15 November 2016

When the Giants Come to Town...



 One of my reasons for travelling to the Dominican Republic was to visit the San Francisco Giants Felipe Alou Academia de Beisbol in Boca Chica. I had no real idea what to expect, or even if I could get past the front gate. Before leaving California, I had tried to contact the Giants’ office in SF and searched for an email address for the academy to see if I could set up something beforehand. That got me nowhere so I knew it would be a storm-the-gates affair.
Every Major League Baseball team has a training facility in the Dominican Republic, most of which are in the area of Boca Chica. From all over Latin America, teenagers, as young as 16 ½ sign with major league teams in the hopes that they will turn out to be the next big superstar. The youngsters live full-time at the academies where they are provided with everything needed to assure their talents are realized: housing, food, training, medical, and English classes.

And of all the academies to try and visit, tops on my list were the hometown favorites. Although I had a ride out to the Giants Academy, it would be up to me to sell myself at the front gate. It turned out that it wasn’t hard at all. Maybe it’s because I look harmless enough, or maybe it’s because I start talking and smiling and don’t give the guard a chance to get a word in edgewise: I’m an American from San Francisco and also a teacher and would like to know if it’s possible to visit the grounds and then possibly talk to someone in your education office about the possibility of working for you. Then again, who really knows what that sounded like in my Espanol?
Luckily for me, the guard got on his walkie-talkie and soon a guy dressed in Giants gear drove over in his golf cart. I then went on to repeat my sales pitch name dropping the Alou brothers and Juan Marichal and how they had been childhood heroes.
One of the fields/Complex in background

That guy turned out to be their equipment manager, Victor Henr√≠quez. I don’t know if it just happened to be him in vicinity when the call went out about the gringa loca at the gate, (my words), but the stars had aligned in my favor. Victor, who has been with the Giants for something like 17 years, was the nicest man you could ever want to meet. He told me to hop in the golf cart and we were off.

I had known that the Giants had opened their new facility this past August, but that was about all I knew.  I was beyond impressed; the place is gorgeous! I’m ready to rent a room there.
Los Hermanos Alou
Victor started the tour by taking me into a main office and introducing me to some man, (whose position I was not quite clear on).I once more dove into my talk about teaching English and asked about any openings. The office guy said I could talk to the education lady a little later on. Meanwhile, I had an academy to see.
While we walked around the facility, I told Victor how I had grown up watching all the greats of Giants baseball. Just in case I had forgotten anything, around every corner there were reminders of my childhood; posters of the Alou’s, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Tito Fuentes. I know their names better than many of the US presidents. The new players also had places on the wall; Buster, and Mad Bum, Cueto, and Casilla, lined the dining hall. (that had orange and black chairs….heck, even some of the socket covers were orange.)
Victor next took me into the massive room where the players can relax at the end of a long day. Two giant TV’s took up one wall, comfortable couches and chairs lined up in front of them. On one side were a few Foosball machines and probably a few other items that didn’t register; I was in the slightest bit of shock over the grandeur and beauty of the place. All of this was in a room where the windows, which took up nearly the entire wall, looked out onto the three ball fields.
View from TV room
Continuing the tour, I was shown two large, open and airy classrooms. I briefly imagined myself teaching English in one of them. Their education program includes English and tech and I think there was something like math and science thrown in. (Maybe I should have taken notes.)  
I’ll stop here to say that whoever the architect was, he got it spot on. The entire complex is spectacular. Tons of windows and natural lighting in every square inch of the facility. Cool concrete and light-toned stone floors, high ceilings with visible pipes – part industrial design but retaining an air and flow of that is not at all the cold atmosphere that is sometimes associated with this style of design.
The players sleep in dorm rooms, but these are nothing like the ones known to many a college student. Large, light, airy, with bunk beds. And those beds are double beds. It’s something I would never have thought of; big ball players needing a slightly larger bed than the smaller of us. Possibly, with all those young ones in the room, it might have felt a little tighter, but not by much. They also had desks and chairs.
Chow Hall
The weight and exercise room, with its high ceilings and state of the art equipment, sits on the ground level just steps from the playing fields.  Attached to that are therapy rooms. Just down the way are the offices with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the playing fields on one side, and into the hallway/reception area on the other. Fish-tankish design that felt comfortable rather than freakish.
The locker room was next. Victor opened the door and invited me in. I hesitated. This, after all, is where the guys change. He assured me that they were all playing so I went in, pulled out my camera, walked to the second row of lockers – and that’s where I saw a guy changing. Luckily for him, he had on shorts, but I high-tailed it out of there.
Victor Henriquez, Equipment Manager
Throughout my tour, Victor told me about his time with the Giants arriving when he was only 19. It was easy to see how he had worked his way up to equipment manager. We went into his office, the equipment room. There, lining the walls, were real live Giants uniforms. I touched them. I have always wondered what the fabric content was. It might be polyester, but it felt darn decent. I am aware that a whole lot of money goes into the research of professional sportswear, but since I had never felt a polyester that I would ever let touch my skin, it was always hard to imagine how anyone could play in the stuff. I guess if you are a professional athlete, they use superior polyesters.
Maybe I stopped jumping up and down and whooping it up towards the end of our tour. Maybe not. The closest I have ever been to anything Giants were a couple of games out at Candlestick. I’ve never even been to AT&T. But I have listened to games on the radio and watched them on TV since I was itty-bitty. To actually walk through and touch part of the hallowed grounds that are team Giants, made my day – if not my entire trip down here.
All the while I kept thinking about my dad. He gave me my love of baseball. I clearly remember him talking about the Latin players and how good they were, and the truly exceptional fact that three brothers had played on the same team, and that team was our Giants.
I also remembered that I was the little girl who desperately wanted to play baseball. Girls had no chance to do so back then. I still have one of the most valued gifts that my dad ever gave me – my own mitt. I found it not too long ago and felt a little sad when I noticed that it had never really seen much action. But then I remembered how my dad knew how much I had wanted one. And when he came home one day and handed it to me, I was over the moon. (I also still have my Willie Mays Louisville Slugger that I got at bat day out at The Stick.)

                                                                 
I would be remiss here if I did not talk about the Yankee’s Academy and how I might just have turned into a little bit of a fan. Before anyone out there considers this sacrilege for a Bay Area girl, listen to the tale.
It seems there are baseball players around every corner here, especially in Boca Chica. It’s hard to know if they are yet affiliated with one of the MLB teams, are at a pre-MLB academy, or just play locally. 
Future Stars
The other day I was in line at the supermarket and two players came up behind me with only a large bottle of water. I told them they could go ahead of me. One thing led to another and I found out that they were both from Venezuela and were at the Yankee’s academy. I told them how I wanted to teach English with one of the teams here.  And then we talked about Venezuelan players like Pablo Sandoval, one of my all time favorite players to watch. I asked if they thought it would be possible to visit their camp and they assured me that I would be welcomed.
This had been two days before I went to see the Giants, but the same tactics worked here. This time, it was a little earlier in the morning, so I waited at the front gate for the receptionist to arrive. She took me around a few places and then handed me off to the English department head, Melissa.
I couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed. Melissa was thrilled that a credentialed, experienced teacher was looking for work, and that I seemed to have arrived at the perfect time. She showed me around the wing of the building with its four classrooms, computer room, and materials library. She showed me the curriculum that had been newly developed and I was quite impressed.
Yankees Central, Boca Chica
Prior to arriving in Boca Chica, I had no idea if any of the teams actually had a proper education program in place, and if they did, had no idea what it might be. I soon found out that most, if not all the teams have something in place and that they are all working to improve their programs. When kids leave school at 16 to hunt the dream of a pro career, all else can easily be cast to the wayside. It has only been more recently that the MLB has realized that these kids need, and deserve, a bit more to fall back on should they not be in that tiny percentage that makes it into the big leagues.

Baseball and proper education; what could be better?