Baseball Is Their Life

In my book The Mental Road to the Major Leagues: A Guide for Rising Ballplayers, I dedicate a chapter to explaining winter ball, the Latin baseball season during which many major league baseball players (especially foreign born) compete during the off season in order to make extra cash and perfect their skills.  While highlighting each of the four countries involved in winter ball (Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic), I dedicate a large portion of the chapter to discussing the Dominican Republic.

Over the past thirty years, major league baseball has developed a growing interest in recruiting ball players from the Dominican Republic, initially because the small island just southeast of Cuba was an untapped resource of raw talent.  Today, all thirty major league baseball organizations operate training academies in the Dominican Republic; of the nearly 30% of foreign-born major league baseball players on 25-man rosters in 2015, the largest pool of players come from the Dominican Republic (followed by Venezuela, Cuba, and Puerto Rico).  

The bottom line is, there is talent in the Dominican Republic, but it is fostered in a totally different way from American baseball talent.  This is due largely in part to the massive divergence in wealth between the Dominican Republic and America.  (According to the CIA Factbook, in 2010 34.4% of Dominicans lived below the poverty line.)  Ironically, poverty does not disqualify Dominicans from the race to the Show; in many ways, their poverty fuels their passion to play harder so that they can earn the chance to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Recently, I spoke with the head baseball coach at Nicholls State University, Seth Thibodaux, when I learned that he had escorted players on his team to the Dominican Republic during the 2015 winter break.  After having studied the Dominican Republic for my book and spoken with individuals who ran baseball training camps in the country, I was curious to speak with someone who had actually experienced Dominican life firsthand.  Here are a few insights from the conversation we shared.

KL: What initiated your interest in taking the team to the Dominican Republic?

ST: I had been wanting to go for several years, but with the financial situation of the university, I just held off.  There were a couple guys I knew who had offered to help me plan a trip over there.  Finally, this past year (2015), right after finals in December, I was able to take the team.  I felt it was a good team to take because they were young.  We lost a lot of veteran players last season so we’re in a rebuilding year.  Many families contributed to the cost, but we also raised funds so that we could go.  It was a good team building experience.

KL: What did you do when you were in the Dominican Republic?

ST: The day after we arrived, we put on a camp for all the kids in Boca Chica.  This was our first taste of what baseball means to the kids in this country.  Basically, someone rode through town in a car with a loudspeaker, announcing that we were holding the camp.  Probably 200 kids showed up on the field, and even more were sitting in the stands watching.

KL: Did these kids have to miss school to attend?

ST: School is not a big deal down there.  Kids may go to school once a week, or maybe they go one month out of the year.  What you see all the time is kids walking around with their bats and gloves, ready to play ball.  The morning of the camp, I went for a jog on the beach at 6:00 a.m., and already there were kids out on bikes or walking, heading to the village park to play baseball.  They love baseball.  It’s their life.

KL: How did the camp go?

ST: I wish we could have stayed longer, just so our players could experience more of that time and make a difference to the kids.  The kids were great.  They didn’t speak English, but they were so eager to learn that it was easy to work with them.  They were so coachable, so teachable.

KL: What else did you do while you were there?

ST: After the camp that morning, we rode in a bus out to a local training camp, one that was run by a buscone.  We drove 40 miles inland, literally through sugarcane fields, down these two-lane gravel roads.  We’d pass through areas with maybe five or six houses and a little store.  Then all of a sudden you see these training camps.  This is where the major league teams have their training facilities, as well, and of course every kid is hoping to get signed with an organization so he can live and train at the major league facility.

KL: Were the local camps similar to the major league camps?

ST: Not at all.  The camp we went to was a hut; it had a sleeping quarters and land filled with chickens, pigs, a self-sustaining farm.  They made their own meals.  These are young kids—twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds—and the buscone is the only one supervising them.

KL: Why are these young boys willing to live in the buscone’s facilities?  Away from their families?

ST: These handlers are connected to the major league scouts.  While we were there, we saw a kid sign with the Angels.  When he turns sixteen, he’ll live in the Angels’ training camp, learn English, learn baseball.  Then when he turns eighteen he’ll go to the United States.

KL: I’ve heard people’s negative impressions of buscones, saying that they often skim players’ bonuses or will forge birth records in order to make a deal.

ST: The guys I met were awesome.  Obviously, you’re going to have some buscones that are not respected, but for the most part those guys don’t get dealt with.  The shady ones are guys that come from Cuba, not so much the Dominican.  In the Dominican they’re very passionate about trying to help.  There’s no harm there.  

KL: Did your guys have a chance to play while you were there?

ST: Sure, we played two games.  One game we played against the national police team, a group of veteran players who had just finished playing baseball.  They get paid by the government to play, and some get a chance to go to the big leagues.  We also played the Tigres del Licey in Santa Domingo.  This is their country’s oldest team, one of the teams in the winter ball league.  They were on their all star break at the time, so we got to play them in their big stadium.  It was good competition.  They beat us 3 to 1.

KL: It sounds like kids in the Dominican don’t have as many opportunities as American kids because the country is so poor.  Does that affect their ability to succeed in baseball?

ST: If anything, kids down there have more opportunity to succeed.  The whole country wants to see young people succeed at baseball.  You’ll see professional ball players, doesn’t matter whether they’re AA or AAA, out there after a game working with little kids, playing catch, doing ground balls.  They’re all trying to help each other.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell a kid’s age because he’s such a good player.  Honestly, you could walk next to a twelve-year-old and think he’s twenty.  They play and throw and handle themselves so different from our kids.  Their maturation in their ability to play is so much different from American kids.

KL: Do coaches put limitations on how much these kids throw?  Particularly pitchers?  I know in the United States coaches are very careful about protecting a developing arm.

ST: I talked to our tour guide about that.  Kids in the Dominican are constantly moving.  They don’t have a computer to sit in front of, they don’t have a cell phone.  They only sit in school for a couple hours a week.  A lot of them go out into the fields and cut sugar cane.  They are constantly used to moving and doing heavy work.  For our young guys, the flow of pitching or throwing is not a natural movement.  The wear and tear catches up to them a lot quicker.

KL: But the Dominican kids could never play college ball in the United States, not like American kids.

ST: Most of them could play college ball, but they just don’t have the academics to qualify for college.  They don’t have an ACT or an SAT score.  The NCAA won’t allow it.  I had a Dominican boy stay with my family in January through February when we got back.  We flew him over and he practiced with my players until he had to report to spring training.  Like most kids in the Dominican, he just wanted to get off the island.  They would give anything for the opportunity, but college is just not one of the options for them.

KL: What is it like for these kids living over there?

ST: They just want to make their families’ lives better, and baseball is the only chance they have of doing that.  There’s no air conditioner, there’s no fresh water.  In one of the villages we visited, we distributed water bottles.  This one little kid took the bottle, but then looked at his mother.  She said to him, ‘Son, you better drink that because you may never see fresh water again.’  He drank that thing down like he’d never drank anything in week.  It just breaks your heart.  When we went and painted these houses, we’re talking about thatched roof houses.  You just can’t make this stuff up.  If they don’t have doors, they just put together a couple boards.  They have dirt floors, kids don’t have shoes, there’s glass everywhere.

KL: And what did you think of Dominican culture as a whole?

ST: Their people are very friendly, very willing to help and very humble.  It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and I hope we get to go back.

For more information about baseball in the Dominican Republic, check out Kelly's book The Mental Road to the Major Leagues: A Guide for Rising Ballplayers (available through Amazon).
Photo courtesy of Michael Hanson.  For more of Michael Hanson's photography, check out his article "The Republic of Baseball" at

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Rereading The Lord of the Rings

I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in middle school.  First, I had read the Hobbit, a book I checked out from the Mill Road Library, the cover depicting Bilbo and the dwarves safe in the eagle’s nest.  As I read of Bilbo’s adventures, I spent minutes, probably hours, looking at that picture, fixing the image of Gandalf and his companions in my memory.  I enjoyed the Hobbit, but when it led me to The Lord of the Rings, I quickly discerned that it was entertaining preamble, that the trilogy was actually the real story.

    I went ahead and bought the 50th anniversary edition of the trilogy at the grocery store, and immediately set myself to the task of discovering the larger story of Gandalf and Bilbo’s ring, even Gollum’s origin.  I found it fascinating that these characters had even more history lurking behind the mere sketches I found in the Hobbit.  Just like real people, they belonged to a much larger plan that I started to discern in glimpses.  Changing the nature of these characters wasn’t as simple as an editor demanding a new name or a computer delete button wiping away their memory; they existed because the author’s imagination existed, and Tolkien existed becauseGod’s imagination existed.  That was the framework Tolkien used while fashioning his world: he was a sub-creator, not someone who invented a totally new world, but an artist imitating a version of the world that already existed.  Reading The Lord of the Rings ironically helped me understand the nature of the world I live in; because it is fantasy, it particularly helped me understand, or at least become more aware of, the invisible forces at work all around us.  It is a battle between good and evil, a theme often too simplistic to satisfy a modern sensibility.  Yet, the good versus evil theme is immensely satisfying, which perhaps explains its appeal to children and young adults.  There is a clear winner and loser, a distinct good guy and bad guy.  We’d all like to see our world this way, where our best sports heroes don’t compromise their honor with cheating, where those we grow up trusting remain trustworthy.  It is a world of absolutes, one that is often shattered once childhood is breached by the realities of fallen humanity.  We don’t mind evil people—so long as they are the ones we are fighting against, not the ones we have to love and forgive and accept.

    Recently, I’ve been rereading The Lord of the Rings in preparation for a fantasy literature class I will be teaching, and I’ve found it fascinating how different the books feel to me nearly twenty years later.  Of course now I’ve seen the Peter Jackson movies, too, so I constantly take note of how the movie stayed or strayed from the original story.  Overall, I have wondered how I ever found the soundness of mind to read these books as an adolescent.  Tolkien’s writing is thorough, filled with stroke upon stroke of description, punctuated with lengthy histories of a character’s origin or, even worse, an explanation of his entire race.  These books were written in a pre-computer era, and I read them for the first time prior to my exposure to the internet and cell phones.  So as an adult reading these stories now, I became aware of the extent of my impatience.  This is why it is toilsome for us to read Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Jane Austen today: they were not in any hurry, not the way we are today with text messaging and the internet at our finger tips.  But even more, I was reminded why we should train ourselves to read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen today: those books force us to operate in a different mode, a mode that does not demand instant gratification, one that accumulates understanding and pleasure through a gradual and persistent unveiling of an idea.  A much deeper satisfaction is found in the achievement of such a book.  It is a good lesson in slowing down.

    Aside from the experience of reading Tolkien’s books, I was also deeply impacted again by the nature of his world.  Like most fantasy, The Lord of the Rings imitates a medieval culture and therefore entertains the reader with the experience of existing in a pre-industrial society.  That means there are no light switches, no televisions, and it gets cold at night.  People really had to depend on one another much more so than we do to today.  In fact, privacy was a commodity that few enjoyed.  Often we see Frodo or Aragorn or Gandalf escaping somewhere alone into the forest in order to have some thinking time.  And their primary form of entertainment, much like today, was storytelling.  Their form of storytelling differed sharply from the delivery we are captivated by today, however.  Today, our stories come in the form of action-packed, computer-animated movies, video games, or television shows.  In Frodo’s day, they told stories while gathered around the campfire, and sometimes they sang their stories.  These stories were often historical, sharing with the group details about different races (elves or men, for instance), searching slowly for the origin of the presence of evil in their lives today.  This was authentic communication, the kind that needed to happen face-to-face, the kind that could not be replicated through a recording.  In Tolkien’s world, events happened only once, and if you did not experience them the first time, you could only hope to hear about them, at best, from someone who had been present.

    Finally, what I appreciated as a child, and still appreciate as an adult, is that throughout Tolkien’s quest, he has given us a strong guide in the character of Gandalf.  Granted, all members of the Fellowship pitch in their “special” qualities to achieve their common goal (hobbits typically provided lightheartedness, Legolas his bow and nimble feet, Aragorn his tracking skills), but Gandalf is their overseer, whether nearby or from afar.  There is something immensely relieving to the mind knowing that someone exists who is an expert and can accomplish what we even in our best efforts would fail at.  Gandalf doesn’t change the rules of good and evil (his infrequent magical interventions often protect or promote the party but never entirely accomplish their work), but he subdues evil and navigates its plots with wisdom and self-control.  He is a reminder that we are not alone in this difficult journey, that help is at hand if we simply seek it, and that it is possible to be victorious.

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Reflections on Brooklyn

The other night, my family and I watched the film Brooklyn, based on the 2010 novel of the same title by Colm Toibin.  To everyone’s great surprise, I was the only one who spent the entire two hours weeping.  (My husband, who is stirred to tears by every Hallmark movie he watches, was especially impressed with my display of emotion.)  I, on the other hand, understood perfectly well the reason for such an overflow of emotion: the movie told the story of my life, more or less, so I could relate.

    I’ve never been particularly drawn to turn-of-the-century immigrant stories, especially ones that villainize New York City; I find the subject well-worn, cliched, and simplified into the scripts of children’s movies (consider An American Tale, for instance).  So I didn’t really have high expectations for the Saturday night family movie we had selected to appease a husband, his wife, and her mother.

    The story begins with Ellis leaving her mother and sister in economically famished Ireland in order to find gainful employment in Brooklyn, New York.  She is under the wardship of an Irish priest who aids her in getting settled at a women’s boarding house and starting a position as a sales clerk at a local department store.  So far so good.

    What initially clinched my emotions was when Ellis receives her first letter from home; she retires to her room in order to read it and promptly bursts into tears.

    I know that feeling—of being in a foreign place, touching for the first time something that reminds you of home, cherishing it because suddenly it has become translated into an artifact from a lost world.  Not too long ago, home had been a mundane, lifeless place, void of any real opportunity.  But once your home has been suddenly taken from you, and in such a dramatic way, you begin groping for it, like a child in a frantic search for his blanket.

    That is the initial, raw emotion of separation.

    It is what the college student feels for the first time while sleeping in her dorm room, so many miles away from her family.  It is a good separation, for a worthy purpose, but a painful one.

    The soldier who has to return to the battlefield, the bride to her husband, the child to his school: there are many examples of these unhappy but necessary separations in life.

    Well, Ellis eventually grows less homesick, simply because she has to find a way to cope with her new surroundings.  The real turning point comes, however, when she meets Tony, the Italian immigrant who shows up at the Irish Catholic dance because he likes Irish girls.  The fact that he is slightly shorter than Ellis is endearing; their opposing accents, although charming, foreshadow the unlikeliness of their relationship.  I was certain the sweetness of Tony would end quickly; he was too good to be true, too interested in who Ellis really was: a little plain, very intelligent, committed to her family.  Who falls for girls like that?

    Tony did.

    And that was when my tears first started, because I know that feeling.  When somebody loves you for who you are even though the entire rest of the world passes you by for all the same reasons.  It is a miracle that such love can develop without the appeal of family connections or mutual friends or reputation.  Or in spite of those things.

    That type of falling in love is largely directed by chemistry—the spectacular reaction caused by the mingling of two well-suited personalities—but it is also strongly circumstantial.  Those people under those particular conditions are the perfect fit.  It is not a simple love, like the high school sweethearts or the office coworkers.  It is a love that really seems impossible, even totally irrational.  An Italian and an Irish girl?  Maybe—but only in Brooklyn, where something new is being created.  It just might take the impossible match in order to prompt a paradigm shift.

    Even though I was happy for Ellis and her newfound love, I was sad, too.  Irrationally sad.  I perceived the foreshadowing of significant change—Tony brought her home to meet his family, he talked about their kids being Dodgers’ fans.  If she were to continue down the path with Tony—maybe marriage, eventually children—she would then have to close the door on other possibilities for her life, particularly a return to her former life in Ireland.  And she loved that life, just like she now loved Tony.  Somehow she could love two things that could not be reconciled; she created her own dilemma.

    What Ellis was already sensing, though, was that the home of her childhood was no longer the same place at all.  She had changed while living in Brooklyn, and because she had changed, her home could not mean the same thing it had meant to her before her move.

    That is the problem with nostalgia, if anyone besides me has ever grappled with it: we long for a way of life that no longer exists; we need to move forward.

    So she wants to be with Tony, but now she hears word that her sister has suddenly died; because of this sudden tragedy, Ellis decides to return home for a visit in order to console her mother.  Tony presses her to marry him before she leaves, and at first Ellis resists.  The two of them never talk about their feelings, but there are obvious reasons Tony is insistent and Ellis is ambivalent: a journey across the ocean and a return home is just enough time for Ellis to justify forgetting that Brooklyn (and Tony) ever happened.  In Ellis’s case, marrying Tony before the trip meant she would need to finally make the decision to stay in America, a difficult commitment to make at a time when she was feeling the obligation of her home and her family weighing on her.

    For me, this conflict evoked genuine pain because my sister died when I was twenty (she was twenty-three), leaving me with my mom.  (My father, like Ellis’s, had already died, leaving my mother a widow.)  Now Ellis feels like she is all that her mother has left.  I can relate to this, too.  It is a wonderful yet difficult burden: to be so special to someone for such a particular reason, yet designed long ago to be something else entirely.  It is a tragic love I feel again and again with my own mother: the desire to fill the immense crater that used to be occupied by my father and sister, yet knowing I could never fill it. 

    Ellis does not tell her mother or her friends that she married Tony, possibly because she fears they will interpret her marriage as rejection of Ireland and her past.  Maybe she doesn’t have the words to explain the difficult questions: Why him?  Why there?  Why now?

    Regardless, because Ellis keeps Tony a secret, all sorts of people are pushing her towards Jimmy, an eligible young Irish man from Ellis’s home town, someone who just inherited his parents’ house and was now on the look out for a bride.  To make matters even more confusing, the original reason Ellis left Ireland (lack of employment) has now been resolved: she is taken on as a part-time book keeper to fill the position her sister Rose now left empty.  

    How could it be that her old life was suddenly becoming so much more inviting when she had clearly chosen a new path when she married Tony?

    I started crying some more when I saw how Ellis could easily suppress her memories of Tony because nobody in her immediate environment knew he existed.  In fact, without him in front of her, it was possible for her to question whether he existed.  It made me think of the days I had been dating my husband—he all the way in Louisiana, me all the way in Wisconsin, connected only by a telephone and some emails.  We had grown so close—closer than I had ever grown with any other person—yet somehow the entire relationship could easily be erased by either one of us.  My friends and family were taking my word that Phil existed, but they had no solid way of confirming it.  In my moments of self-doubt, it was possible for me to question whether Phil truly existed, or to wonder whether my mind had merely conjured him.

    The idea is sickening.  Can someone literally be erased from existence if we choose to erase his memory?

    Of course not.  Tony and Ellis still existed, and were Ellis to ultimately conceal this truth (forsake her husband and remain in Ireland), she would be forsaking truth altogether.

    Ellis’s dilemma was more than just a choice between Ireland and America, though.  It was a choice between a life with her mother and a life without her mother.  If she stayed in Ireland, married Jim, and worked as a book keeper at her sister’s old company, she’d be filling the role that had been left empty after her sister’s death.  She would be performing a duty to her mother, and she would never need to feel guilty that she had left her mother to fend for herself.

    Although that sounds like a win-win (freedom from guilt, a stable life), another more toxic emotion would have eventually emerged: resentment.  Ellis would have been living the life her mother wanted instead of the life Ellis was designed to live.  Living a life that pleases somebody else will not produce growth, not for either person.

    Still, I have to ask the question: Why do our talents and our dreams sometimes have to separate us from the people and places we love?

    Why couldn’t Ellis have met Jim in Ireland first, and have been happy to have lived close to her mother?  Why did Ellis’s true path have to separate her so profoundly, so painfully, from her roots?

    Today, I ask the same questions of my own life.  Why did the man I love have to take me away from my family?  Yet I chose to go away—it wasn’t his fault.  I’ve created my own dilemma.

    In the movie’s final scene, Ellis appears on a street in Brooklyn where she sees Tony for the first time since leaving for home.  The look on his face erases any uncertainty—he is witnessing a miracle, the girl he loved returned in the flesh.  There is nothing more satisfying in life than the evidence of our faith made real.  And that is the answer to all those questions—Why him?  Why there?  Why now?  Because it is a miracle, when it’s all said and done, and nobody can turn away from a miracle.  It is the sort of opportunity that would compel us to trade away almost anything in order to seize it.

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A Small Space


    Recently, my husband and I were looking at our baby pictures.  Although we each found those “special” features in each other’s photos, we were generally the same as most other newborns: a little bit ugly.  I looked ready to box the photographer with one eye opened and purple fists clenched close to my face.  My husband’s head was a little dented and he was curled up tight like a ball, as if the weave of hands, feet, legs, and arms could protect the rest of him from the strange, strange world he had just entered.

    He wasn’t the first newborn with a propensity to curl up.  In fact, the very posture of babies fresh out of the womb mimicks the world from which they come—a small space, a safe and comfortable place.  Eventually they learn to unfurl, but not without at least a solid attempt at staying cramped up in their invisible cocoon.  What they do not realize, of course, is that they will never return to the place they had left.  Not only would it be impossible, but it would also be unreasonable.  They had been born.

    Unlike newborn babies, as we grow older we start to resist small spaces because they are too tight.  We’ve outgrown them.  In fact, when we feel too confined by our circumstances in life, we tend to panic a little bit and usually fight with all our energy to escape the trap, no matter what the cost.  This could be a situation that we have brought upon ourselves—like we can’t pay our bills because we spent too much on Christmas presents.  Or else it could be a situation that fell upon us—somebody we love has been diagnosed with cancer, or we have to bail out our son because he was caught driving drunk.  Regardless of how we get there, the biggest challenge is learning how live there, especially if we have no reasonable alternative to escape.

    Novelist George Eliot captured the feelings of living in a small space in her novel Daniel Deronda.  In her book, Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful spoiled child, is faced with the reality of having to become a governess when her family falls on hard times.  She had always seen herself as better than that: a singer on a stage or a dignified member of society at the very least.  She had been dealt a situation that was beyond her control and was being forced into a life she had not chosen. Had there been anything she could have done to escape, Gwendolen would have done it.

    In fact, she was presented with a way of escape: a marriage proposal from Henleigh Grancourt, a high-class gentleman who was to inherit all of his uncle’s estate.  Unfortunately, Gwendolen knew she shouldn’t marry him because he had promised to marry another woman with whom he had four children.  Still, she wanted an escape from her small space, so she married him anyway.  What she failed to see at the time was that she was marrying a cruel man, and she had only transferred herself from one small space to another.

    The problem we often face is we are unwilling to embrace a situation that seems beneath us.  After all, we have established a precedent for how we should live, and we want to avoid falling beneath that line.  I went through this inner struggle when I moved from Wisconsin to Louisiana and went from teaching Advanced Placement English to remedial English at the community college.  I felt doomed for digression, fated to teach parts of speech rather than quoting Shakespeare and speaking wittingly in puns.  I had to repent of my shortsightedness in the end, however, because I can see now that the Lord placed me in that community college—that small space—for a reason.  My eyes were opened to intelligent but disadvantaged students who already had families and were filled with a passion to do something better with their lives.  What I failed to realize was that I had not walked into a place of confinement that might smother me; instead, I was forced to grow up in a different way.

    It is possible to live within the confines of a small space, but we must be willing to change, or at least to entertain the idea that we can be changed by what we are experiencing.

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