The Dominican’s favorite son
Juan Marichal is revered in his homeland, more so than ever. He hasn’t thrown a pitch since 1975, but everywhere he goes on the island that adores baseball, the first Dominican Hall of Famer is respected and praised.
As much as the Dominican Dandy enjoys and deserves the adulation he is afforded for his stellar baseball career, even more so, he is proud. En Espanol, it is called “orgulloso.” He is proud to be a husband, father, grandfather and even a great grandfather now. Orgulloso of his friendships, career and country. He’s proud of his farming skills, which he learned from his parents. Juan Marichal is as proud a person as you will meet. He exudes happiness and confidence. He is so orgulloso.
On Tuesday, as Juan, his wife Alma and I dined on a traditional Dominican seafood lunch at Pepe Diaz in Santo Domingo, he could not stop talking about how his 49-year marriage to Alma, their six children, 13 grandchildren and his three-year old great granddaughter, Kirabella. He’s so proud of them all. Very proud of who they are and what they’ve all accomplished.
“I met Alma when she was 16. She was my first love.” To which she added, “We just went on a cruise. All 33 of us. What a thrill. I hope to do it every year. I love to be with my family.”
Juan joined the Air Force in 1956 at age 19 and moved from Laguna Verde, a small town two hours west of the Dominican capital, to Santo Domingo. Pitching for Trujillo’s Air Force team, he played against Matty Alou and his town team in El Cami. They instantly become the best of friends. Juan would hang out at the home of the three Alou brothers – Matty, Felipe and Jesus. The young lady who lived across the street quickly became the apple of Juan’s eye. Alma would soon become his wife at age 16. They have never looked back.
Matty, who passed away earlier this year, and Juan, were so close that Juan may as well have been the fourth Alou brother.
“He was my compadre from the start. I am proud of our friendship,” said Marichal. “I baptized Matty’s daughter as he did my daughter, Elsie; but even before that, we were compadres.”
They roomed together with the Giants and stayed friends until the day Matty died on Nov. 3.
“Matty was in a coma, but when I came to see him, he squeezed my hand four times,” Marichal said. “The next day my compadre even said my name.”
Tuesday night, we went to one of the final Dominican Winter League games of the season, with the Tigres del Licey playing host to the Aguilas Cibaenas. As we walked into the stadium, many fans, young and old, men and women, saluted their Dominican hero.
We watched the game from a box and the visits to see Juan were endless. Ozzie Virgil, the first Dominican player to appear in the major leagues, stopped by. Pedro Martinez’ sister, Elvera, who works for Licey, also came by. It seemed that half of Santo Domingo was at the game and they all simply wanted to shake the hand or pose for a photograph with the great Juan Marichal.
Juan told me of pitching in the Aguila’ Stadium in 1957 and 1958 for manager Salty Parker, who was in the Giants system. He was very proud of going 8-3 in 1958.
The game itself was one-sided with Fausto Carmona and Aguilas trouncing Ubaldo Jimenez and Licey, 6-1. The outcome was irrelevant as both teams will make the round-robin tournament that starts in a few weeks before the Caribbean Series.
As we left the ballpark I thought about how proud I was…orgulloso….to have been able to spend a day with one of the all-time greats on his home turf. There’s no greater man than Juan Marichal. No one more proud, so orgulloso.
Jeff Idelson is the President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.