Guerra, Dominican Republic
Houston Astros Dominican Summer League Baseball Academy
Pitch Black Weight Room, Crackling voice of a 16 year old boy:
“Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno….”
As soon as the player finished his countdown, the lights came back on and the humming of the air conditioning could once again be heard. It was the second power outage of the day. Thankfully, the academy is fully equipped with a generator. The players are so used to this happening that they have the timing down just right. Five seconds.
When I leave the field every day, I get in a van with dark tinted windows and am driven to my condo. On the way out of the complex, a guard slides back the rod iron gate as Deybi and I wave to him. The guard dons an intimidating firearm. We saunter over the impossibly jarring dirt road that leads to the main road. As soon as we make that right turn it becomes painfully obvious that I am not in Kansas anymore. (Or Nebraska in my case.)
The side of the road is lined with small scantily clad shacks where people make their living and sometimes where they also live. Some are selling fruit and vegetables that they picked from the land while others are peddling small household items and home-made goods. There are side streets leading into neighborhoods such that I had only seen in documentaries and movies previous to traveling here for work. The neighborhoods in this area are comprised of small houses that have bars over the window openings and doors for safety. They don’t have glass in the openings to allow for airflow through the house. They may have electricity 3-4 hours a day and running water is a premium. Forget hot water. Forget internet. Forget the feeling of security. Forget the opportunity for good education or jobs. Forget even knowing what that really is or how to get it.
About 3 minutes after we leave the complex, there is a coconut stand on the side of the road. I often ask the driver to stop so I can purchase a fresh coconut from Rosemary. She is always there. The coconut cost RD $30.00 ($0.60 USD). I tip her another $1.00 USD on top of it. She needs it more than I do. She always has some of her family there with her. I look at her daughters that stand at her feet. What does their future look like? Will they go to a private school like I did? Have an opportunity to get a college degree? Or two like I have? Will they have an opportunity to have a career? Or will they end up with no education, on the streets selling their bodies to make money (which is legal and rampant in this country).
I get back in the van and we continue driving. The drive only gets more destitute. There is a highway from Guerra to Boca Chica where I stay in an air conditioned 2-bedroom condo with another coach. Just off of the highway to the East is a barrio (the slums). The ‘houses,’ which are provided by the government are even more barren than the ones in Guerra. They are truly shacks. Made of miscellaneous pieces of metal, stucco and brick. No plumbing. No electricity. On the highway, I often see young boys walking. They seem to be ages 10-15. They are walking back from the bus station, which is several miles away. Some of them went to a full day of school, but most of them went only half the day which is also customary here. They are walking home to the barrio. I can almost guarantee you that their parents don’t check their homework like mine did. They don’t have bedtimes, organized extracurricular activities or family outings. They don’t have light to read by or money to buy the books in the first place. Forget internet or television to allow them to be connected to the world. No Wikipedia at their fingertips.
After getting off of the highway, we get on to the main interstate connecting Boca Chica and Santo Domingo. There are few stoplights along the way. At the stoplights at which we stop, we will most likely be solicited by a pre-teen boy to purchase fruit, or let him wash our windshield. I wonder, would my parents have ever asked me to go out into the streets to sell fruit to make money for our family? My parent made me get a job at a movie theatre at the age of 15 and that was to help pay for the gas and insurance on the car that they bought me. (rough life)
What’s even more troublesome is that many times these kids are out working during normal school hours. Most of them only go to school half day. Education is not emphasized in the same way that it is in the United States. At the end of their education, there are two options for an overwhelming majority of the young men in this country. Work, or play baseball. The ‘lucky’ ones get a high school degree. Some aren’t that fortunate. At times, their parents may even discourage them from attending or finishing high school if the opportunity to play professional baseball is present. Some of the families don’t even view education as an option. Rather, they view their child’s baseball talent as their ‘only option’ to have financial stability. And unfortunately, sometimes the kids believe this as well. Even if they get signed by a team and get an opportunity to live out this dream, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
You might be thinking… “Ah, poor 16-year-old that gets a 2 million dollar signing bonus. Sure, I feel really bad for him.” (Insert eye roll emoji here) -Allow me to open your eyes to some hard truths that almost no one (not even the ‘best baseball fan’ in the world) understands. We sign many players at the age of 16. When a young Latin American player signs on the dotted line, they go to our academy which serves as a sort of dormitory where they eat, sleep and play baseball. There are usually anywhere from 70-100 players at these academies. Out of those 100 players, about 10% of them get a bonus of anything over $10,000. After they receive this bonus, they give approximately 30-50% to their abogado (agent). With what’s left over, it’s commonplace for them to help their families with food and other needs. It’s fairly rare that these players are keeping all of their bonus and putting it in a savings account. And don’t forget the startling statistic that only 1-3 of these players will actually make it to the Major Leagues. It’s a daunting feat considering that when they are sign with us, they have TEN levels to go through. (Yup. I said ten.)
Is your mind blown yet? Do you consider yourself a 'baseball fan'? You’ve been living a lie. I imagine that you didn’t know half of what I described in the preceding paragraphs. But, it’s okay. If you don’t know, now you know. It’s a hell of a tough journey. If you haven’t gathered this yet, baseball skill is the least of their worries. There are probably about 10 pitchers under the age of 19 in our academy that throw in the mid-nineties with some good movement. Last I checked, there are a solid handful of Major League pitchers that can’t even do that. Their skill on the field is actually pretty impressive. It’s the lack of information retention, emotional maturity, critical thinking and consistency that will be the death of these players’ careers way before their skills fail them.
Enter, Rachel Balkovec. When these kids grow up in a third world country, in some of the places like what I have just described, they don’t even know their true potential. I have been traveling to the Dominican Republic since 2010 and a feeling inside of me has been exponentially increasing with every trip that I make. My job as a strength and conditioning coach is to get athletes stronger. But is that really my job here? If you told me that the only thing that I do for these young men is increase their muscle mass for the sake of athletic performance, I would literally quit my job today. My heart is filled with compassion for these kids. And while the process of changing their mindset isn’t an easy one, I feel that it is my responsibility to show them their potential and open their eyes to the growth that is to be had.
People ask me why I got into baseball. Because I was a baseball fan growing up in the college baseball mecca of Omaha? Nope. Because I played college softball? Not a chance. How about because there were no women and I wanted to be the first. Guess again. There are a couple of reasons, but the strongest was most definitely the unrelenting matrix that is the Latin American operations in the sport. It’s hard. Imagine working with inner city kids from the United States that also didn’t finish high school or have traffic laws. Sadly, I’ve found that many people in the game shy away from it and never truly invest in this group of athletes. And- they will never know the richness of the fulfillment that I get from working in this space. I feel fortunate to be challenged in this way and to be able to provide awareness of their potential.
On the other hand, I also sometimes feel like pulling my hair out and crying. The job is fucking hard. It’s a daily battle. But that is also why I love it. I have been told repeatedly by many different people since entering baseball in 2012 that these players can’t learn, don’t get it and never will. That they are lazy and can’t be taught to have discipline or enjoy learning. -That it’s a very deep ‘cultural’ issue and I’ll never change it. I never really believed that bullshit. In fact, I don’t really think it’s a “they” issue at all. At the heart of it, I believe what we have here is a coaching issue. That’s right. Despite the reputation I have of being a hard-nosed bitch and someone who doesn’t accept any excuses the athletes, I’m telling you- It’s our fault.
What I believe – is that these kids are way smarter than we give them credit for. That they are being sold short by the people who are guiding them. They are underdogs in the truest form. And what makes an underdog able to accomplish something great? It starts with an idea. But where in the hell does an underdog get an idea?? Ideas can be born from nothing. A mere thought that pops into the mind. However, for many, it comes from an external person or event that serves as a catalyst for a vision. For some, it’s a sports figure on television. For others, it’s a family member or friend. For this underdog (thumb pointing at my chest), entering the field as a woman, I was Google searching women in the field and came across the likes of Andrea Hudy, Meg Stone and Sue Falsone. Also, at the time, I was working for Melissa Moore Seal at LSU. However, there is one type of idea maker in a person’s life that is a special breed. A coach.
One of the most important things that a coach can do for a player is view them as being capable. Believe in them. Belief is an interesting and powerful thing. As a coach, my personal belief in their potential will most definitely manifest itself in their personal beliefs in their potential. This isn’t just my opinion. In Carol Dweck’s Mindset, she talks about a definitive, researched tactic to create the Growth Mindset in children, students and athletes. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the best way to ensure that kids will have a growth mindset is to be taught, coached, parented and mentored by people with a growth mindset (insert gasping emoji here). What I see in them is what they will see in themselves. Period. If I view them as limited, unable to learn and unintelligent, then that’s what they will become. Despite the bleak picture that I painted in the first few paragraphs, I view these young men as clay that can be molded just as easily (if not easier) than the college graduates that we get in the draft. They are not unintelligent in the least. Some of them are brilliant and never cease to amaze me. What they sometimes lack is someone in their life seeing their potential and communicating that to them.
Dweck also lays out a roadmap for how a coach should put this into practice.
“Many educators think that lowering their standards will give their students success experiences, boost their self-esteem and raise their achievement. It comes from the same philosophy as overpraising students’ intelligence. Well, it doesn’t work. Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.”
Wait,… let me get this straight Dweck. You want me to challenge these kids???? They are poor unfortunate souls from a third world country! If they fail, they will be sad! They will hate me and have low self esteem! How can I do this to them???
She goes on to say:
“Simply raising standards in our schools without giving students the means of reaching them, is a recipe for disaster. It just pushes the poorly prepared or poorly motivated students into failure and out of school.”
In summary, high standards and even failure are not bad things if we give them a crystal clear way to meet our standards. Clear expectations and support to meet those expectations. This is easier said than done, but an absolutely crucial piece to making high expectations achievable for kids who may have been sold short their entire lives by coaches with low expectations. The second and extremely important part of this is failure. And not just preaching how failure is the way to success and you have to learn from it, but actually implementing strategies to teach them HOW to fail. (Something I stole from this Sue Enquist video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZPv3en9iYU ) They have to have a go-to, healthy response to failure that FORCES them to move on quickly and accept it as part of the process. Sometimes I even make a drill so hard to complete that I KNOW they are going to fail and help them respond correctly. Do they cry? Scream at me? Fall into a deep depression? No. Quite the opposite. They rally, quickly regroup and try again. It’s like this Dweck chick actually knows what she’s talking about…
I have learned countless valuable lessons from working in with these athletes in the Dominican Republic. Very few of them are related to squat technique. When I tell people what I do, the resounding response is always something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s cool!” Usually, I kind of smile and nod and even agree with them. Typically, they proceed to ask about the work in the gym. What exercises we do, what I’m responsible for in terms of their physical development and even, who is the strongest guy in our organization? I have NEVER been asked about what I actually do. Which is aggressively attack a mindset development program. Regardless, I entertain the conversation. Mostly because I don’t have the time to explain to them what my actual job entails. This blog is a small window into my job description. Raising young men who have been given a shaky mental and emotional foundation on which to develop the skills that they need to traverse the long road ahead of them in minor league baseball. Taking raw pieces of clay and teaching them how they can mold themselves into masterpieces. Empowerment in its truest form.
If you consider yourself a professional baseball fan and want to learn more, consider watching the film Azucar (trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoifvtYt3HA ) to learn more about the underground life of the Latin American culture in professional baseball.
If you are a young professional and are interested in getting in to coaching or in the sports world in any facet, check out my new site for learning the ropes with your resume, cover letter, interviews and more: virtualhandshakeacademy.com (Instagram: @virtualhandshakeacademy)