Baseball runs on passion, hope in Dominican

D-backs help D.R. youth pursue education while developing on field at academy

Baseball runs on passion, hope in Dominican

Baseball is a universal language. Like any language, there are different dialects, and the Dominican Republic's is one marked with passion and hope.

"Baseball is like an exit," D-backs vice president of international operations Junior Noboa said. "It's the goal for the young kids as they see a better future for themselves and their families. That's why they have a lot of passion in baseball."

The players begin to develop their own flavor for the game at a young age, not in structured Little Leagues like their counterparts in the United States but rather in streets by their homes or at grassy lots masquerading as fields.

D-backs catcher and San Isidro native Welington Castillo started out using a water bottle and a piece of wood in place of a bat and ball. When he finally was able to play in actual games, it wasn't like he signed up at a local club.

"Here, you just go and play," Castillo said. "We don't have really good fields. It's like a thousand people at one field and everyone wants to practice at the same time. We don't have a lot of stuff to get better."

But, Castillo added, the hope of getting noticed and signed by a Major League team pushes them to work at their craft, even if that means forgoing schooling. For many, that's a troubling trend among Dominicans, because even if the players eventually land a contract, the odds of making it to the United States, let alone to the big leagues, are stacked against them.

Noboa estimates that out of the 70 or so players currently at the D-backs Academy located in Boca Chica, about 10 will make their way stateside each year. When factoring in the approximately 30 new signings the team adds each summer, obviously many of these young men will end up doing something other than baseball and often while still just a teenager. The D-backs are trying to help in that regard.

Following a promise D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall made after a visit to the Dominican Republic, the team makes a unique guarantee to each of its signees that they will be able to get their high school diploma even if they are released. The team also provides laptops for every player so they are able to continue studying when not at the academy.

The D-backs' efforts to help grow these players doesn't end with the education program. D-backs coordinator of Latin American operations and former professional ballplayer Chuy Mendoza is a product of the Dominican baseball system and understands what the current generation is going through.

"They come over here and they are able to eat better, they are able to educate themselves, able to sleep better," Mendoza said. "When they are here, they are in a better place."

While the D-backs do as much as they can to prepare players for life both in and after baseball, there remains significant challenges for those talented few who get called up to the U.S., specifically the language barrier.

"English was the hardest part for me. It's hard for every Dominican," D-backs pitcher Rubby De La Rosa said. "For a few days, I would only eat bread with butter, water, because I was afraid to go outside to eat."

Noboa recognizes that challenge and the general cultural adjustment, having gone through it himself as an eight-year MLB vet.

"That's why we're trying to, while they're here, bring more people from our [U.S.] staff down here so they can familiarize themselves," Noboa said. "When these Latin kids go and play their first year in the United States, they're going to have already met their managers or coaches, which helps them a lot."

For many of those who do make it, like De La Rosa and Castillo, they're often interested in giving back to the community and country that raised them.

Baseball, hometown close to Castillo's heart

"It's always a pleasure for me to go there and talk to the kids in the academy," Castillo said. "It's been an experience where I have learned, and I don't want them to make the same mistakes that I made and I go through the same stuff that I did."

De La Rosa adds: "I'm the guy always trying to be supporting my family, my people. I've been put in a good position to help all of my family, and it makes me happy that I'm able to do that."

The loyalty that comes from Dominican baseball, the force that compels the players to come back and help, all comes back to the passion and hope. It's evident in the players, whose flair and style often differentiate them on the field. It's present in the fans, who Noboa says provide the Dominican Winter League with atmospheres that rival any U.S. counterpart. And it shines through on the streets and grassy lots where kids rush to after school with the dream of being the next Dominican star to make it to The Show.

Kyle Payne is a social media coordinator for the D-backs and contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.