Softball, Baseball, and Mission in the Dominican Republic

DR Olympic Team Pic

I recently had the privilege to travel with the Wheaton College Softball Team to the Dominican Republic for a week of softball and mission work.  Here are some of the highlights of the trip that made a huge impact on me as a coach and a person.

Day One

After a long day of travel, getting acclimated to our new surroundings was the primary task for the day. SCORE International would be our host for the week. “SCORE International is a short-term mission organization founded in 1984 by Ron Bishop. Originally founded as a sports ministry, SCORE has evolved into a full service mission organization. SCORE provides all-inclusive trips that are managed by our qualified staff and missionaries.”  http://www.scoreintl.org/#all

Following breakfast, we attended a service at a local church. This was our first opportunity to interact with the Dominican people, who are known for their friendliness and hospitality. The opening hymns and prayers were in Spanish, but the message was delivered in English by one of the missionaries from SCORE. The speaker’s message focused on the various levels of faith.  When he was describing the highest level of faith, a softball analogy popped into my mind, probably because I was surrounded by the Wheaton College team. The type of faith he was describing is “Rounding Third Base Faith”.  Any player who has ever approached third base on a hit to the outfield has experienced this type of faith in a small way. The runner cannot see the ball and must rely totally on the judgement of the third base coach. This blind faith can be very difficult for some.  Teams who have a good third base coach (like we do) and a strong belief in God (like ours), know the reward for having “rounding third base faith”.

The team spent the rest of the day at a beautiful Dominican beach to shake off the last remnants of jet lag and to begin working on tans. No softball today, but the team was ready for some friendly competition and mission activities beginning tomorrow.

DR Beach

Day Two

Softball is softball is softball. As the Wheaton College team warmed up for the first game, the Dominican team on the other side of the field was also preparing for the game, just like we were. They were playing catch, taking ground balls, and playing pepper.  Their starting pitcher was also going through a routine almost identical to our pitcher.  We flew through two time zones, but we were about to play a game that was familiar to all of us.  The only difference was the women on other side of the field spoke a different language than our players. However, as soon as the game began, even the language barrier seemed to fade away into the world of softball chatter, signs, and fun rituals after each out.  When a great play was made in the field, words were unnecessary. A wave, a tip of the cap, or a smile conveyed the mutual admiration both teams displayed throughout the game.

To prove softball in the Dominican Republic is like softball at any college in the US, I invited our new friends to measure their batspeeds between games of the doubleheader. If you follow this blog, you know I am obsessed with bat speed as the key to power, consistency, and confidence. I hung my Swing Speed Radar on the fence next to the dugout and the Dominican players began to swing.  The first two players had batspeeds in the mid-60s, which is pretty good for college hitters. Then, a left-handed hitter walked up to the radar and registered a 72 mph swing! After I handed this hitter one of my “70+ Club” pins, the competitive juices of the other women kicked into high gear.  Every time one of their hitters registered a 70+ mph swing, the team celebrated. I handed out a total of six pins, with the highest speed of 76 mph. These bat speeds are similar to the best hitters in college softball in the US. Oh, by the way, the 76 mph hitter also blasted a booming triple in the second game at the Dominican Olympic Complex in Santo Domingo. High batspeed does correlate directly to great power!

The building in the picture below stands just beyond the centerfield fence.  It is home to the Dominican National Softball Team when they are preparing for a tournament.

DR Softball

After the second game, both teams shared “high fives” and smiles. The players also made an attempt to say “good game” in the other team’s language. Even if the words and the pronunciations were a little off, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Finally, as the teams formed a circle in the middle of the field to share some final moments together, Becky Leone of Wheaton College delivered a brief, yet powerful message. She shared some personal events in her young life, and described how these events contributed to the faith that has enabled her to grow as a person, college student, and softball player.  I am convinced that even though Becky’s words were being translated by our guide from SCORE, her message was being received perfectly through her voice inflection and facial expressions. Wheaton College Head Coach, Katie East, ended our day of softball with a prayer. As we headed to our bus through a line of well-wishers, my only thought was softball is softball is softball.

DR Circle

Girls are girls are girls! After a quick lunch, we headed to Pasitos de Jesus, an orphanage for girls. As expected, our softball doubleheader quickly became less important. This orphanage houses approximately fifty girls ranging in age from a few months to nineteen. Each of these girls was abandoned without any identification. Without a birth certificate, the fates of these girls are basically sealed…no chance for adoption, no college, no passport, and a future filled with uncertainty.  Our time spent with the girls included arts and crafts, games, and laughter. The Wheaton College players and the girls at this orphanage were having fun just being girls. Time passed quickly, but the team still had enough time to develop relationships and mental images that will stay with each of them long after we leave the country.

DR Pasitos

Softball Tip of the Day— In pressure situations, remember that in the grand scheme of our lives, the perceived stress of a critical pitch, a key at-bat, or a crucial fielding chance should not debilitate us to the point where we are unable to perform. If we remember the plight of others like the girls at Pasitos de Jesus, playing a game that we love without stress should be easy.

Day Three

Two more games today back at the Dominican National Team Softball Complex. Both games were competitive, with several ESPN-worthy defensive plays made by both sides. It was also clear that after only two days together, the Wheaton College and Dominican young women were forming a bond. Alyssa Leonard shared her story with the group today. Her comments seemed to resonate with the Dominican players, who were attentive and nodded their heads as her words were translated. By the end of our second doubleheader, the players were interacting more on and off the field, which led to fun and spirited conversations before the teams departed.  I believe the postgame discussion focused on chocolate—another love shared by both cultures.

DR Shaking hands

We spent the afternoon at one of the many sugar cane villages near San Pedro de Macoris. It is estimated that since the 1960s, nearly 100 Major League baseball players have come from these small villages, which is an astounding number.  This total doesn’t include the hundreds of Dominican players who have played minor league baseball in the US, but failed to make the Majors. As soon as we pulled into the village, it was evident why this area exports so much sugar and so many ballplayers. I was also immediately ten years-old again.

Our bus stopped by a baseball game that looked just like the games I played when I was a kid. Even though the surroundings were different, the game was the same with bases made out of anything flat, a tennis ball, an old bat, and lots of yelling. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but I knew exactly what was happening.  They were playfully taunting one another and continually making up new rules.  I really had a flashback when one of the batters didn’t like the pitches that were being thrown, so he picked up the ball and whipped it at the pitcher as hard as he could. The pitcher caught the ball easily and just smiled sarcastically at the batter. I was on both ends of that exchange countless times on the fields and streets of my home town.

I was very popular in this village, because I was videotaping the swings of the ballplayers and measuring their bat speeds.  I don’t think anyone had ever measured their batpseeds, so the line formed quickly.

DR Batspeed Line

Nearby, the Wheaton College team was engaged in multiple activities with the children of this tiny village. The atmosphere was frantic and loud. It was great to see how each of the players, Coach East, our trainer Tonya Baker, and my wife Tammy, seamlessly began playing with the children and some of the teenagers. Our visit to this village was too short, but our group made the most of every minute.

DR village play

In the evening, we attended another service at SCORE. The remarks of the speaker for the evening focused on the acronym R.E.S.T. (Relationships, Experiences, Service, and Trust). Each one of these words described the purpose of our trip and how we should strive to live our lives. At the team meeting later that evening, many of the players referenced how powerful and relevant portions of the message were for them. They also commented on the impact the children and the people of this country were having in them.

Softball Tip of the Day—Practice!, practice!, practice! When I videotaped the swings of the baseball players in this village and replayed them in slow motion with my Ubersense Baseball App, I just shook my head. The hitting mechanics of these young ballplayers were solid and powerful. How did the players in this isolated village develop such beautiful swings without a hitting coach?  The answer was simple. By playing baseball every day, all day, they naturally discovered what hitting keys would enable them to hit the ball over the tiny shacks in the distance or into the surrounding sugar cane fields. Here is the sweet swing of my new best baseball friend. He proudly wore a Cubs hat and referred to himself as Sammy Sosa.

“Sammy” had the same swing , smile, and “home run hop” as his hometown hero. He probably made the greatest impact on me during the trip. Would he devote his entire youth fighting the odds to play Major League Baseball? Would he spend his life working in the sugar cane fields? These questions would have to wait.  All that mattered to Sammy today was how far he could hit the ball to impress his new American friend.

Paul and sammy

Day Four

The team visited another sugar cane village in the morning for a softball clinic. The Wheaton College players split up into several small groups to provide hitting, pitching, and fielding instruction. The clinic was primarily intended to help a women’s softball team in this village, but all the children in the village came out to greet the Wheaton players.

The village team began at the hitting station. The Wheaton players employed an effective blend of instruction, encouragement, and fellowship.  The coach for the village team looked on and seemed to be impressed by the quick improvement by his players. As the village team progressed through the various instructional stations, they became more comfortable with the Wheaton players and the playful interaction increased.

DR Clinic

To distract some of the boys in the village away from the clinic for the softball team, I set up my Swing Speed Radar on a rusted box spring that served as the backstop for the field.

DR boxspring

The boys in the village quickly formed a line to see how fast they could swing. Like the young hitters in village we visited yesterday, many of the swings were smooth and powerful. I handed out several “70+ Club” pins and a few “80+ Club” pins. Even though these hitters were using my softball bat, which is several ounces lighter than a typical baseball bat, I was still happy to hand out the pins and watch them proudly display them on their shirts.

DR 80DR 80+-2

After the clinic, everyone cleared the field for a game between the two women’s team. The village team plays in a “modified” fast pitch league against surrounding villages. The main differences from the college game are the speed of the pitches and the lack of protective equipment for the catchers. The Dominican pitcher used a “sling shot” motion that was about half the speed of a typical college pitcher. The Wheaton College pitchers did a nice job throttling back their pitches to abide by village softball rules. However, the Wheaton pitchers warmed up at full speed to the delight of the village team and all the spectators.

The game turned out to be a healthy combination of fun and competitiveness.  The village players made some nice defensive plays and had some solid hits. Even though Wheaton College was the visiting team, the crowd cheered as if it was a home game for us.  And of course, there was some lively banter between the men of the village who were watching the game closely. They debated balls and strikes and challenged the close calls on the bases in a light-hearted way.

After the game, Abby Coster shared her story with the teams and spectators gathered by the pitcher’s mound.  The village team consisted of women ranging in age from the early 20s to probably the early 30s. Abby’s remarks were just right for this audience of women who could relate to her life challenges and the joy she has in her faith.

DR Softball village softball team pic

The games scheduled for the afternoon were cancelled, due to a conflict for the Dominican team we were scheduled to play from San Pedro de Macoris. This provided our team with an opportunity for a full practice at a perfectly manicured softball field at the Rawlings Complex in Boca Chica.  This complex is the home of the San Francisco Giants’ Dominican operations, which includes several baseball fields, swimming pools, basketball courts, and a dormitory for their prospects. Each Major League team now has an instructional facility like this to develop players from the Dominican Republic and other neighboring Latin American countries.

DR Rawlings

After practice, I was invited by Robersy Lara, who is a missionary with SCORE, to stay at the Rawlings Complex to work with several promising local baseball players. I jumped at the opportunity to share my hitting keys with hitters in this country. First, I measured their batspeeds and observed their individual hitting mechanics. Latin American hitters are known to be “free swingers” and this group was no exception.  I promised to teach them the “professional swing”, so I proceeded to step through my hitting keys with the use of many hand gestures, sound effects, and Robersy’s able translation.

Robersy was a talented baseball player and actually signed a contract to play professional baseball when he was a teenager. However, when he refused to change his age and identity to appear younger for baseball scouts, his road to the Major Leagues ended. The hard truth for Dominican baseball players is if they don’t separate themselves as a viable prospect by the age of nineteen, they are considered “over the hill”.

By the end of the two hour clinic, these hitters were using their natural talents and athleticism in a more disciplined approach. They were now loading slowly and powerfully with their hands back. They were now extending their arms at impact and holding this extension as long as possible before finishing the swing high and away from their bodies. We concluded our workout by reviewing a video I had of Miguel Cabrera illustrating all the hitting keys they had just learned. The smiles on their faces were evidence to me that they thought our workout was worthwhile.

DR Thursday Clinic

Softball Tip of the Day— No swing is ever perfect. When hitters are comfortable with the hitting keys I teach and when they enjoy success in games, their work is not done.  Great hitters are always looking for ways to refine their mechanics or their mental approach.  I encourage my hitters to continually work on each of the hitting keys I teach, because there is always room for improvement.  This will keep them on a path to even more power and consistency.

Day Five

This was the last day with the our new Dominican softball friends. The faces were now familiar to us and the players interacted like good friends. It was a treat to play two games on the softball field at the Rawlings Complex. This field was a far cry from the ones the Dominican players were accustomed to practicing and playing games on.

The final games were very competitive, but there was also a spirit between the two teams that was fun to watch.  Through the language of softball, the players were playfully arguing, encouraging, teaching, and congratulating each other after a good hit or a slick defensive play. Toward the end of the doubleheader, both teams were becoming aware of the finality of this last day.  The interactions became more frequent and more personal.

The Dominican players were also getting more comfortable with me.  They would often sarcastically repeat some of the words I would use to encourage and instruct the Wheaton hitters from my first base coaching box.  They also laughed at me when I would become animated after a good hit.  I think the highest form of honor was when one of players patted me on my backside after the last game.  This is definitely a universal gesture of appreciation and respect in sports.

As the teams gathered one last time in the middle of the field, the borders were now erased and there no longer was a “Home” or “Visiting” team. The Dominican players seemed even more attentive and moved today while Katie Thornton and Emily Bonga shared their personal stories. It was a testament to the relationships these young women from different countries and cultures had developed in a short period of time.

DR Rawlings Team Pic

My trip ended perfectly.  After dinner, I was asked to work with a high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes baseball team from Tennessee that was also staying at SCORE.  I set up a hitting net and a batting tee on a dimly lit street on the SCORE grounds.  Even though it was dark, I was still able to analyze several swings of each FCA hitter using my Zepp sensor. I observed some of the same flawed hitting mechanics I often see with high school and college hitters, including hands too close to the body, no meaningful load, poor extension, and erratic finishes. As I had done with the Dominican baseball players the day before, I reviewed each of the hitting keys I believe contribute directly to power and consistency. Even though it was past 10pm by the time we finished, no one seemed to care, because we were talking about hitting in the “Land of Baseball”.

When I was packing up the net and the tee after the clinic, I was thinking about all the great experiences my wife and I had with the Wheaton College Softball Team during our week in the Dominican Republic. We arrived hoping to play some competitive softball and to help the Dominican people. We left changed by what we had seen, what we had done, and the friends we made. Thanks to Head Coach Katie East for inviting us to accompany the team and to SCORE International for a wonderful week and for their critical ministry to the people of the Dominican Republic.

 

 

 

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