Our final day began with a 7:15 a.m. wakeup call for a shower, last-minute packing and breakfast. We met camp director Sam in the lobby at 8:30 a.m. and shuffled off to his van with our bags. We departed well before our flight because we stopped at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ academy to spend a few minutes with our former Illini player and former Major League Baseball player Larry Sutton.
I was fortunate to be on the coaching staff at Illinois in the early 1990s when Larry was an All-Big Ten and All-America performer. (As I told Larry, during my tenure at Illinois, he was arguably the best hitter that we have coached.) During his career, he played in the big leagues, played winter ball in the Dominican and finished his playing career in Korea. Once out of the game, Larry and his Dominican wife spent time between their homes in Kansas City and Santo Domingo.
In 2007, Larry and his wife had twin girls and decided to bring them up in the Dominican through age 6. Over the past four years he has left his retirement, as he was originally hired by the Royals to be the hitting instructor for the Royals’ Dominican League team. During the past two years, he has been with the Pirates as the director of Dominican players as well as hitting instructor.
We were greeted at the gate by a guard who asked our business. As Sam worked his magic, the gate opened and we proceeded down the long paved road. Appearing in front of us was a beautiful modern facility with dorms, coaches and developmental staff offices, a cafeteria, a weightroom, classrooms and locker rooms.
A staff member took us on a quick tour, and then we headed to the fields. As we approached the field, a familiar face appeared. After introductions to Zak and Larry, we went inside to meet the coaches and then into Larry’s office to catch up on the past 21 years since he left Illinois. After an hour of catching up, Larry walked us to the lot as we boarded the minivan and headed to the airport.
Once at the airport, Zak and I took the opportunity to thank Sam for one of the most interesting and educational experiences of our lives. We gathered our bags, checked them, cleared security and customs and were off to the gate.
The first leg of our flight was uneventful as we landed in Newark a few minutes early. We cleared the U.S. customs area and went to check our bags through to Chicago for the second leg of our trip. We grabbed a quick bite in the airport and went back to the gate. As Zak indicated, it was nice to hear people speaking English again.
Our flight to Chicago was uneventful as well. After landing and gathering our bags at baggage claim, we headed for our car to complete the last leg of our trip with an ETA of 11 p.m. As we pulled into the garage, it was a very nice feeling. A shower of the perfect temperature with water pressure and a house with a comfortable temperature. Best of all, it was great to be HOME with family and friends.
What I learned ...
1. Honking of vehicle horns does not include a one-fingered gesture in the Dominican. Horns are honked for three purposes: 1) I see a pretty lady (constantly). 2) I am passing you. 3) Don’t pull out in front of me because I am not stopping!
2. Motorcycles are used as taxis and to transport multiple items, such as people, propane and livestock (I saw a native holding a goat by the horns as he took it to market).
3. Baseball started in the Dominican when sugar cane workers would take their once-a-week break on Sunday and play baseball for fun and competition.
4. Although there is unimaginable poverty in the Dominican, Dominicans take great pride in hygiene and appearance.
5. The education system is much different than in the United States. An example given was that a child who dropped out of school in fifth grade and started working would many times end up being the boss of someone who went to school for 15 years and then entered that line of work. In many situations, higher education in the Dominican Republic does not always help you advance.
6. Baseball is a societal passion unlike anything I have ever seen. Players play for two reasons: for the love of the game and to make it off the island to earn enough money to make a better life in the U.S. and support their entire family in the Dominican.
7. You don’t need pristine fields or parents to organize games. All you need is kids of all ages and all skill levels with a passion for the game. No players regardless of skill were left out or left off community teams. Dominican baseball is truly a pure game loved by all!
Future opportunity ...
As a side note, our Illinois baseball team has been invited to the Dominican Republic for the week of Thanksgiving 2014. If we can gain approval and raise funds for the trip, we would play the Dominican Summer League teams that are affiliated with Major League Baseball. Games would be played on the academy fields. It is my hope that we will be able to make this trip to help our program and players in multiple areas.
By NCAA rules, teams may take a foreign tour once every four years. We would also be allowed to play the games in the Dominican without being penalized on our 56-game schedule, and we would be allotted 10 extra practice dates prior to the trip that would help with the development of our players.
Lastly, but most important, it is my hope that our players can experience the culture, see firsthand the poverty of an entire republic and to help out the native people of the Dominican with goodwill work while on the island. I am confident that this trip would be a lifelong lesson and memory for all involved and hopefully everyone will better appreciate what we all have in the United States of America!
Thanks to all those who followed this diary. I would highly suggest taking the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic. You will experience all ends of the spectrum, from beauty to poverty, to living life to the fullest regardless of the means. It is truly a wonderfully interesting culture.