“It’s a great day to be a Jayhawk!”
That cry from KU baseball coach Ritch Price serves as an alarm clock. A directive intended for his players, the enthusiasm that goes into the delivery is sure to crank things up for anyone within the sound of Price’s booming voice. Of course, when that cry rings out under deep blue skies with comfortable morning temperatures climbing up to a high of 85 degrees on a mid-December day, getting excited about playing baseball is not all that hard.
Certainly, that is why the team traveled to the Dominican Republic the day after the completion of first semester final exams. Eight December games scheduled over six days. Much more than just a baseball trip, however, the design of the journey to the Caribbean was to expose the players to life – and life lessons – far removed from any they knew.
When the Delta jet touched down in Santo Domingo and KU players passed through customs, they walked out of the airport and into the most baseball crazed country in the world. Everywhere the team traveled during their stay, baseball in some form permeated Dominican life.
Currently over 125 Major League baseball players have ties to the Dominican Republic. Outside of American players, that number makes up the largest single group from another country by a healthy number. From the feared high-legged kicking pitcher Juan Marichal in 1960 through the dominant Pedro Martinez and now to Albert Pujols, Rafael Soriano, Robinson Cano and many more, Dominican players dominate baseball’s landscape.
All 30 Major League teams have established academies in the country and have devoted money and energy signing the best talent in a country where talent is seemingly limitless. Each academy is an oasis of groomed diamonds, well-kept dorm room living, nourishing food, weight rooms and the ever-watchful eyes of coaches hoping to develop the next great star from their pool of Dominicans ranging in age from 16-21.
The idea to bring his KU team to the Dominican Republic came to Price while he coached a high school all-star team in the country last summer. He was able to arrange games at the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians academies against their Dominican teams and added two games with local teams in San Pedro and Boca Chica.
The key to the trip, though, hinged on planned visits to the smaller ballparks to play and host a clinic for over 400 enthusiastic young players. Even more important to the educational process, which was so important to Price, was a visit to an orphanage and to deliver 1,000 health kits to those in need in the poverty-stricken sugar cane villages far removed from any city.
Here is where the KU players excelled. The passports most of the players carried were crisp and new as the team passed through customs for their first trip outside the United States. The only constant in their lives during the week was the step across the chalked lines onto a baseball diamond. Yet, when they looked into the faces of the Dominican people they saw smile upon smile. In turn, smiles filled their faces. They quickly gave their hearts to everyone they met.
One pitch seemed to change everything. On the second day of the trip, a young Dominican boy anxiously watched the KU players file into the dugout at the very urban stadium in San Pedro. Players sat just as anxiously in the ragged dugout uncertain of what to do next. Finally, a player picked up two gloves and motioned to the boy to come play catch. The ball was softly lobbed to the boy, but quickly returned with enough force to pop the leather in the KU player’s glove.
Stunned by the sound, the players in the dugout began to roar with delight and a cry rang out, “Guys, these aren’t Lawrence kids.” The boy, no more than 10 years old, could throw. That one pitch broke down any barriers language and culture could build. Baseball was the only language needed from that point on. Even more stunning, the boy twisted the glove onto his other hand and began to throw just as hard left-handed.
There are so many more wonderful stories I hope to share in brief at some point, but for now, I hope my photographs do the storytelling for you. The week was long, yet so fulfilling. With Christmas looming, everyone eventually was happy to be heading home. However, there was one final moment worth remembering.
Dressed in KU gear, the players sat awaiting their final flight home from Atlanta. Boarding the plane, two coeds chatted with the players with obvious delight. Finally, walking down the aisle to their seats, one said to the other with just the right mix of fawning adoration, “You know they have been doing charity work on the trip.” The other girl gushed, “That is so hot!”
Yes, it was very “hot” to be part of many a “great day to be a Jayhawk” in the Dominican Republic.