Tuesday, April 18, 2017

El Dulce Dominicano – How Sweet He Is

SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS – Growing up in the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, Vincente Soto understood at an early age that if you wanted something it took hard work; but you still needed to have some fun along the way.  Vincente’s father worked long hours at La Aurora Cigar Factory to provide for the family, while Vincente’s mother showered the children with laughter and love. Every year in late January the Sotos would attend the Dia de Duarte celebration in downtown Santiago. It was grand time for the Sotos.  A carnival is staged with street dancing, costumed performers, and most importantly, to young Vincente, street food.  Vincente’s favorites were the memolos – a tiny pop made of a creamy coconut center covered with a thin layer of crunchy, candied caramel – he couldn’t get enough.  He can remember eating so many he felt like he would burst. He loved those special treats so much that the family even nicknamed him “Memolito.”  

Vincente’s father Hector would often tell him of how his grandfather, Hipolito Soto, helped build the great Hermanos Patino Bridge that connected the North and the South sides of Santiago.  Hipolito was an avid baseball fan and lived for the days when “The Dominican Dandy” Juan Marichal was on the mound.  Marichal was just bursting onto the scene with the now defunct San Francisco Giants when construction of the bridge began.  Marichal, being only the second native Dominican pitcher to play professional baseball, gave the country great pride, as did the construction of the beautiful Hermanos Patino.  Hipolito Soto often felt that he was helping to close a divide within his country while Marichal was bridging toward a brighter future for the island; he felt a kinship; the kinship only a working man could understand with his idol. 

Hipolito passed his undying love of baseball down to his son Hector, and Hector would pass that down to Vincente.  In Vincente’s childhood it would be another Dominican great that would set the bar on the mound.  Vincente would wait with great anticipation, much like his grandfather did some 35 years earlier, for the day his hero would toe the rubber. His hero being the enigmatic Pedro Martinez. Martinez known for his electric fastball and fun loving attitude was a sight to behold and Vincente, the sweet young kid from Santiago de los Caballeros, hoped to one day walk in his footsteps. 

Vincente began early, playing with his father and grandfather in the back lot of La Aurora Cigar Factory.  Hector’s son soon became a favorite around the factory, and Memolito was loved for his sweet demeanor as much as his burgeoning fastball.  By the time he was 12-years-old he had already caught the eye of professional scouts and was stirring quite a bit of noise.  But Vincente never forgot the lessons of his parents and continued to work hard every day with a smile on his face. 

At the age of 18, with teams lining up at his door, Vincente Soto was the hottest property on the international market.  But the world wasn’t quite ready for Soto.  With Major League Baseball collapsing Vincente had no place to go -- no grand stage to continue the legacy of great Dominican pitchers.  But Vincente was undeterred.  The kid known as Memolito refused to believe the sport he loved had just disappeared.  So he stayed in his home country and pitched, and pitched, and pitched.  Vincente Soto, or "El Dulce Dominicano," as he would come to be known, would keep the hope of an entire country alive.  Vincente Soto would singlehandedly keep the sport of baseball afloat in the Dominican Republic, having faith that one day soon the brightest lights would shine again.  His incredible work ethic and kind demeanor could not be broken.  And when the day arrived, and word spread that professional baseball was coming back, Vincente and the entire country rejoiced.

It was at this same time that legendary music producer John Mutt was heading a team of investors to reignite professional baseball in the Tampa area.  Mutt, who made unheard of fortunes producing some the greatest merengue music in the last 35 years, had an unrealized inside track to Vincente Soto and he would soon make both their dreams come true. 

It was late July of 2014, the Festival de Merengue was in full swing, and John Mutt was in town to see his old friend, legendary merengue artist Juan Luis Guerra.  Talks had begun in the states to bring back professional baseball and Guerra, a lifelong fan himself, knew that Mutt was in negotiations to own a team.  Guerra began to tell Mutt about El Dulce Dominicano and the song he had been writing about him.  How he was the best pitcher on the island, the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet, and the single reason Dominican children all over the country were still playing baseball.  Not one to turn a deaf ear to a potential hit, Mutt insisted that he see this kid right away.  As these things often work out, Vincente Soto happened to be pitching a game in Santo Domingo that very night and the island was abuzz. 

That night in Quisqueya Stadium, El Dulce Dominicano delighted the crowd with a game for the record books (had they still existed at that time).  Against a team of high caliber former major leaguers, Soto through a no-hitter.  Not just any no-hitter though -- a 22 strikeout lesson in the fine art of pitching.  His 4-seamer was untouchable, and his curveball froze hitters in their tracks.  Soto’s hybrid Marichal/Martinez delivery left the crowd in awe and all those watching knew they were witnessing not just something special, but someone special.  John Mutt was there to see it all, and he knew that when professional baseball got the green light to start again, a call to Vincente Soto was his first order of business. 

So at the start of 2015, with all the hurdles cleared for baseball to begin again, Mutt stood by his plan to get Vincente Soto no matter the cost. And a cost it was, for Mutt wasn’t the only owner to have heard about Soto.  A bidding war would begin, but ultimately, Mutt would not be denied.  He got his man. 

Soto needed no fine tuning in the minors, he stepped right into the newly minted TBBA and dominated.  Soto was everything that Juan Luis Guerra had promised Mutt.  The best pitcher and the finest man you’ll ever meet.  El Dulce Dominicano in his first season would go on to win the Cy Young Award throwing an incredible 261.2 innings to go with 273 strikeouts, a 1.14 WHIP, 22 wins, and an amazing 8 complete games  He would follow suit with an even more dominating second season, winning another Cy Young this time logging 276 innings, with 279 strikeouts, a minuscule 1.01 WHIP, 27 wins and 7 complete games.  So what do you think he’d do for his third season . . . why another Cy Young of course -- 262 innings, 240 strikeouts, a 1.07 WHIP, 21 wins, and again 8 complete games.  In three short years of the reemergence of professional baseball Vincente Soto had become the most feared and legendary pitcher in the game. 

On the other side of the ball though, the sweet kid from Santiago worked tirelessly with youth organizations, neighborhoods all over Florida, and practically every group that asked.  He was now revered in his home country more than ever and the song, “The Ballad of El Dulce Dominicano” by Juan Luis Guerra became an international hit.  Back on the island his grandfather once again lived for the day when a Dominican fireballer would take the mound.  This time however it was his own Memolito that would fill his heart with pride.

Heading into his fourth season Soto shows no signs of faltering.  After a relaxing offseason back in Santiago Soto is energized and excited to get back to work.  He loves pitching in Tampa, he loves his teammates, and this year he’s going to love the new memolo stand John Mutt had installed out by the bullpens.  How sweet it is.  

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