By Matt Johnson
With its beautiful beaches and crystal clear waters, the Dominican Republic may be thought of as a tropical paradise, but it is also one of the poorest countries in the world as I learned how privileged and lucky we are in the United States when I was invited to go play baseball there with the University of Virginia last summer.
The people of the DR were some of the nicest I've ever met. But despite working quite hard, their country is plagued by extreme poverty. On average, the people there earn about $7,000 a year. Some people in our country can make that in a week or two, to a month. Everywhere there are reminders of their economical difficulty. People's businesses were also their homes. If not, they had shack-like buildings they called home. There was no air conditioning, heat, heated water or, in some cases, water at all.
"That's how 90 percent of the world lives and some people don't even realize it,” said camp director Sam Le'beau.
Known as the baseball capital of the world, the DR is responsible for a large percentage of professional players. According to Baseball America, it’s estimated that a tenth of the talent in Major League Baseball comes from the DR. More specifically from an area that isn't tremendously well known called Boca Chica. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to visit that area thanks to UVA and assistant coach Matt Kirby. I had the opportunity to play in four games in August that week due to Tropical Storm Fred hitting Boca Chica hard and postponing play for two days.
To the people of the DR, watching teens play baseball is like us going to a New York Yankees’ game. People all across town would show up to our games on trucks, motorcycles, or any way they can get there to watch us play teams from the DR. Unlike in America, there are no age limits for the teams. In my first at bat, I faced a 20-year-old pitcher throwing 92 miles per hour already signed with a Major League team. Down there, players are able to sign a professional contract at age 16. The first team we played had three or four signed players between the ages of 17 and 22.
Due to the widespread poverty of the less-fortunate DR, playing baseball is seen as a way to come to America for education. Every day, kids wake up at 4:45 a.m. to work out at 5. They will be on the beach training for about two to three hours straight, play a game, then go back to the beach for a "cool-down" workout. From what I saw, they work harder than anyone I have ever seen here in the U.S.
A big part of the trip was trying to help out the people there. A lot of the time, the younger players between the ages of 7 to 16 would come up and ask for fielding mitts, cleats, bats, batting gloves, etc. I gave away a pair of batting gloves and could tell that I made a boy’s day after he gave me a big hug for them. That was something special for me knowing that I helped him out and how much he appreciated it.
The overall purpose of the trip was to play baseball and learn a new way of life and culture. Not only did it teach me baseball skills, but it really taught me to be grateful for what we all have here in the states. The next time the WiFi is down and you can't use your phone, remember that some people may not have a phone at all. They may not even have plumbing. The trip went really far in granting me a better sense of perspective and understanding how well-off most of us are when compared to the rest of the world.