Travels Through Baseball City
Convincing your new bride to go on a road trip is one thing. Convincing your new bride to go on a road trip, in a foreign country, to see a baseball game, in a rental car, with no map, no GPS, no Spanish lessons, no translator, and no real clue what to expect is another. But, she married a baseball fan so she should have seen this coming. This is the story of a day trip to Baseball City and the Minnesota Twins Dominican Baseball Academy. During my honeymoon.
The first thing that stands out when arriving at the Twins' Dominican Academy is its anti-luxury. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice. And compared to what else we saw while driving through the Dominican, it may as well have been a mansion. But it is a simple two-level building with a small parking lot. “Security” consists of a guard sitting by the main gate, taking care of his young son. He understands what team we are visiting on this day, but that’s about it. There is a paved lot off the dirt road with signs for reserved parking for a few of the academy’s higher-ups.
We meet a man who speaks no English but understands we are visiting the academy administrator. He appears to know what people want before they even realize they want something. The man is short and old, sharp and friendly. We later find out that he is the clubhouse manager. It seems a role he was born to play. He takes us to the office of the administrator. A small room with a desk and a few chairs, Twins memorabilia adorns the walls and most importantly, it has air conditioning. This is greatly appreciated on a tropical 98-degree day.
The administrator is a soft-spoken stout man in his mid 30s. We chat for a few minutes. He has been with the Twins longer than the academy has been open. He has overseen this complex since its opening and seen countless players come through the doors. He takes us on a tour of the facility. The players' living quarters consist of four bunk beds in each small room. Players' baggage sits on their beds while they are out playing, bags overflowing with Twins shirts and shorts. There is a large classroom where the players get English lessons, a dining hall with plastic banquet tables, clubhouses, a training room, a gym. All of this in a building the size of a Motel 6.
A baseball field sits ten yards from this small building. Today, 16, 17, and 18-year-old kids occupy this field. Kids from the Dominican, Panama, and Venezuela. Kids that hope to make it to American soil and move up the ladder to the major leagues. Everyone on the field has raw talent. Strong arms, quick legs, pure athleticism. The refined skills of a professional adult baseball player are harder to see:
A centerfielder tries to throw out a runner at home on a single. He throws an absolute frozen rope to the catcher. This looks like a Big League throw. The catcher drops it.
A third baseman makes a slick play to his left on a hard hit grounder. His throw to first is rushed and short hops his teammate who can’t make the scoop.
Guys are swinging for the fences without a discerning hitting eye.
This is baseball in its rawest form. Guys trying to stand out and move on. It is said that baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team game. Baseball in the Dominican is a talent showcase. Sure, players want to win, but they are using every opportunity they get to show off their rocket arms, their giant bats, their blinding speed. Every booted grounder, every errant throw, every swing and miss, carries with it the stress that a kid may not have “it” and just botched his chance.
The wind is blowing in from center today, killing every well-hit ball. The starting pitchers exchange four scoreless innings. In the bottom of the 5th, the Twins break through with three runs, one scoring on a triple over the centerfielder’s head by their leading hitter Jorge Andrade. The Twins won’t score again and the bullpen will fail to hold the lead. The players will head back to the building, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, and start it all over again tomorrow. By the end of the summer they will play in 70+ games in 90 days. Some will move up, some will be back here next summer and some will go home forever.
These kids are closer to the major leagues than most kids in the States could ever dream, and yet they are still a long way away. Our day complete, we get back in the car, drive toward the gate and wave goodbye to the guard entertaining his son. We still have no map, no GPS, no real clue what to expect. The only difference is now we have to stop for gas…