Dominican Players Sharpen Their Skills With a Broomstick and Bottle Cap

A report by James Wagner for the New York Times.

Behind just about every major league baseball player from the Dominican Republic is a game called vitilla. It is the country’s version of stickball, and it is played with a broomstick for a bat and the cap of a large water jug for the ball. And that cap can move more wildly than a Wiffle ball.

So as the 2017 postseason moves into full gear, with eight teams playing in the first round and Dominican position players and pitchers almost certain to make an impact in numerous games, vitilla (pronounced vee-TEE-ya) should probably be listed in the credits.

“It was the easiest game to play since everyone had the bottle caps, and we always played in the neighborhood after school,” said Starlin Castro, the Yankees’ second baseman.

“What Dominican doesn’t play vitilla?” said Gary Sanchez, the slugging catcher and Castro’s teammate.

The Yankees are taking on Cleveland in a best-of-five series, and two of the Indians’ best hitters — Jose Ramirez and Edwin Encarnacion — are Dominican, too. So the subtext to that series might be vitilla vs. vitilla.

The latest Dominican standout in the majors raised on vitilla is Rafael Devers, the 20-year-old, robustly built rookie third baseman for the Boston Red Sox. After churning through various players at third base this season and not settling on any of them, the Red Sox called up Devers on July 25.

He didn’t disappoint. In 240 plate appearances across 58 games, he hit .284 with 10 home runs and had a number of significant hits as the Red Sox held off the Yankees to win the American League East. And in Game 1 of Boston’s series against Houston on Thursday, he drove in the tying run with a sacrifice fly early in the game, only to see the Astros pull away.

Devers signed with the Red Sox for $1.5 million in 2013, when he was 16, and played only nine games at Class AAA Pawtucket this season before reaching the major leagues, capping a meteoric ascent through the minors.

“You lose sight of the fact that he’s 20 years old,” Red Sox Manager John Farrell said recently. “Nothing seems to faze him.”

By appearance alone, Devers looks as if he belongs in a high school classroom. He still had braces two years ago. His nickname, Carita (Little Face), bestowed by friends while playing vitilla years ago, is testament to the baby face he still possesses.

Devers picked up the nickname back home in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. He moved to that city from the northern end of the country at a young age. And nearly every day growing up, at school or after it, on a field or in the street, Devers played vitilla with friends.

“Vitilla is good training in the Dominican, but it’s different than baseball,” Devers said.

And yet the concept is the same — to hit a moving object with a stick. But because the vitilla is smaller than a baseball and moves unpredictably when thrown, and because the bat is thinner, some major leaguers from the Dominican Republic believe playing it so regularly helped their hand-eye coordination.

“I have a good curveball because of it,” said Fernando Abad, a left-handed Red Sox reliever who did not make the first-round roster for Boston because the Astros have so many right-handed hitters. “It’s a top, but based on how you hold it, I think it helped me. And it’s the same action as throwing a baseball.”

Both Castro and Jose Reyes, the Mets infielder, said the game was good training for their eyes at a young age. “It’s not easy to hit a little thing like that, and at the velocity they throw it and the way it moves,” Castro said.

Wilmer Difo, a utility player on the Washington Nationals, who are taking on the Chicago Cubs in a first-round series that began Friday, said he thought vitilla “helped a lot” when he was developing his baseball skills in the Dominican.

“The vitilla isn’t a ball,” he added. “It moves many ways. It’s hard to hit. To hit it, you really have to see well.”

Of course, this is hardly scientific evidence. “Maybe it helped, but you can’t prove it,” Devers’s teammate and fellow Dominican Eduardo Nunez said when asked about vitilla recently. “It’s like a myth.”

The diaspora of Dominicans in the United States has brought vitilla to several parts of New York, including the Bronx. In other baseball-loving countries, vitilla exists in other forms. Chapita is a similar game from Venezuela, and major league baseball players from there said they grew up playing it.

But perhaps none of these games resonate the way vitilla does. Devers called it “a great game and fun,” and said he still played it in the off-season.

And whatever he is playing — be it third base for the Red Sox or vitilla in a Dominican sandlot — Devers, who is listed at 6 feet and 195 pounds, is more agile than you would think.

When he was first called up, he told his agent his goal was to stay in the major leagues for good, and he has so far. Any bit of pressure Devers felt initially has faded. “It’s the same baseball,” he said. “You can’t do more. I tried to do the same I’ve always done: Enjoy the game and play my game.”

Devers said he had relished playing in front of large crowds at Fenway Park. He is happy that there are Dominican restaurants in Boston because, he said, he cannot even cook an egg without burning a finger. And teammates like Nunez and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who is from Aruba but speaks fluent Spanish, have eased his transition.

Devers seems likely to become a fixture for the Red Sox in the seasons ahead. And vitilla, that simple game with a bat and the cap of a jug, will always be a part of his résumé.

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