Diamonds in the Dust
Sosua’s Youth Pursue Dreams through “The Pitch” Program
By Carol Martino
Diamonds are a kid's best friend in the Dominican Republic. Baseball diamonds, that is. A third of the nation's population lives in poverty, but these youngsters are rich with a dream to play professional baseball someday.
The sport is the island's greatest pastime and is deeply-rooted in the culture. Despite their hardships, the youth manage to find a playing field. Some are seen digging their bare feet or flip flops into a sparse patch of grass or sandy beach, using no more than a broomstick bat to swing at bottle caps or remnants of a baseball.
Program Director Hugh Baver is working to change that, one aspiring slugger at a time, through The Pitch program, which includes a batting cage to help kids hone their hitting skills. The batting cage facility, tiered under the Massachusetts USA non-profit organization Sosua75, is based in Sosua, a small beach town on the island's north coast. Baver, a former professional-level baseball player from the Boston area, recently relocated to Sosua, bringing a wealth of baseball knowledge, relationships, and experience with him. Local little league coach Melvin Castillo, fondly known as “Bodega”, serves as the program's operation manager. "He's the heart and soul of the program," Baver expressed.
Tourism is the country's lifeline and highest revenue producer, offering a pristine oceanfront and luxurious resorts. But that line doesn't reach the countryside where families are mired in poverty, often living along dirt roads in tin-roof shanties with little food and no electricity or running water.
The community's young ballplayers see The Pitch as a potential golden ticket to a better life for themselves and their families. They show up at the batting cage daily, taking relentless swings at the ball. Their smiles shine brighter than a trophy when they hear the crack of a bat. Each ballplayer gets a free session of 30 swings daily. They can earn extra swings by picking up litter around the ball field.
Even without proper gear, these underprivileged youth thrive in the sport. They play all year, in all kinds of weather, fielding ground balls with bare hands. "In many cases the ball field is in terrible condition with an unleveled infield dotted by bumps and holes. It's like playing in a pinball machine with balls bouncing all over the place. But the kids are so adaptive and appreciative of what little they have," according to Baver.
He believes these disadvantages, along with the positive effects of the batting cage, were a huge advantage when the local team, Liga Juan Rosario, won the 2019 Dominican Republic Little League Championship. "This is a good testament to the kids getting extra batting practice at the cage," he said. Prior to the season, the team also received some donated equipment. "Once our kids played on a good field with the right gear, they were amazing," he added.
For now, Baver's attention centers around finding funds and additional used equipment to keep the program from "dying on the vine." Only a few local sponsors have offered support, which is not nearly enough to sustain even the base operational costs of keeping the facility alive. Baver hopes more will come forward to help maintain the field and provide a small salary for Bodega Castillo who spends long hours coaching the kids. "Despite the huge community and individual player benefits, the batting cage facility is in a state of disrepair. We'd like to build a roof over the cage so home plate doesn't get flooded when it rains. Local contractors have offered to donate their time, but we still need money for the materials," he said.
Baver is quick to commend Russ Wieser, who founded the program in 2017. The die-hard baseball fan from New Hampshire fell in love with the island during a visit. While there, Wieser was taken with the zeal exhibited by young boys playing baseball on imaginary patches of grass. He knew they weren't just running after a ball - they were chasing their dreams. The Pitch program was born out of his desire to make a difference in the lives of at-risk and impoverished kids. His vision was to give them a safe place to meet and develop their baseball skills.
Full of new purpose, Wieser arranged for a batting cage to be sent from the states. When it was held up in customs, he pushed past the disappointment and began to clear a piece of land at the edge of the local ball field. He removed piles of rubbish, broken bottles, and syringes hidden in the thickets of bramble. He sent a message that this space is not a place to bury dreams; someone cares. Wieser likened his vision to Sosua's own Field of Dreams - "If we build it, they will come."
And they did.
So did the batting cage, which is the only one on the north coast. Castillo has been coaching the kids since the day it arrived and has been doing so on this same plot of land for the past 10 years where Wieser had been staying in Sosua for 18 months. Meanwhile, he met Baver, who had recently relocated to the community and shared his passion for baseball. When Weiser moved to Europe last year, he left The Pitch in Castillo's hands. Later, he brought in Baver, then recently passed the program and its direction into his capable hands. With Baver’s extensive background in baseball, Wieser knew he would do his best to keep the program alive. "But with no funds for operating expenses, it was like a sinking ship," Baver said. He credits Castillo for keeping the program afloat, especially with the upkeep of the batting cage. "The cage netting dries out easily in the sun, making it brittle. It's in pretty bad shape. Bodega spends far too much of his valuable time mending the netting. It's like a whack-a-mole patchwork of repair. Once one rip is mended, another one develops. If we had the resources to get a new net, he could spend more time coaching the kids," Baver said.
The program is currently sponsored by less than one handful of local businesses. "One of our lead sponsors, Rich Schott, has a marketing background and recognizes the value of the program and its desperate need for funding. He has embraced our vision and offered to help," he said.
Schott, who lives in Odenton, MD, has had ties to Sosua for 15 years. He enjoys the relaxed, fun-in-the-sun atmosphere, but it's the people who keep bringing him back. A few years ago, he opened the Flip-Flop O'Clock bars and restaurants on the beach front, along with Sosua Sport Fishing. "I've watched many of the young ballplayers grow up because their parents work on the beach," he said. "We're hoping to get more support from local businesses and expats. And since tourism is our largest employer, we're also working on ways to tap into vacationers. Some may want to try their batting skills at the cage for a small fee; others could tuck a used baseball or mitt in their suitcases to donate to the program," he said. What impresses Schott the most is the program's diversity. "While learning to play ball, the kids are taught character qualities and life skills. Education is also stressed so they have more options for a successful life." he said.
The Pitch has a three-fold approach
Baver explained the program's "three-fold" approach: focusing on baseball skills development, emphasizing education, and sustaining fundraising while expanding sponsorships.
Skills - "We want to help kids develop the skill sets needed to play pro ball while inspiring them to fulfill their dreams. The cage provides them with batting repetitions they need; more swings equals polished hitters. For now, the program is about the batting cage, but pitching is also a big part of the game. Eventually, we'd like to purchase a radar gun so we can evaluate pitching prospects. And any time kids spend in coaching sessions is less time for them to be involved in negative activities," Baver said.
The program also works to develop a strong foundation of social and life skills that they'll need in all realms of life, such as self control, perseverance, leadership, sportsmanship, and confidence.
Education - The Dominican Republic provides a wealth of talent to professional baseball. Many boys on the island grow up with dreams of becoming the next Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, or Sammy Sosa. "It's great to dream about playing professional baseball, but in reality, not all of our kids will make the cut," Baver expressed. He motivates the kids to think about Plan B - staying in school. "So many of the kids are tempted to drop out of school and focus only on baseball. So education is a huge component of the program. It's the best way for the kids to break the cycle of generational poverty and realize their full potential," he stressed.
Baver plans to invest in an English teacher, which he believes would further empower the kids - on and off the diamond. Schott agreed that the ability to speak English would also give the kids a competitive edge, especially in a tourist community. "Those who don't end up playing professionally could cherry-pick higher paying jobs on the island, substantially improving their standard of living," he said.
Charitable Giving - Baver is optimistic about the program's future and works daily to find ways to carry it on. "Sadly, The Pitch is funding dependent. That doesn't mean we need tons of money. A little bit goes a long way here," he said. Foremost, he'd like to supply the kids with the basic gear for the sport. The young players are thrilled to get recycled baseballs, sweat-stained hats, or mitts with broken webbing. And joy radiates from their eyes when they get an old pair of shoes that may need a squeeze of glue.
He tells the story of the late Tony Fernandez, who passed away in February. Fernandez grew up on the marginalized island, learning to field ground balls by using a cut-out milk carton over his hand in San Pedro De Macoris, a small city outside of the Dominican capital Santo Domingo. The celebrated Toronto Blue Jay shortstop went on to win four Gold Glove awards. Baver feels extremely privileged to have been asked to deliver the final oration prayer at his funeral at his hometown stadium in San Pedro. Having only personally met Tony and his wife Clara for a dinner gathering at his home in mid-December 2018, it was the first and last time he would sit with him before his untimely death at the age of 57. At that dinner, Tony and Clara willingly donned "The Pitch" ball cap in a show of support for the program.
And he recalls the day he met Oscar Tavera's orphaned son Oscar. Taveras, "The Phenom" as he was called, was from Sosua and a promising outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. His son was just a baby when his father died in a car accident on the island - not 10 minutes away from the Sosua field. "The boy is the son of a famous ballplayer and didn't even have the resources for his own glove. So we wholeheartedly donated one to him," Baver said.
One of his goals is to inspire little league teams in the states to step up to the plate on foreign soil by donating their used equipment . Teams, or their communities, could also become sponsors. "Here in Sosua small acts of caring go a long way to help our kids pursue their dreams. We're hoping the more fortunate youth in the states will hear about our program and be motivated to help kids they've never met," Baver said. He plans to hang banners on ballpark fencing to highlight the names of program sponsors. Eventually, he'd like to get a mobile batting cage and expand the program to remote villages on the north coast.
A big part of the program is Baver's vision to create partnerships by appealing to his relationships with the largest Dominican communities in the Northeastern US - Lawrence, Massachusetts, Providence, Rhode Island, and Washington Heights, New York City. He wants to build longstanding financial and cultural supportive relationships as he did in 2015 when he directed the future Hall of Famers Amateur Baseball Classic. That tournament was conceived in honor of Dominican great Pedro Martinez's induction into Cooperstown. The MLB Baseball Hall of Fame brought together teams from those same three cities while sponsoring a team to travel to the US from Manoguayabo, Pedro's birthplace.
Baver is humbled to be given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young players. As a lad, he shared their dreams. Although he spent most of his little league years on the bench, he went on to play on the professional level for a brief stint with a farm team of the Oakland Athletics. He talked about the sheer awesomeness of watching the wide-eyed players step up to the batting machine. "They have a captive audience. It's a magical moment for them. On the field, life is heaven. There's no other place they'd rather be," he said.