From Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal to such shrine-worthy players as Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero, the Dominican Republic has produced some of the greatest talent in baseball history.
Wednesday, Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb and a group of high school players will begin a weeklong visit to the tiny Caribbean island that for decades has made an impact on Major League Baseball far beyond its modest size and population.
“It’s going to be a good, fun experience for myself and our young people,” Hartleb said Tuesday.
The trip is offered through Dominican Baseball Camp, a company based in Charlottesville, Va., that specializes in high school camps that give U.S. players direct exposure to the Caribbean nation’s baseball environment and culture. The itinerary includes instruction and games against native teams — as well as sightseeing, recreation and cultural opportunities.
Hartleb said he learned of the trips through fellow Big Ten coaches Tracy Smith of Indiana and Jake Boss Jr. of Michigan State, who previously accompanied teams to the Caribbean baseball hotbed.
“They told me it’s a great situation, something well worth my time,” Hartleb said. “I talked to the person in charge (and was) invited to be one of the instructors.”
The Illini coach will make the trek with a group of 14 players, including Luke Beesley of Champaign Central and Dylan Grady of Centennial. A few parents also are scheduled to be in the travel party, as is Hartleb’s son, Zakary.
Hartleb isn’t planning to travel light. A while back, he put out a local appeal for used baseball equipment to donate to players in the Dominican Republic — a nation long plagued by poverty.
The response, Hartleb says, was overwhelming. Donors dropped off enough equipment at Mike Namoff’s This is It Furniture & Bedding store in Champaign to fill 10 large travel bags. The UI coach will take two bags with him containing items most needed in the Dominican Republic — one with gloves, another with baseball cleats and spikes. Hartleb said he’ll arrange to have the remaining eight bags either shipped to the island nation or hand-delivered by coaching peers and others in baseball who plan to travel there in the coming months.
“We always encourage people to bring along equipment,” said Sam LeBeau, who started Dominican Baseball Camp in 2008. “You see games being played (there) where guys run in from left field and leave their glove on the field for the other left fielder. They don’t have cleats. Maybe one bat for the whole team. There’s always a need (for equipment).”
LeBeau said Hartleb and his U.S. players will experience a mix of baseball — six games in five days against Dominican teams — recreation and sightseeing. There will be time for the beach and for tours. During the group’s one day without a baseball game, he said, they’ll take a sailboat to an island off the coast for a cookout.
“But it’s really baseball-centered,” LeBeau said. “The trip is designed for the kids to get an authentic look at where the players come from, practicing with the locals and coaches, and a week of games with the Dominican kids who are hoping to become professional players.
“(It’s a chance to see) how hard they have to work to achieve what they have.”