It seems as though too much time has passed to write much more about my trip to the Dominican Republic. Yet, I would be remiss to not highlight two important people who made this trip an experience never to be forgotten. These men truly were MVPs.
Every baseball coach dreams of a trip like this, where a team can bond together and improve their skills for the upcoming season in perfect Caribbean weather. KU coach Ritch Price made the most of this opportunity. His team played against 16-21 year-old Dominican talent with unlimited potential to become future Major League Baseball superstars, and the KU team more than held their own.
However, those games seem meaningless in comparison to the life experiences Price dreamed for his players and every young Dominican touched by the generosity of Price and the KU contingent. How baseball permeates every aspect of Dominican life is unimaginable until you see children appearing in droves just moments after KU arrived at a completely obscure diamond, with dugouts scratched out of a field in a sugar cane village far from the city.
Here a bottle of water is a gift truly cherished. It took KU players time to understand that these gifted children could pitch a water bottle cap and make it curve, bend and dance better than most can throw a baseball. If a water bottle meant that much, then the bags of baseballs, bats, catching gear, old uniforms and gloves KU doled out throughout the week surely seemed like manna from heaven to young and old.
There was the eye-opening experience of seeing a strapping teen-age boy, not more than 14, learn how to throw a curve ball for the first time thanks to help from a KU pitcher, then watch players react in awe to a pitch bending so beautifully into the ragged mit of a friend with a loud pop. Try stepping to the plate as a 16-year-old Dominican player with the Cleveland Indians Academy consistently delivered pitches at 97 mph with such ease that one player, after looking at the lineup card said, “Vasquez. That’s a name I bet we will be hearing about again soon.”
Try to imagine how proud a coach must have felt as he watched his players instantly warm to the needs of children at an orphanage where spontaneous activities carried on until the sun set and players were finally forced back onto the buses. There were moments when pride welled up in the chest of Price to the point it seemed he would burst. That is worth noting no matter how much time passes.
How remiss I would be, as well, if I failed to write about the trip’s other MVP. Without Carlos Ramirez, the trip still would have been a huge success. Without Ramirez, it just would never have been as much fun. Ramirez helped make sense of everything in this foreign land. It all started with a smile.
Ramirez is always smiling. He smiled throughout his years at KU working with the baseball team while pursuing his business degree. Just the sight of that smile brightened any day. Since baseball is a game that lends itself to conversation, Laura and I learned that Ramirez is a native of the Dominican Republic. His family moved to New York City when Ramirez was five, but he always returned to the Dominican to visit other family members.
Ramirez never forgot what it meant to be Dominican. What he taught me was that his smile was genuine Dominican. I saw that same smile on the faces of all the Dominicans I met. As usual, I wanted to explore sites far from the security of the hotel complex. In Ramirez, I had a willing partner. This trip was one of pride for Ramirez. He wanted to make sure I understood all that I was seeing in his native land. Soon others joined in the fun.
Ramirez helped explain the buzzing swarm of ancient 125cc motorcycles that gave travel a dare-devil edge in cities where traffic lanes did not exist and stop lights were nearly extinct. Ramirez summed it up with one simple fact – gasoline cost $6 a gallon.
Ramirez not only spoke the language, he really spoke the language. There never was any hesitation and the slang rolled off his tongue with ease. He was at his finest when three others joined us for a shopping trip. Every purchase had to be negotiated. The rapid give-and-take between Ramirez and the shop owners was mesmerizing as was his patience.
In a shop where the proprietor rolled cigars by hand in the back, an employee offered one of our group 10 cigars rolled in simple paper packaging for $65. The owner appeared from the back and the negotiations really began. By the time Ramirez finished, the price had fallen to $50 for 20 cigars hand-picked from the large humidor. They also were packaged in a beautiful wood box and heat sealed for freshness.
With upset stomachs of varying degrees spreading throughout the team and travel party, dining on street food seemed a menu for disaster. We were not to be deterred. Ramirez gracefully requested fresh pork sausage from a street vendor. Tossed into a giant pan with Batata, a Dominican sweet potato, and Tostones, known to us as plantains, the quick fried food came out tasty and perfectly cooked. Naturally, on Ramirez’ home turf my money was worthless.
Sitting at a small table we squeezed fresh lime over our feast and watched as the city street changed before our eyes from a bustling shopping center to a throbbing street jam on cue as the sun set. A sweet Yaniqueque, a corn meal cake, was the perfect dessert.
Later, we capped the evening with a walk down a dark street where working women offered massages with a “happy ending” for only $30. I did not bother to ask how low Ramirez could negotiate that price because Ramirez reminded me no meant no in both English and Spanish. We both used that word often on our journey.
We headed for what Ramirez promised was the “best hot dog and hamburger in the Dominican” thanks to the unique sauerkraut topping. Whether it was the best or not did not matter. It was sitting along a street filled with locals on a warm December night enjoying life far removed from Kansas that made the food taste great.
During a lull in the action at a ballpark in San Pedro, Ramirez wanted to show me something he knew I would enjoy. Behind a wall, we found a saddle maker crafting beautiful horse saddles. There in a small courtyard, after a few moments with Ramirez, the proud craftsman showed us his selection of rich leather wrapped in blankets. Saddles in various states of construction dotted the yard as the saddle maker meticulously worked padding and stretched leather by hand to fit wood skeletons, all created on site.
For just a little over $300 I could have packaged up a beautiful saddle in one of the rapidly emptying gift bags hauled from Kansas to the Dominican. Unfortunately, my riding is of the two-wheeled kind. There seemed to be no demand for hand-crafted leather bicycle saddles in the Dominican.
On our final full day, our buses bounced down the crater-filled dirt road that led to the Cleveland Indians Academy, one of the gorgeous baseball oasis set amidst what can only be called abject poverty. There on the small front porch of a battered shack we passed, a Christmas tree was proudly displayed.
Between batting practice and the game’s start, I told Ramirez I was going to walk the few miles back to make a Christmas photograph. It was the hottest day of the trip with high humidity, but I was enjoying the exercise far from the Academy until I suddenly heard foot steps racing up from behind.
There was a moment of hesitation and worry about my cameras before I turned and there with that beaming smile was Ramirez, now drenched in sweat. He decided to come along to interpret for me and had been chasing after me.
We continued our walk, chatting about life in the Dominican and the wonders of the trip until we realized we had walked all the way to the highway and right past the house with the tree. Laughing we turned around and began the long walk back where I made my photograph.
The sight of poverty is not pleasant. No matter how many coats of bright paint might adorn a small shack, behind many of the doors the floors were dirt, there was no electricity and clean water came from what rain water could be collected in barrels on the roofs.
Yet, there were always smiles. Smiles of sincere happiness to see us. Smiles of pride letting me know these wonderful people were content with what they had and were willing to work to make the most of their lives.
To prove that, I was often asked to walk with homeowners to look at their pigs. Yes, pigs. Huge pigs. This was a true sign of acceptance. Pigs are highly valued. In this simple life, a pig can be sold, eaten or used to breed other pigs for the same uses. As I stared at my final massive pig, Ramirez helped me understand the now spirited and joke-filled conversations about a neighbor that “was a lazy pig” and that neighbor’s reply that my host was getting “fat as a pig.” Without Ramirez I would have missed all that laughter that made the long walk so worthwhile.
The next day, Ramirez and coach Price were the last two men to board the plane home. Together, they made sure everyone and everything cleared customs and made the flight. That is why Price reminded Ramirez that when KU makes the trip again in four years, per NCAA rules, no matter where Ramirez is living or what Ramirez is doing, Price is paying Ramirez to make the trip again.
That is one MVP thanking another MVP. I have thanked them both and do so again now. As the sign in the dugout said, “God is good.”