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Astros prospects relish chance to visit Dominican

Eight players, six staff members take 10-day trip to island nation to learn, give back

HOUSTON -- Some Astros prospects are grinding away in the Arizona Fall League, one of the final steps before life in the Major Leagues. Others are working out at Minute Maid Park or on their own to stay in shape during the long winter.

Brady Rodgers? He spent time teaching line dancing to some of his future teammates in the Dominican Republic.

Rodgers was among a group of eight Astros farmhands from the United States and six staff members that returned last week from a 10-day trip to the Dominican, where the players immersed themselves in the island nation's culture while trying share a little bit about their lives as well.

Astros director of player development Quinton McCracken and assistant director of player development Allen Rowin came up with the idea for the trip, and Rowin, who is bilingual, accompanied the contingent for a trip that was ultimately about so much more than baseball.

"We had the right group of guys and decided we were going to do it," Rowin said. "The guys we took were outstanding. No one complained. Everybody was on board with every activity, whether it was classroom work, working in the community and giving out food, or just being on the bus. They were all-in 100 percent, and they were great representatives of our organization."

The Minor Leaguers who made the trip were outfielders Tanner Mathis and Chris Epps, infielders Rio Ruiz and Carlos Correa -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft and the Astros' top prospect -- catchers Brett Booth and MP Cokinos, and pitchers Mitch Lambson and Rodgers.

Also making the trip were Minor League field coordinator Paul Runge, Minor League medical coordinator Jamey Snodgrass, Minor League strength and conditioning coach Brendan Verner, roving hitting coordinator Jeff Albert and Doris Gonzalez, the Astros' coordinator of player acculturation and language development.

The group spent the 10 days touring the country, with the players working out at the Astros' Dominican Academy in the mornings, then interacting with the various communities and villages they visited in the afternoons. It was a learning experience, not only for the players from the States, but the Dominican-based players as well.

"There were a lot of things to it," Rowin said. "We were trying to get the U.S. players to understand where their Latin brethren are coming from, to see firsthand where the guys come from in the Dominican, to see the complex and understand what they're doing, and also for them to kind of have a feel for what the Latin guys go through when they come to the States.

"We wanted to make a connection between the U.S. and Latin guys that we're from different places, but we're all in this together."

While the Dominican has been a hotbed for Major League talent for decades, much of the country remains in poverty. Rodgers, who grew up in the Houston area and had never been outside the U.S., called it a "jaw-dropping" experience.

"I have a ton of respect for those guys," he said. "I had respect before, but now I have more respect for them because of how hard they had to work to get to where they are. I really appreciate the effort they put in."

The players stayed in the dorms at the Astros' complex and worked out in the mornings with the Dominican instructional league players. The afternoons were filled with various activities, including classroom sessions that integrated cultures and languages, and community-service efforts.

The Latin and American players learned about each other's customs, which is where Rodgers' line dancing came into play.

"It was fun, that's for sure," he said. "We had a great time with all the other players, and I wouldn't have pictured the trip going like that."

The Astros rebuilt a small field at a local school and gave a baseball clinic to the kids. They went to the capital city Santo Domingo and toured La Zona Colonial, which is near where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The players distributed toys and food to a small community in the middle of a sugar cane field that didn't have running water.

During their travels, it wasn't uncommon for the bus to stop and allow a Dominican-born Astros player who happened to be in the area hop aboard for the day.

"It was kind of neat," Rowin said. "We would be driving along and the bus would pull over, and then all of a sudden someone was walking across a little plaza and one of our players pops up. They'd get on the bus and drive around with us."

And it was clear to the American players just how important baseball was to the way of life in the Dominican.

"I knew the country loved baseball and many great players came out of the Dominican Republic, but I didn't realize that baseball was truly the country's No. 1 sport," Cokinos said. "It was eye-opening. The priority of the people, which I really liked, was God, family, happiness and then baseball. That's what I took from it. I understand the economical situation is a lot different than the United States, but I like the fact how everyone there was happy."

Rowin said the players were told before the trip to keep things in perspective and maintain an open mind about some of the conditions they were going to see.

"To us, we see it as poverty, but to them, they see it as beauty from a different point of view," he said. "You have to think of it like that when you go. We were trying to get the guys to think differently. The Dominicans are extremely proud of their country."

It was something the up-and-coming Astros players were privileged to learn.

"I feel very fortunate and thankful that the Astros let me have the opportunity to come with them," Cokinos said. "It was great. It was an awesome experience, and I really enjoyed the fact I was able to experience the culture firsthand."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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