BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- If ever a name for a city fit the bill, Baseball City is it. The area, located inside Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic, is home to the academies of five different Major League teams including the Arizona Diamondbacks, and served as the focal point during the first day of the D-backs' historic trip to the Caribbean island nation.
Upon arriving at the academy early Tuesday morning, D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall spoke to the 40-plus prospects who train in Boca Chica but were born in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Mexico. Among them was switch-hitting Venezuelan catcher Jose Herrera, one of the top prospects eligible for the July 2 signing date who is working out with the D-backs.
"We believe in you and I can assure you that Kevin Towers is watching your stats and keeping an eye on all of you," Hall told the assembled group of players inside the complex that has seen more than $500,000 in renovations over the past year. "You are our family and we want you to know that when you come to America, you are a part of a community. We want you to sign autographs for the kids, take pictures with your fans and visit schools and hospitals. It is part of who we are and it is part of who you are."
Fittingly, the impetus for the trip was community giving, as a group of 30 front office employees comprised what is believed to be the largest contingent any team has sent to the Dominican Republic in a single trip. Those in attendance had been on the winning team or were named the MVP of their respective team in the D-backs Give Back League, a unique program within the front office to determine which group of employees could have the biggest impact on the local Arizona community.
Shortly after meeting with the players, the front office members watched a Dominican Summer League game between the D-backs and Padres while a smaller group of executives, led by Hall and vice president of Latin American operations Junior Noboa, headed back to the capital for an important meeting at the Palacio Nacional with the president of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina.
Fresh off of his country's World Baseball Classic championship, President Medina thanked Hall and the D-backs for believing in his country. He stressed the importance of having an academy here, noting that whether Hall realized it or not, the money spent by the D-backs creates jobs and trickles down into the economy in a country where baseball is like a second religion.
In return, Hall promised to take care of the youngsters donning the D-backs uniform.
"We know that not all of these young men will reach the Major Leagues, so it is important to us to educate them both on and off the field," Hall told President Medina and his minister of finance, Simon Lizardo, a huge D-backs fan whose son Luis works for the team. "We make that commitment to you and the people of the Dominican Republic."
Back in Boca Chica, where many of the D-backs front office members were enjoying their first-ever visit to the baseball-loving country, it was an eye-opening experience.
"I was very impressed watching the game," said D-backs Sr. Sales Consultant Tim Smith, part of the winning Give Back League team. "It was just like any other minor league game but these kids are only 16 or 17 years old. It was neat the way they carried themselves and the fact that as players, they were doing chants and cheers throughout the game. It's very different than what we're used to."
After visiting the academies of the Rockies and Yankees, the group enjoyed some sightseeing in the Colonial District a UNESCO World Heritage site that was first settled by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher.
Then it was back to the Jaragua Hotel, where Hall and Noboa held a news conference alongside former D-backs pitcher Miguel Batista, Dominican Commissioner of Baseball Porfirio Veras and Bocachica Mayor Daniel Osuna, among others. Nearly every major media outlet in the city was in attendance.
"The Dominican Republic always has a special place in the hearts of the Diamondbacks," said Noboa, who has been with the organization since its inception and who noted that the first team to ever wear a D-backs uniform was the team's entry in the Dominican Summer League.
Hall also noted that the first player signed by the D-backs was Dominican-born and that a special bond will always exist.
"We are truly honored to be here in this beautiful country that is such an important part of our organization," he said.
Josh Rawitch is the senior vice president of communications for the Arizona Diamondbacks.