NAJAYO, San Cristobal, Dominican Republic -- It was not quite 11 a.m. and the wind was light. The island sun had not yet begun to peak and the raked infield at the site of the Padres' new baseball academy was immaculate, just perfect for the historic exchange about to take place. From third base to second base, 30 prospects garbed in pinstriped Padres uniforms stretched across the dirt infield with baseballs in-hand. From first base to second base, 30 area elementary school students wearing a completely different type of uniform waited with cupped hands. The actual handoff took less than five seconds, but the Padres are hopeful what the exchange represented will last a lifetime. San Diego's favorite baseball team is determined to do more than just fill its rosters with players from the Dominican Republic. The Padres want to give back to the community where they have set up shop by educating the kids who live in the area.
"When I got into baseball a long time ago, I knew instinctively that we had to be involved in the community in San Diego, and there is no reason why we should not be as involved here in the Dominican Republic," Padres owner John Moores said. "The needs of this community are many. What we want to do is find partners, good solid organizations that have their feet on the ground and know exactly what these children need. I am confident we will get something worked out." Moores has good reason to be confident. The Padres recently partnered with the government of the Dominican Republic, the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve the quality of basic public education in the Dominican Republic, specifically, Basica La Playa Elementary School and the surrounding schools that sit only a few miles away from the club's new multimillion-dollar baseball academy. The partnership encourages the private and public sectors to join forces and invest resources in the Dominican Republic schools. "We are putting the parameters on how it is going to take place and starting the fundraising efforts at this point," Padres associate legal counsel Jeremy Horowitz said. "Instead of just giving money to a foundation, which we consider more of an artificial fix, we are more interested in starting a long-term partnership to evolve the school systems. That's why we enlisted the help of various government agencies. We are interested in changing the way learning takes place." The announcement of the partnership for education was made during the groundbreaking ceremony for the club's international baseball academy in the southern Dominican province of San Cristobal. Still under construction, the academy will eventually house more than 60 players and will feature two regulation-size fields, a half-field, batting cages, a clubhouse, a weight room, a training room and a dining hall. The facility, scheduled to open February 2008, will also feature on-site classrooms. The Padres' initial investment into the academy is more than $5 million. "A lot of baseball clubs are spending money today that we don't understand, and we think that our dollars are better spent building a world-class facility here," Moores said. "We also very much look forward to working with the school systems in this area. We believe that kids all over the world deserve a chance to get ahead, and they have to learn basic things at a primary school." Through a local developmental consultant group known as Entrena, the Padres will identify and invest in community projects such as constructing classrooms, refurbishing older school buildings, and providing supplies. The club will also likely play a role in establishing or modifying current academic curriculums. For their part, USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce will continue to operate under a grant from the U.S. government and a program called "Invest in Education for Competitiveness," which launched in 2006. The goals of the program are to help motivate companies in their efforts to improve the quality of basic education in the Dominican Republic and ensure that the private sector is informed and committed to improving education in the country. "The fact that you have a U.S. baseball team that is willing to come here and not only take out the players, but invest in the community is phenomenal," said Kellee Brown of the American Chamber of Commerce. "We need to see more of that, because these kids need it so badly. They see baseball as a way to get out of poverty and if baseball is willing to make the investment back and help the communities as well as get the kids educated, even the ones who don't get go play ball in the States will benefit. That's wonderful for the entire community." The mission of the Dominican Republic's Ministry of Education is to provide quality education to all Dominican children and the agency recently launched a school-sponsorship program to encourage greater interaction among businesses, schools and communities. Josefina Pimentel, representing the Ministry of Education at the groundbreaking ceremony, described the partnership with the Padres as "without precedent." "The San Diego Padres have a vision and understand that education is the way to help to form values that will help our entire country," Pimentel said. "Never before has an academy committed to a community this way. It shows the Padres not only care about players but also care about the humanity of our island. It is historic, and I am honored to be a part of it." As a symbolic gesture, Moores, USAID mission director Richard Goughnor, Pimentel, and Kevin Manning, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic, each signed the partnership memorandum under a tent full of media and dignitaries in the area near the pitcher's mound. The ceremonial signing received a standing ovation.
A few moments later, the prospects and students came together on the field in the most symbolic act of the morning."We are all the same. There is not that much difference between any of us," Moores said. "I have probably had a few more opportunities than most, but nothing bugs me more than seeing folks not given a fair shake. We want to give these children a fair shake."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.