North Coast March 7, 2020 | 7:02 am

Diamonds from dust, The Pitch story

Hugh Baver and kids of The Pitch batting cage in Sosua

Renn Loren

From conversations with Hugh Baver

 

Diamonds may be “a girl’s best friend,” but in the Dominican Republic, they are a kid’s best friend as well: baseball diamonds that is. Although a third of the nation’s population lives in poverty, the youngsters here are rich with a dream to play professional baseball someday. 

Deeply rooted in the culture, the sport is one of the island’s most popular pastimes. Despite their hardships, the youth manage to find a playing field. Undaunted, the players dig 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.

The Pitch Maquina de Batear Program Director Hugh Baver is working hard to change that, one aspiring slugger at a time. Through “The Pitch Maquina de Batear” program, which includes the Dominican North Coast’s only public batting cage, he seeks to help kids hone their hitting skills. 

The batting cage facility, tiered under the Massachusetts USA non-profit organization sosua75.org 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.

Bodega Castillo accepts a box of official MLB minor league baseballs, which Baver recently was given by the director of the Red Sox Dominican Academy and Training Facility on the south coast of the island. Even without proper gear, these underprivileged youth thrive in the sport.

 

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, 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. Baver is working on creative ways the kids can earn extra swings by picking up litter around town and on the ball field’s rugged terrain.

Video of Javier Hernandez from the Red Sox Academy presenting baseball donated from the Red Sox

Supportive gesture from Javier Hernandez at the Red Sox Academy

Video of Punga Almanzar and Javier Hernandez, Red Sox Academy Director of Operations 

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 deep grooves. 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 strong testament to the kids getting extra batting practice at the cage,” he said. Before the season, the team also received some donated equipment. “Once our kids played on a good field with the right gear, they were even more amazing,” he added.

Team photo of 2019 Dominican Little League Champions many of whom practice at the Sosua field and use “The Pitch” facility

 

Recent equipment donation coming from the US

 

For now, Baver’s attention centers around finding funds and additional used equipment to keep the program from “dying on the vine.” Only a tiny select few local sponsors (4) have offered support, a meager $20 per month, 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 batting cage, so the 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. Hugh is also hoping for additional support from the local Sosua municipal government, and mayor whichever candidate wins the re-vote taking place next week

Baver is quick to commend Russ Wieser, who founded the program in 2017. The die-hard baseball fan from Idaho fell in love with the island during a visit. While there, Wieser was struck by 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 to keep them “in the cage” and away from other tempting negative influences. His vision was to give them a safe place to meet, develop their baseball skills, and be mentored to become outstanding productive citizens, not just good ballplayers.

Full of new purpose, Wieser arranged the shipment of a batting cage 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. Wieser 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 Field of Dreams – “If we build it, they will come.”

And they did.

Current curator Hugh Baver and Russ Wieser founder of The Pitch

 

So did the batting cage, which is the only public batting cage facility on the north coast. “Bodega,” which in Spanish translates to a small grocery shop, especially in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, has been coaching the kids since the day it arrived: and he’s been doing so on this same plot of land for the past ten years.

Meanwhile, Wieser met Baver, who had recently relocated to the community from the Boston area and shared his passion for baseball. When Weiser moved to Europe last year, he left The Pitch daily operational duties to Bodega Castillo. This past month, Wieser sold the program and its assets to Baver, whose capable hands now guide its future direction. With his extensive background in baseball and the current state of the facility he had inherited, Baver knew he would need to do his absolute best to keep the program alive. However with no funds for operating expenses, “it was like a sinking ship,” Baver said.

Baver credits Bodega Castillo for keeping the program afloat, especially with the upkeep of the batting cage. “The cage netting dries out easily in the intense tropical 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 a handful of local businesses. However, with tourism being the region’s largest employer, Baver is hoping to get more support from local companies and ex-pats. He’s 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,” said Baver. What impresses Baver the most is the program’s diversity. “While learning to play ball, the kids are taught character qualities and life skills. Education, particularly teaching English, 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 pillars: focusing on baseball skills, development, emphasis on 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 become involved in negative activities,” Baver said.

Local boy at the batting cage

 

Baver noted that 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, few 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. The ability to speak English would also give the kids a competitive edge, especially in a tourist community. “Those aspirants who don’t end up playing professionally could embrace 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.” Foremost, he’d like to supply the kids with the necessary 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 or two of glue.

He tells the story of the late Tony Fernandez, who had passed away a couple of short weeks ago. 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 hugely privileged in having been asked to deliver the final oration prayer at Fernandez’s 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 of 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, Fernandez and wife Clara cheerfully donned “The Pitch” ball caps in a show of support for the program.

Tony Fernandez and wife Clara with The Pitch baseball cap

 

And he recalls the day he met Oscar Taveras’ orphaned son. Oscar Taveras, known as “the Phenom,” was from Sosua and was 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, less than 10 minutes from the Sosua field. “The boy is the son of a famous ballplayer and didn’t even have a glove of his own. So we wholeheartedly donated one to him,” Baver said.

 

 

One of his goals is to inspire Little League league teams and Leagues 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.

A big part of this program is Baver’s vision to create partnerships through appealing to his relationships with the largest Dominican communities in the northeastern US, urging communities such as Lawrence, Massachusetts, Providence Rhode Island, and Washington Heights in New York City to build longstanding financially and cultural supportive relationships as he did back in 2015 when he directed the future hall of famers amateur baseball classic. 

That tournament 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, the birthplace of Martinez. 

2015 photo of Dominican Team from Manoguayabo in front of the Statehouse in Providence, Rhode Island.

 

Looking out into the future, eventually, he’d like to create a mobile batting cage and expand the program out to visiting remote villages on the north coast and south into the countryside.

Baver is humbled to be allowed to make a difference in the lives of young players. As a young player, he shared their dreams. Although the ballplayer spent most of his little league years on the bench, through hard work and perseverance, Baver went on to play on the professional level for a brief stint with the A’s. He talked about the sheer awesomeness of watching the wide-eyed players step up to the plate to face the batting machine. “While they are at the field, these kids are a captive audience, and they provide “magic moments” as there’s no other place they’d rather be and where life is heaven.” No question. These are magic moments for Baver too.

To make a tax-deductible contribution to the program, please go to Global Giving with the project name “The Pitch”…… take a look at The Pitch Maquina de Batear Facebook site or contact him directly at edb1260@gmail.com