From the Dominican Republic to the U.S. – the pursuit of baseball, opportunity, and a better life.
Running Through My Veins
Six a.m. alarm. Wake up, get dressed. Practice at seven. Throw, hit, throw, hit. Practice until one…beat the heat. Throw, hit, sprint. Throw, hit, sprint.
In the summer of 2016, this schedule was engrained into the brain of fifteen-year-old Darren Gonzalez. The high schooler was visiting family in the Dominican Republic and, for the first time in his life, had the opportunity to play baseball on an island historically known for the sport. It was an experience, he said, that was like no other.
Growing up of Dominican descent, baseball was always a part of Gonzalez’s life. As a child, he watched and attended Yankees games with his dad, and idolized players like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, who is also Dominican. Without hesitation, Gonzalez began playing at the age of seven and immediately developed a love for the game.
“Baseball was one of my favorite hobbies that quickly turned into my greatest passion”, he says.
During that family vacation to the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez got his first taste of Dominican baseball. His younger cousin played locally, and invited Gonzalez to train and play with the locals for a couple weeks.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere,” he says. “In the United States you don’t have as many kids who are as disciplined and determined as you do out there. All of the kids in the Dominican Republic are playing because they want to get signed and play professionally as soon as they can.”
The New Jersey native soon realized that the guys to his left and right were playing not because they simply enjoyed it, but out of necessity. According to the Borgen Project, a campaign that fights global poverty, more than 20% of the country lives in extreme poverty and more than one-third of people in the Dominican Republic live on less than $1.25 per day.
“It’s a huge part of Dominican culture; baseball pretty much runs through our veins.”Darren Gonzalez
The lack of resources in the Dominican Republic weighed on Gonzalez heavily. He realized that the players surrounding him did not have nice or even viable gloves, bats, and baseballs. Recognizing his own situation, when he returned to the United States, he left behind some of his gear to the kids he had played with.
“I know I could go out and buy a new pair of cleats or a new glove whenever I needed it. These kids do whatever they can to get to the next level so to give back, even in a small way, before I left made it all worth it”, he says.
Dominican Baseball Infographic
“In the Dominican Republic, baseball is their way to make money, help their family, and get off the island”, says Mario Lugones, the head coach of the Dwight Morrow High School varsity baseball team, a squad that majorly consists of Dominican players. Lugones believes that because of this, Dominicans play with a different type of energy.
“Not everyone has the fire, the passion. Every pitch, every out. I don’t have to remind my kids about energy, they know how important it is. Baseball is just engrained into Dominican culture.”Mario Lugones
In 1956, Osvaldo Virgil Sr debuted for the New York Giants, and became the first Dominican baseball player to make it to the major leagues . Since then, Dominicans have established a major presence in the league. On opening day this year (2019), there were 102 rostered Dominican players throughout the league. That number is about 41% of all 251 foreign-born players, which represent 29% of all major league players. According to Major League Baseball, Dominicans have represented the majority of foreign major league players for more than 20 years.
Currently, every single major league club operates within the Dominican Republic, with an infrastructure of baseball academies and a 32-team Dominican Summer league that features 35 players per roster. Only a few of those players actually make it to the major leagues, but all are able to embrace the hope and promise of progress the academies provide.
With major league players like David Ortiz (Big Papi), Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez representing the island, the Dominican presence and impact on the game is irrefutable.
Gonzalez, who is now a freshman on the Montclair State baseball team, credits much of his success to his experience in the Dominican Republic.
“There is so much talent out there; 15 year old kids throwing 90 mph fastballs like it’s nothing. 14 year olds hitting 400 foot home runs like it’s nothing. It’s amazing to see everyone out there doing their thing,” says Gonzalez. “If I never went out there and experienced it all for myself I don’t think I would be the player or person I am today.”
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