WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The room had not been used in years, when it was a workshop room for the now-defunct woodshop class at Hialeah High School. At first viewing, Giovany Gonzalez will admit it was not what he was expecting. But Juan Garcia -- the head coach of
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The room had not been used in years, when it was a workshop room for the now-defunct woodshop class at Hialeah High School. At first viewing, Giovany Gonzalez will admit it was not what he was expecting. But Juan Garcia -- the head coach of the Hialeah baseball team -- had a vision of what the room could become.
So, they got to work this past winter to transform that empty, abandoned room into a facility for the Hialeah Thoroughbreds, the high school team where Gonzalez won a state championship in 2001-02.
Now, the room houses a batting cage that can be pushed back to leave enough room for pitchers to throw bullpens off a mound. On rainy days, the coaches can use the facility for practice or conditioning. The players have a secluded locker room area. There are couches for them to relax and watch TV, complete with video game systems and a ping-pong table. There's even a room with two computers for students to work on their homework and a fridge stocked with healthy snacks and protein powder.
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With Gonzalez's help in providing time, money and resources, that woodshop room now serves as a one-stop clubhouse and practice facility for the Thoroughbreds.
"What other place would I want to do it?" Gonzalez said. "I was born here, I was raised here. My family, my culture, my blood is here. I love this place. My kids are going to grow up around the area, so to me it's a no-brainer to make this happen."
That's because Gonzalez still has that special connection to his hometown of Hialeah, just outside of downtown Miami. He takes every opportunity to express his pride in the city where he was born and raised -- from the broken glass in his backyard to the hardworking people he came across every day. He owns a house in the area and still spends most of his offseason in the vicinity of Hialeah. The members of the high school team all come up and greet him like an old friend who comes around frequently.
So, when Gonzalez started his "Uncork for a Cause" charity event, which is in its third year, he wanted to help raise money for the baseball program.
"He made this happen in such a short amount of time and that was incredible for me," Garcia said. "It was so much easier for me to work when you have the backup like that so quick. Not only monetary, but with the support, with his ideas and input. It was amazing for me to have him behind me.
"The players see that. If you look around, what other high school has somebody that's so devoted year in and year out to support the program the way he has?"
Just by listening to Gonzalez talk about his high school for a moment, it's evident how much he cares about building his community and school. In the past, he has donated cleats and gloves to the team from his sponsors at Jordan brand and Wilson, respectively. Gonzalez's father, Max, works as a hitting coach for the program.
It's an all-in effort by Gonzalez when it comes to helping grow the baseball program and get kids excited about baseball in the area. He frequently has brought in former Major Leaguers to the high school, such as the late Jose Fernandez and Lenny Harris. Orioles left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr., who graduated from Hialeah High in 2013, has also remained involved with the program. Earlier during Spring Training, the high school team came to the Nationals' complex in West Palm Beach, where Gonzalez had some of his Nationals teammates stop by and talk to them.
And renovating this facility was only the beginning.
After the high school season is over in May, Gonzalez plans to start overhauling the actual baseball diamond. It's an old field, the same one he played on years ago, which has been ravaged by years of games without a makeover. The dugouts are small, the field has a caged feeling with all its fencing and the infield dirt and mounds are bumpy and uneven.
"You're going to make some plays, but you're going to have a busted nose, lip," a laughing Gonzalez said of the field.
For the next phase, Gonzalez has plans on moving the fences in and trying to even out the field. All to try and create a better environment for the team to play in.
"The whole purpose is to make a ripple effect," Gonzalez said. "If we can start with Hialeah first, I'm sure we can make that wave of change with every school.
"We don't want baseball to die out in Miami and South Florida, we want it to continue."
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.