Nov. 18, 2015

By Sean Tenaglia `16

While their classmates took off for a relaxing and restful week at home or for various travel destinations across the world, the University of Notre Dame baseball team opted for a different route. The Fighting Irish instead left the country for a five-day excursion to the Dominican Republic.

The trip featured four baseball games against Dominican teams, as well as many opportunities for service and interaction with the local communities. Irish head coach Mik Aoki described several factors behind the team’s decision to visit the country.

“Probably, on the first level, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we have a weeklong fall break here at Notre Dame,” Aoki said. “When we made the decision last year to stay here over break to train and bond, I thought that was really good.

“The idea of doing an international trip is something that Sam LeBeau of the Dominican Baseball Camp had talked to me about. That became more serious and we knew that we had a week of training planned, so I felt like I owed it to the guys to give them an opportunity to get out of South Bend and decompress a bit, much like their classmates.

“The Dominican Republic was specifically chosen for its great history of baseball. It’s a country where I felt that our guys would get a very different perspective about their lives in the United States, at Notre Dame and as baseball players. It gave them perspective on how other people live and how thankful they should be to live where they do.”

Home to major league superstars like David Ortiz, Robinson Cano and recent Hall of Fame inductee Pedro Martinez, the Dominican Republic has a rich culture of baseball. The atmosphere surrounding the game in the Caribbean nation struck Aoki and his players.

“I think with the baseball, you can clearly tell it is important,” Aoki said. “We went to a winter league game and the passion is unbelievable. One of the first strikeouts of the game was cheered as though it were a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth of a playoff game. They’re singing, they’re chanting, they’re going back and forth and really excited. It was really fun to watch.”

Freshman catcher Liam Dalton IV said that travelling to the Dominican was an eye-opening experience.

“Once we got down there, instantly we realized it’s a whole different feel and perspective than being in South Bend,” Dalton said. “It definitely was not as modernized and there were definitely less resources, but being around the people, you instantly could tell that it really wasn’t a burden to them. They were able to get through it, especially those who were playing baseball.

“We knew going in that there are a lot of Dominican baseball players in the pros, so it’s kind of their ticket off the island and they approach it with an intensity every single day. They also have this air about them of happiness to be awake for another day and to get to go out and play baseball. You could really sense that among the entire population.”

The Irish had an incredible opportunity during the middle of the week when they visited an orphanage and got to interact with a group of energetic and excited children.

“A group of us went to Mass with them, and it was a full Spanish Mass, which was really interesting for me,” Dalton said. “The kids were really excited for us to be there and there was absolutely no real stigma and they weren’t holding back at all. They really wanted to hear our stories and hear about our world, and that made it a lot easier for us to learn about their world.

“They say that sports kind of transcend any socioeconomic or geographic barriers, and this was the first time that I really got to see it. At the end of the day, we all pick up the ball, and we love throwing it around. It just connects worlds, and I think that’s what this trip was good for.”

Aoki and his players collected donations of baseball equipment in the weeks leading up to the fall break trip and were able to deliver gloves, bats and clothing to the orphanage.

“I would be remiss without thanking people in the South Bend area, our players and our fans for donating all the things we brought down there,” Aoki said. “We actually had too much to bring down so we ended up shipping a lot of it. I’m really appreciative of it. They’re short of things like gloves, clothing and cleats so it was great to give them some of that stuff.”

Senior outfielder Kyle Richardson made the most of his interactions with the children at the orphanage, even teaching some of them a new sport.

“When we went to the orphanage, we brought some baseball equipment with us, but we also brought a football,” Richardson said. “They call it, `futbol americano.’ That was fun because the kids didn’t know what to do with it. I was able to speak the language a bit, so I was able to teach them a bit of football. I let them kind of figure it out at first, but then I showed them how to throw with the laces and it was fun to teach them a new sport. Just to see the joy on those kids’ faces was incredible.

“One of the things that a lot of them don’t get is one-on-one adult interactions, especially with a male. So when 35 of us just rolled up to play, they absolutely loved it. Everything down there is united through baseball. They all have a favorite team in the U.S.- usually the Red Sox or Yankees- and they all have a favorite in the Dominican league as well. Their passion from the game, from adults all the way down to the little kids, was incredible. To be able to brighten their days was a great experience and I got so much more out of it than any of them could have.”

During their five-day trip, the Irish also had an opportunity to play four games against teams from the Dominican. They defeated the Boston Red Sox academy team, 5-1, and knocked off Escogedo of the Dominican Winter League, 6-4. The Irish dropped two close contests, 1-0 to the Texas Rangers academy team and 4-1 to the Dominican Army team. Both Richardson and Dalton were greatly impressed by the level of competition they faced in these exhibitions.

“Growing up, my dad always told me that we aren’t just competing against the kids in our neighborhood but also against kids all across the U.S. and all over the world,” Richardson said. “Being able to actually go to the Dominican Republic and see all the talent that was there was incredible. It was a very high level of competition. The two academy teams had kids between 16 and 20 years old. They were a bit younger, but they were just very sound baseball players. They had incredible skill sets.

“We got a chance to play against the Escogedo team, and they needed to play at a level of High A minor league ball or above just to make the team. To beat them was incredible. We even faced two pitchers who had thrown in the big leagues at some point. To do this in the fall and play as an entire team against a strong opponent was a great opportunity for us.”

“I remember growing up, I had a Dominican baseball coach and he told me, `You can’t walk off the island. You have to swing the bat,'” Dalton said. “These kids would go up to the plate ready to hit. I thought it was a great test for us. We had some success, won two games, played a third really close, and had the fourth game won but certain things didn’t go in our favor. To go down there and be competitive with those kids and see the work ethic they had was really something we can take away from the trip.”

Getting to interact with so many kids and see their passion for the game of baseball was one of the highlights of Aoki’s trip.

“We had kids following us around all the time,” the Irish head coach said. “Our guys were up on top of the dugout talking to Dominican kids from the town and it was awesome. It was a lot of fun and if you were to ask our players, I think they would mark some of those things as the highlights of our week down there.

“For a lot of those kids, it’s baseball or bust. We found a trip that allowed us to get together as a team, allowed us to play baseball, and allowed us to do some community service. And it allowed us to continue the educational mission of Notre Dame. I’m happy we were able to give our guys a little perspective of what a different culture feels like.”

Dalton agreed that the trip provided him with some fond memories and experiences that he won’t soon forget as he begins his career at Notre Dame.

“Yes it was fall break and we wished we could see our families, and obviously we have a lot of work to do here, academically and athletically, but this was something that was worth the effort,” the freshman catcher said. “Coach tells us all the time that we don’t make sacrifices, we make decisions. We made a decision that going down there would teach us something.

“I think what I learned was that no matter how tired I am, there are kids who are going through worse and can’t say, `At least I’m at Notre Dame. And at least I have a great family foundation. At least I’m in America.’ There are kids who go out on the field, and that’s their release. That’s what they do.

“It gives us a new perspective on the game of baseball. It is a game, but you should approach it every single day like it’s the most important thing in your life and do it to the best of your ability.”