Dominican postgame dances uniting fans

January 7th, 2021

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. strutted up the stairs into the Escogido clubhouse after a 4-0 victory against Licey last month in full uniform, his head cocked back like a king as a broad smile flashed across his face. He wore a black Mexican sombrero, a black mask and a white towel over his shoulders that doubled as a poncho.

His teammates were already there, most in multi-colored straw beach comber hats, on a bended knee waiting for his arrival. The opening, chilling bells sounds of Jim Johnston’s “Rest in Peace,” better known as the entrance song for WWE wrestler “The Undertaker,” echoed throughout the locker room.

From the outside, the scene playing out in the clubhouse after that win was curious -- and perhaps a bit eerie.

Guerrero rose to his feet and picked up his hands like he was raising the dead. His teammates stood slowly like zombies coming to life and then the scene reached a hilarious height. A chorus of “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” rang out and “Rest in Peace” gave way to the maddening -- yet undeniably catchy -- beeping sounds of “El Sonidito,” the 2009 hit by Hechizeros Band, a group from Mexico.

“El Sonidito” means “a little noise” in Spanish, and the song -- which is Escogido’s go-to track -- is appropriately named. Think of the noise an 18-wheeler makes when it’s backing up. Now, speed up that noise a few clicks and add music and lyrics to it. Try not to move your head, shoulders, eyebrows, or any part of your body to the beat. It’s impossible.

A full thread of Escogido dances can be seen here:

The whole thing was ridiculous and perfect. And it’s exactly what everybody in the clubhouse wanted and what every baseball fan in the Dominican Republic has needed over the past 10 months, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed and upended lives around the globe.

The Leones del Escogido and the other five teams (Tigres del Licey, Estrellas Orientales, Toros del Este, Águilas Cibaeñas and Gigantes del Cibao) in the Dominican Republic’s Winter League -- also known as LIDOM -- have brought a much-needed sense of fun and rhythm since beginning play in mid-November.

Escogido’s routine to “El Sonidito” -- similar to a Saturday Night Live skit -- is one of dozens that have gone viral by the six teams over the past two months. And while exuberant postgame celebrations have been a staple of the Dominican Republic’s winter league for years (even for regular-season games), they have reached a new height this year, as players have sought a way to connect with fans who can’t come to the stadium. The dances represent a daily celebration of life -- a demonstration that the real win is off the baseball field: it’s surviving one more day during a lethal pandemic while mustering the energy to make it through the next day.

“This is a league that depends on the fans, but there are no fans in the stands, and everything here is just so strange because of the coronavirus,” Escogido catcher Wilkin Castillo, the creative force behind the Leones’ postgame parties, said in Spanish from the Dominican Republic. “We dance for team harmony and we dance for the fans. We know they are stuck at home watching and we want them to laugh and have fun during this tough time. They love it and we love doing it.”

With Guerrero and teammates jumping up and down in the Escogido clubhouse to “El Sonidito” as part of their “Undertaker” routine, the shenanigans reached a crescendo when Castillo, garbed in a regal and outrageous outfit straight out of the mascot’s closet, came up the stairs behind Guerrero and started grooving to the music. Castillo first heard “El Sonidito” when he played in Mexico in 2013 and it has become the unofficial theme song of his winter ball team, because every skit ends with the Leones gyrating to it.

Castillo, who is in his 15th year of winter ball, is the perfect ringleader because he takes nothing for granted. He played 18 games for the Reds in 2008 and four games for Cincinnati the next year. Castillo didn’t play in the Major Leagues again until '19, when he suited up for two games with the Marlins.

“Every team has different dances and there is a dance off each night,” Castillo, 36, said. “For example, Vlad had a good game, so he gets to lead the dance. [Licey’s] Emilio Bonifácio started it all a few years ago with a trumpet and now we all have a dance rivalry. In this league, the fans take it very personal and now they are even arguing about who has the best dances.”

The Dominican Winter League season usually starts in October with 50 regular-season games and 18 playoff games. In 2020, the regular season started a month later because of the pandemic, and it was limited to 30 games with an abbreviated playoff tournament. Daily rosters were expanded from 28 players to 32 and the weekly roster was increased from 38 to 50 players. Some teams operated in a bubble, while other teams allowed their players to go home. The league tested for COVID-19 every other day and followed similar protocols used by MLB during the regular season.

“It’s been a really difficult challenge, but all of the credit goes to the government and health department for the testing and the follow-ups with players, front office and staff,” said Mariners third-base coach Manny Acta, who serves as the general manager for the Estrellas. “We are fighting against an invisible enemy and every day you don’t know who is going to be available on the roster. Every team went through it, some more than others.”

Licey and the Gigantes were impacted the most by COVID-19 outbreaks and were out of action for weeks as a result. At one point, Licey had 17 players with positive tests, including seven starters. Three of the team’s four catchers tested positive and it had to borrow catchers from other teams to complete the season. Licey finished last in the standings and did not qualify for the postseason tournament.

“At one point, I thought I was going to have to suit up and one of my coaches did, too,” said Licey general manager Junior Noboa, vice president of Latin Operations for the D-backs. “But we hung in there and never gave up. It was just an unbelievable season. We didn’t quit, but we couldn’t bounce back. Even after all that, we just missed the playoffs by one game.”

Fans were not allowed in the stands in winter ball, but every game was broadcast on television, radio and through a subscription online service. Fans also followed games on social media. In a country with strict curfews imposed to slow the spread of the virus on the island, a favorite pastime has been occupying time and baseball has been the perfect outlet.

“We're going through the same thing that the whole world is going through, and winter ball has not only been a type of psychological therapy, but it's also been entertaining, and it's keeping people on the payroll and making ends meet,” Acta said. “It also helps with the curfew, because by playing baseball and having them on TV, it makes it a lot easier for people to stay at home and social distance to help stop the disease from spreading.”

The stadiums are empty, but the fans are still famously rowdy, expressing their joys and frustrations with the teams online. The teams' social media platforms have exploded with activity since the season started. Typing in all caps, memes and emojis have been the preferred methods of communication.

“Fans are relentless, but they are a big reason we are successful,” Escogido general manager José Gómez said. “They are still following along and if you don’t play well, they want you out. If you lose as a manager, they want you fired. It’s still crazy, but that’s welcomed during this unusual time. That’s probably the only thing that is normal right now. They probably want me fired for losing.”

Gómez’s Escogido club lost its final four games of the regular season and was swept in two games by the Estrellas in the play-in round to end the season. Given the circumstances, Gómez is happy his team was able to win 14 times and then celebrate each win with “El Sonidito.”

The winner of this week’s Gigantes-Estrellas and Aguilas-Toros series will meet in the finals to determine the 2020-21 champion. What started off as a longshot is only a few games from completion.

“A championship would mean a lot, but it would be weird because a championship here is really a show to see,” Acta said. “We have all these big celebrations in the stadium, outside of the stadium, in towns with big caravans and out on the streets. That’s something that we won't be able to see. But whoever wins it is really going to enjoy it, because it's been very stressful for everybody here and it will be a big accomplishment.”