Welcome to the Dominican Republic
Location: Caribbean, eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of Haiti.
Size: 18,815 square miles, or slightly more than twice the size of New Hampshire
Population: 9.5 million
People: 73% Mulatto, 16% European descent, 11% African descent
Government: Representative Democracy
Capital: Santo Domingo (population: 2 million)
National anthem famous verse: "Let us show to the world, Our invincible, glorious banner."
Most known in baseball for: Youngsters playing baseball in the streets using broom handles for bats and bottle caps for balls; incredibly passionate fans; some very interesting personalities (see Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, others).
Baseball's Dominican Republic debut: Introduced by the Cubans during the 10-Year War (1868-1878).
First Dominican to play in MLB: Ozzie Virgil (1956 with the New York Giants).
Hall of Famers: Juan Marichal, a nine-time All-Star nicknamed "The Dominican Dandy." Spanish broadcaster Jaime Jarrin is in the broadcast wing of the Hall of Fame.
Some Notable MLB Record-Breakers: Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez have each hit more than 500 home runs
Dominican Julio Franco became the oldest player to homer in MLB history when he went yard off Randy Johnson in 2007. In 23 MLB seasons, Franco had a .298 average and 2,586 hits.
Best baseball town in Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo, with two entrants in the Dominican Winter League and MLB academies scattered outside the capital.
Dominican Republic baseball hotbeds: All of the Dominican Republic is a baseball hot spot, especially in and around the cities and towns of San Pedro de Macoris, San Cristobal, Bani, Nizao, Santiago, Cotui and La Romana.
Dominican Republic's baseball weather: Tropical maritime; little seasonal temperature variation; seasonal variation in rainfall. Translation: Muy bonita! (Very beautiful!)
Biggest sports competitors: None. Baseball is king.
Distinctly Dominican: Nearly every MLB team has its own "academy" to train and house Dominican-born MLB prospects, a tradition that began in the early 1970s.
Biggest international rival: Puerto Rico
Biggest international successes: The Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series a record 17 times, but outside of this event, has had little success. In 1955, the Dominican Republic won its only Pan-American Games title, and in 1982, won the Central American Games. One year later, a team from Barahona was runner-up in the Little League World Series (ages 11-13). A club from La Vega captured the 1993 Senior League World Series crown (14-16-year-olds). Most young Dominicans have one goal: MLB.
Players to watch: Fernando Martinez (Mets); Wilkin Ramirez (Tigers); Neftali Perez (Rangers), among many others.
2006 WBC showing: Lost in the semifinals to Cuba.
Back from the 2006 WBC team: Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, Willy Taveras.
Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano
Now on 2009 WBC team: Rodriguez, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Marmol
Missing in action from the 2009 WBC team:Manny Ramirez
The Dominican Republic has two professional leagues -- the Dominican Summer League and the Dominican Winter League.
Dominican Republic Summer League overview: A rookie-level minor league, affiliated with MLB, the Dominican Summer League is often the first stop for a young Dominican signed to a contract by an MLB team. As a result, most players in the league are under 20 years of age, many as young as 16 or 17. A total of 37 teams play a 72-game schedule at fields with little fanfare. The fields also double as academies for MLB teams. Statistically, according to MLB, for every 100 prospects that are signed and initially perform at an MLB Dominican academy, only four or five will ever make a 40-man MLB roster.
Dominican Republic Winter League overview: The approximate 50-game regular season runs from the end of October until the end of December, followed by an 18-game, round-robin playoff format featuring the top four teams. The top two teams then play a best-of-nine series for the right to represent the country at the Caribbean Series. Usually, all but six players per team are Dominican-born, and some players will only play half a season. Up to 10 refuerzos (reinforcements) are allowed for the postseason, slots usually reserved for some of the country's best players.
Most successful franchise: Licey Tigers have won a record 10 Caribbean Series titles.
Biggest rivalry: Tigers vs. Aguilas (Eagles), the two most successful franchises in the Dominican; each have won 20 league titles. Licey is based in the capital of Santo Domingo, while Aguilas represents the second-largest city, Santiago.
Some MLB notable alums, among others: Carlos Pena (Licey); Sammy Sosa and Julio Franco (Escogido); Miguel Tejada, Melky Cabrera and Wily Mo Pena (Aguilas); Manny Acta, (former manager of Licey and San Pedro de Macoris).
Best ballparks: All of the country's ballparks do not provide bleacher seating beyond the outfield fences with one exception -- Santiago's Estadio Cibao, by far the most colorful ballpark in the Dominican Republic, and one of my all-time favorites in Latin America. And unlike in Puerto Rico, all Dominican ballparks feature natural grass, both in the infield and the outfield.
Ballpark atmosphere: A lot of noise, from merengue on the sound system to voices screaming for success and young boys chasing after a foul ball. Fans bring bells, horns, whistles and other noisemakers. It can be quite lively.
Ballpark food and drink: "La Bandera Dominicana," featuring white rice with beans and meat, with a cerveza, El Presidente.
Uniquely Dominican: There is a sign that greets Licey Tigers players as they enter the locker room from street level at their home ballpark in Santo Domingo, which reads, "Por estas Puertas entran los Mejores Peloteros de este Pais." In English, it means, "Through these doors walk the best players in the country."
Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.