She has a lump in her throat for the beloved, now vacant, ballpark as she tells the story.

But, she says, her hatred of the Yankees has little to do with her criticism of Rodriguez. I just dont know how you can deny who you are.

She grew up watching Mets games with her cousins and says thats why baseball means so much to her. It reminds me of time spent with my family.

The steroid issue doesnt bother her at all. In fact, Tirado thinks the entire country is overreacting. I dont see why its such a big deal. I wish we could legalize it.

Michael Rodriguez, who works in advertising and is a club promoter, never had the option to be anything but a Yankee fan. I grew up in the Bronx, went to high school and college in the Bronx. The Yankees were the only thing going on. If you even talk about the Red Sox, youre gonna get punched in the face.

Despite his surroundings, Rodriguez remained just a casual fan of the game until six years ago, when A-Rod came to town. Everybody was freaking out, dancing, yelling, We got A-Rod! I was excited. Not as excited as my dad, but still excited. After that, I started getting more into it.

Rodriguez is willing to give A-Rod a pass on the steroid issue, and even pushed himself to try to understand the nationalistic dilemma that alienated so many other Dominican fans. Im Dominican, but I was born here, too. I get it. You wanna play for your country, but you have two countries.

Back at the All Star Barbershop, Sanchez finishes giving a little boy a cut and offers some thoughts on the World Classic. Korea is good this year. Very good. And the United States, too.

When hes asked whether hell be cheering for the U.S. team in addition to the Dominican team, he laughs. Why not? I live here.

Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.

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