The original plan for graduation day at the Twins' Dominican Republic baseball academy involved the graduates wearing their baseball uniforms, but they requested to wear dress clothes. Nelson Roberto, one of the graduates, had even acquired a suit.It was a deeply important day for the seven graduates, their families and
The original plan for graduation day at the Twins' Dominican Republic baseball academy involved the graduates wearing their baseball uniforms, but they requested to wear dress clothes. Nelson Roberto, one of the graduates, had even acquired a suit.
It was a deeply important day for the seven graduates, their families and for the whole Twins organization, and the players didn't want to understate its significance.
On Wednesday, Roberto, Alex Banks, Jim Caceres, Wilfri Castro, Jesus Feliz, Jose Guevara and Nomar Urdaneta earned their high school equivalency diplomas after a two-year course of study to become the first graduating class of the Twins' baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
"There's a great deal of pride and effort that's put into that," Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. "I know this is important to the Pohlad family and important to [Twins president] Dave [St. Peter] and others that we invest in the entire athlete. It's important to us. It's exciting."
Jeremy Zoll, the Twins' director of Minor League operations, joined roughly 120 attendees in the batting cages at the facility in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, to give a speech on behalf of the Twins' organization. Roberto, 18, took a great deal of pride in giving a speech in English -- having practiced for a week beforehand.
The gravity of the ceremony and its resounding effect throughout the entire academy caused even Pierre Jacotin, the Twins' educational liaison at the academy, to be slightly taken aback.
"Working toward graduation, all I thought we would accomplish was having a party to celebrate the seven players. It ended up being much more than that," Jacotin said. "Even in the case of one of our coaches that hadn't finished high school, even he said, 'I'm going to go and get my papers and start studying.' The juniors were completely hyped for it. They couldn't wait for it. They saw how special we made that day for the seniors."
The day marked an important milestone for the Twins' Latin American player development operation after the organization opened its new Dominican Republic academy in January 2017 in partnership with the Phillies.
When young international prospects are signed by teams in the Dominican Republic, some cut their education short as early as elementary school to focus on baseball, forgoing critical time to develop academic and life skills.
"Imagine what it's like when somebody like this is released and they don't even have elementary school done," said Jacotin, who previously worked in the Ministry of Higher Education in the Dominican Republic. "They end up working in the streets, doing the worst you can imagine. Now they feel better. They feel that there's a brighter future, and it's difficult to find words to describe how much this means."
Not every team has a full high school equivalency program, though some teams -- most notably the Mets -- have served as examples in the area.
When the Twins moved into their new facility, they expanded their educational opportunities from English language support to a high school equivalency program in partnership with CENAPEC, an educational organization in the Dominican Republic.
Brad Steil, a former Minnesota farm director, led the initial development of the new program, and Amanda Daley, the Twins' senior manager of international education and administration, is a leading figure in the initiative. Latin American operations coordinator Jose Marzan and former Florida and Latin American operations assistant Rafael Yanez have also supported players in the program.
Last May, the team hired Jacotin to work closely with Daley as its first full-time educational employee at the facility supporting the athletes.
During a typical day at the academy, baseball activity -- meetings, warmups and drills -- occurs in the mornings. Three afternoons a week, players take high school equivalency classes in social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and Spanish language. Two afternoons are reserved for English language instruction.
Players also receive life skills instruction in areas such as sexual and reproductive health, safe driving, financial literacy, nutrition, cultural sensitivity and social media.
"If families believe in us and they know we're believing in their sons, it's just going to come back to us tenfold," Daley said. "They're at home, they're worried about their sons, they want them to succeed, and if they know we feel that same way, they're just going to help us give them little more of a nudge, a little more of a push, to succeed, to keep going."
Jacotin said that motivation among the program's juniors was at an all-time high after they saw a tangible representation of what they were working toward, lending positive momentum to the academy's efforts. Around 12-15 new players enroll following each summer signing period, and Minnesota is trying to expand its capacity from around 60 students to 78, according to Daley.
"We have to take this momentum and try to capitalize on it," Jacotin said. "The level of motivation we accomplished just by having the event turned out to be much more than what I originally expected it would be."
"We've been at this two years now, and we're just getting to the point of showing them what they can achieve and what they can get at the end of this effort that they put in," Daley said.
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.