D-backs celebrate first graduates of Dominican academy

Five student athletes earn diplomas in rousing ceremony

D-backs celebrate first graduates of Dominican academy

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- In a scene that mirrored those taking place each year at Horizon or Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., some of the area's top young baseball players donned black gowns and tossed their caps into the air on graduation day.

But these young ballplayers wore D-backs uniforms under those gowns, and the ceremony was taking place down the left-field line of Arizona's bustling academy in the Dominican Republic.

It was an emotional scene on Friday when the first five graduates of the D-backs' unique education program earned their high school diplomas in front of friends, family and a contingent of high-ranking team executives.

See photos from the ceremony

"The minute they walked into the ceremony, you could see they were beaming with pride, just as we were," said D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall. "It's so inspirational and impressive and we hope it will motivate the rest of our players to do the same."

One of the graduates, talented infield prospect Fernery Ozuna, spoke on behalf of his teammates as the de facto valedictorian, pointing out the extremely high percentage of young Dominican boys who leave home to play baseball and never return to finish high school.

"This is a very special day," said Ozuna as the crowd of more than 100 rose to their feet and cheered wildly. "I know that we can sometimes annoy our teachers with our discipline, but without them, this wouldn't be possible. It's incredible to follow our dreams off the field and continue to play baseball."

In addition to the handful of graduates earning their high school diploma, more than a dozen others advanced to a higher level of schooling, with some reaching eighth grade equivalency and others heading into their "senior" year.

"This is only the beginning," said D-backs vice president of Latin American operations Junior Noboa as he reminisced about the first time he discussed such a program in 1995. "I'm very proud to be part of the best education program in all of baseball, without a doubt. We're going to see in the next few years that we're going to graduate even more players."

Noboa credited D-backs senior vice president Marian Rhodes and baseball operations executive Hatuey Mendoza with creating the program through CENAPEC and thanked D-backs managing general partner Ken Kendrick and Hall for the foresight in allowing it to happen.

There were two notable absences from the graduation, but with good reason. D-backs senior vice president of baseball operations De Jon Watson was on the island, but unable to attend the ceremony as he was attending a workout of highly sought-after Cuban defector Hector Olivera. Another well-known local D-backs personality, Minor League coach Audo Vicente, was busy guiding his winter ball team in the annual Caribbean Series, which is taking place 250 miles east in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

But nothing could take away from the day's pomp and circumstance. For Hall, the ceremony was the culmination of a promise he made several years ago to Dominican Republic president Danilo Medina. Hall reiterated that commitment to the crowd Friday, while encouraging those players who do not reach the Major Leagues to return to their hometowns and follow their passion, becoming businessmen, bankers, teachers or politicians.

"To the parents of our graduates -- thank you for trusting us with your boys," he said. "We invest in them on the field, but, perhaps even more importantly, off the field. We take pride in looking into your eyes and promising an education. It's a very strong responsibility that we feel to develop them into fine men off the field."

Josh Rawitch is an employee of the D-backs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.