As much as we learned about the state of the country and the sport before the trip, nothing compares with actually experiencing it as we did throughout our journey.
Every time we hopped on the bus, we seemed to pass another baseball field, or a “play” as they call it, with a plethora of young baseball players plying their craft. We visited one such field in Najayo with something like 60-70 boys of varying ages working on drills on different parts of the field. On many plays dotting the small country of the Dominican Republic, young boys arrive early and stay late with the hopes of following their dreams to Major League Baseball.
We also saw an independent training facility at the former home of the St. Louis Cardinals’ DR complex where a buscón led young boys in drills and games along with feeding them, housing them and teaching them English in the hopes of one day getting a 30 percent cut of their signing bonus with an MLB team. Later in the trip we stopped at the Manny Acta Foundation and actually played a few innings with the boys there, all of whom share the same dream.
That dream in the short term is to be signed by a Major League team for a fat signing bonus and a trip to their Dominican academy. We spent four days in Najayo with the Padres’ academy our home base for dinners. We toured the facility, arguably the nicest in the DR, and also played something like a 14-inning game on their field and bonded with their players through ping pong.
The second leg of our trip focused on the community, an aim that often intersected with baseball.
We painted a kids community room in Najayo and played sports with the kids, spent an afternoon playing with the girls of the Los Pasitos de Jesus orphanage in Boca Chica and worked in the front yard in a rural batey community with the worst poverty we saw. Many students gave away their shoes, hats and shirts to these kids in the latter location who have nothing and so badly wanted the baseball cards of players they had never heard of no matter how big of a star he was.
My first takeaway from the community interaction is how similar we are despite the great differences in culture, economics, standards of living and so on and so forth. At the end of the day, we were able to bond through playing sports and having a good time.
At the first community event in Najayo, I played basketball with a 17-year-old kid who spoke a different language and yet we were able to communicate through basketball. If you know how to play the game, that language is universal.
Yet at the end of the day the differences cropped up, as their whole community of kids shared the same five pizzas that our comparatively small group wolfed down. We brought enough water bottles for ourselves to quench any thirst, yet what do they do day after day for water after playing so many hours under the grueling DR sun?
We also all had a great time with the girls in the orphanage, and the group I was with seemed to bond over a makeshift volleyball net we created in their backyard. That afternoon we brought stickers and games for the girls and all had a fabulous time, as they really seemed to embrace our presence.
The next day in the poor community in the batey was much tougher to take. Small kids walked around without pants in the most intense poverty I have ever witnessed. Whereas all trip we had been asking kids we found about their favorite sports and pro athletes (not surprisingly Dominican baseball players Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes were common answers), these kids could not name any. We made it a point to stress continuing education to the other kids we met, yet to these kids the poverty was so extreme that education could not have been a top priority. Whereas our other interactions with kids were “fun,” this was difficult to see.
Overall, we spoke of how to help these communities beyond the “drive-by” kind of thing we did on this trip. It’s great that we were able to spend some meaningful afternoons with these kids and give them an early Christmas, but is that really sustainable?
We also spoke about asking them what they need instead of giving them what we think they need. For example, the girls in the orphanage had a nice television that any of us would enjoy, but is that the most useful gift when the power isn’t even always on to use it?
That brings us to a lesson we learned in Fordlandia, a book we read before coming to the DR, whereby Henry Ford gave the villagers in the Amazon village he created the kinds of things he thought they needed and tried to set up the kind of systems to harvest rubber that he thought would be useful rather than asking the locals for advice on what they actually needed for success. As programs like ours continue to help the people of the DR, one lesson we learned is that we must figure out what they actually need rather than giving them what we think they might enjoy.
Another aspect of the trip for the guys involved staying at a decrepit but lovely place in Najayo for four rough nights. We were all crammed into two rooms full of bunk beds with no air conditioning and no warm water. The tales we will tell of the spiders and cockroaches we found will only get longer by the day. The bright side involved the beautiful pool and the plaza fit for a party every night.
For an American accustomed to modern amenities of life in the US, the “Frat House,” as we called it, was quite a culture shock. Yet when I think of all the huts we passed on the way to that place, even there we had it pretty good. Plus, most people in the DR don’t spend four days living like that to see what it’s like; that is their life.
So although I didn’t always love that Frat House at the time, I’m glad I experienced it. It wouldn’t be an immersion trip without living in a place like that.
My final takeaway involves baseball. It’s almost cliche by now how well-known the story is of a poor baseball player from the DR working his way to the big leagues. Incredibly no country outside of the US produces more MLB players than the tiny DR, with 89 Dominicans on Opening Day rosters this year.
Baseball is a way of life, with the point best exemplified by a dad throwing to his approximately 2-year-old son who couldn’t even really hold a bat. All of these kids want to be a “pelotero,” a baseball player, because it is their best chance at a better life for themselves and their families. There’s a reason guys like Julio Franco live in lavish mansions not far from shacks and an abandoned sugar factory that used to employ many Dominicans in San Pedro de Macoris.
From what we saw, it’s almost a surprise there aren’t more Dominicans in the Majors, but it’s no shock that players will resort to steroids or age falsification to do anything possible to increase their chances of baseball success.
Yet with so many Dominicans dedicating their life to a pro baseball career, from young kids to academy players, that leaves so many more Dominicans who won’t play pro ball for a living. My idea would be to find a way to get their educational level up to the point that they could play college ball in the US on a consistent basis and perhaps be able to acclimate themselves to US culture there while continuing to play baseball.
All in all, this was an incredible trip where our class bonded over late night dominoes games, buffets that we destroyed and being tranquilo. We also experienced firsthand world business problems in a third-world country and began the process of figuring out how to solve them.