Illini baseball coach Dan Hartleb checks in from the Dominican Republic.
We had a 6:15 a.m. wakeup call for a 7 a.m. lobby meeting of all coaches, campers and Dominican staff. This morning was a major wakeup call for the American players. Working out HARD before a game? After a five-minute walk to the local beach, the players broke into lines for about 10 minutes of stretching. Then, the fun began. Coconuts were strategically placed on the white sand to form cone-like guides for agility and footwork drills. Twenty minutes later, camp director Sam LeBeau broke down the teams for Day 1 games.
Teams were strategically split to try to compete against the young Latin players who are part of the Kansas City Royals’ academy. This team was scheduled to play games in the morning and afternoon and was coached by Michigan State coach Jake Boss.
I took the other players to play a community team at the field behind our hotel. (Monday, Jake and I will switch teams, and I will coach the split team against the Texas Rangers’ academy team). We grabbed a quick bite to eat and had a few minutes in our room before my split team and I met in the lobby to bus to and tour a complex that is home to six MLB academies.
We headed to the MLB complex on a small, cramped bus at 10:30 a.m. It reminded me of a compound, with a guard at the front gate keeping track of the traffic. Driving past the White Sox complex, we saw a group of young Latin players working out. As we traveled around the short drive, we passed the Diamondbacks, White Sox, Orioles, Twins and Reds complexes. The bus came to a stop between three of the complex fields. We were given a choice to watch any of the three games being played.
My choice was the Reds vs. Orioles. While watching the games and sitting with my sidekick Dominican coaching buddies, Arno and Chi Chi, we discussed the Dominican minor league system.
Latin American players are not part of the MLB draft as we know it in the United States. These players are eligible to sign at age 16. Most players in these academies are ages 16 to 18, with very few reaching 19 to 20 years old before being released or moving to the United States to continue in the minor league system. I was told that 80 percent of the foreign players in the big leagues start in these academies. They are free agents whose services can be bid on by MLB clubs until ultimately signing for an agreed-upon bonus. The maximum time that these players can stay in the Dominican academies is three years, after which they are released or moved to the United States. In these academies, players work out and play and are housed and fed Monday through Saturday. The players spend time at their homes on Saturdays after their games but are expected to return by Sunday evening. A set salary of $900 is paid to the players each month of the season.
At 12:15 p.m., we boarded the bus to our hotel, followed by a short trip and a quick lunch. After lunch, we changed into our uniforms for Game No. 1 and took a short walk to the area field for a meeting time of 1:30 p.m. A quick stretch and throwing session followed by a 25-minute on-field batting practice prepared us for the 2 p.m. game. Needless to say, the 2 p.m. starting time was “island time,” or about 2:20. Amazingly, immediately following our last batting practice hitter taking his last swing, the opposing Dominican pitcher then sprinted to the mound to start the game. Our camp players sprinted off the field and scrambled to the lineup card as the umpire called for the first hitter.
As the game started, there were close to 100 baseball fans sitting and watching the area players. Throughout the game, spectators came to the fence for water, and elementary-aged boys strolled onto the field to sit in our dugout and talk to Arno and Chi Chi. The atmosphere and cultural experience were much more fun than the actual game because the locals took it to the gringos.
After walking back to the hotel, we had some pool time, dinner and an organizational meeting to prepare for tomorrow’s activities. Tomorrow will bring a 7:15 a.m. wakeup call, with an 8:30 a.m. departure for Game 2.