Honduras holds special place for Heaney

Angels southpaw has made two trips to Central American nation to mentor kids, build learning center

Honduras holds special place for Heaney

ANAHEIM -- November is at the heart of Honduras' rainy season, and Angels starter Andrew Heaney was right in the middle of it, chopping down trees, mixing cement, digging trenches and laying cinder blocks for a future learning center, which would sprout in a region otherwise dominated by drugs, prostitution and poverty.

That was two years ago.

Heaney went with several other players represented by his agency, ICON Sports Management, laying the foundation for a facility that would provide free education for more than 100 children who have nowhere else to turn. While they were gone, the structure was completed. Heaney and the group received pictures, and then they made a decision.

"Man," Heaney thought, "we have to go back."

Now that crime-riddled area of Honduras -- in the outskirts of a city called El Progreso, located about 20 miles from San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in the Central American nation -- holds a special place in Heaney's heart.

Actually, the kids who call it home do.

"The quality of life at some of those places is not good," Heaney said in a phone conversation near his home in Oklahoma City. "It's weird, though, because you get such a positive vibe from the people that work there, and all the kids, that you're in this positive place and it just makes you realize how necessary it is for these children to have a safe place; a place that they can go during the day to have other people to interact with."

Honduras has by far the highest homicide rate in the world and is deemed the sixth poorest/least developed country in Latin America, according to the Human Development Index. At the advice of their agent, Rob Martin, the group partnered with two local nonprofit organizations -- Hearts2Honduras and Pastime Youth Academies -- to help start a learning center in one of its rundown suburbs, with a meeting room and two classrooms.

Ten players have visited the area over the last two years, a group that includes Steven Matz (of the Mets), Drew VerHagen (Tigers), Ty Hensley (Yankees), Collin Wiles (Rangers), Mitchell Hansen (Dodgers), Clinton Hollon (Blue Jays), Brett Marshall (independent ball), Zach Green (Phillies), Weston Davis (Nationals) and Heaney, the 24-year-old left-hander coming off a solid rookie season.

VerHagen reflects on bringing joy to kids in Honduras

This year, the players spent most of their time interacting with the kids, praying with them and teaching them Wiffle ball.

Last year, they did the dirty work.

Children, most of them 7 and 8 years old, wielded machetes. Cement mixers weren't available, so players dragged 100-pound bags of cement, shoveled and mixed buckets of concrete and hauled them 20 yards to the property. Locals climbed trees to chop limbs, while players used two-man axes to bring them down. At one point, Marshall bought a chainsaw. It was, as Heaney said, "revolutionary," but the trees were so wet and soggy that it hardly mattered.

"It was some backbreaking stuff, but it was fun," said Heaney, who completed this year's five-day trip the Sunday before Thanksgiving. "To put that much sweat and effort into it, you can't not go back. And to see it's all the same kids still there and to see them and have them recognize us, I mean, we were really surprised. I'd say like 90 percent of the kids remembered us."

As soon as Wiles stepped off the bus, the group blurted his nickname: "King Kong!" Heaney introduced himself as "Andres," because Andrew is unheard of in those parts, and an 8-year-old boy named Carlos Andres instantly developed an attachment. Heaney's wife, Jordan, made a similar connection with a little girl named Haley.

Wiffle ball was, well, interesting.

"You hand the kid a bat and the first thing they do is they start swinging at the kids, the people, swinging in general, with one hand just wailing it around," said Heaney, who has spent the other parts of his offseason training with teammate Garrett Richards at a local facility. "We did not take metal bats or regular baseballs anywhere near there if we could help it."

The bats were plastic, and so were the balls. The children, speaking only Spanish, would drop those Wiffle balls on the floor and kick them, because soccer is what they play and the only sport they know. But eventually, they learned.

The players -- staying at an inn at the heart of El Progreso, which is a little bit more developed -- taught the children some semblance of baseball, spending most of their days playing at a Honduran Army base until the sun went down.

One night, they all gathered for prayer, and the players informed them that it was time to go.

Their trip was over.

"All the kids started crying," Heaney said, "and then we started crying. All the guys that we went with are 23, 24, whatever age, and we're all bawling. You let your guard down a little bit. Everybody wants to say crying is a weakness, but it hits you, man. It's emotional.

"I told them we'd be back."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez and Facebook , and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.