Twins, Tigers set for 'something special' in D.R.

March 7th, 2020

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- For the first time in 20 years, Major League Baseball will return to the Dominican Republic for game action with a Spring Training contest on Saturday between the Twins and the Tigers at Santo Domingo’s Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal.

Commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to be in attendance, as well as Deputy Commissioner Tony Petitti. MLB will also offer three Play Ball youth events in the country, two in Santo Domingo and one in the province of Barahona.

“It's something special,” Twins designated hitter and Dominican native said. “We're all really excited. As a player, I'm glad. I'm lucky to be one of the guys who makes the trip and shows (off a) country that lives and dies for baseball.”

Saturday’s 11:35 a.m. ET contest is part of a series of games outside the continental United States that Major League Baseball will play this year in Mexico City (D-backs-Padres, April 18-19); San Juan, Puerto Rico (Marlins-Mets, April 28-30); and London (Cardinals-Cubs, June 13-14).

With a record 102 players on Major League rosters on Opening Day 2019 and more than 220 starting in big league camps this year, the Dominican Republic is the nation with the largest representation in MLB aside from the United States.

When the Twins-Tigers game was officially announced at the beginning of last month, tickets sold out in just over 24 hours for Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal, a venue with a capacity of just under 15,000.

“It's passion for the game,” Cruz said. “Everywhere you go, kids are playing baseball in the street.”

“Baseball in the Dominican Republic is our passion,” added Vitelio Mejía, president of the Dominican Winter League. “This game is of vital importance to us.”

MLB teams suiting up in the Dominican date back to the late 1930s, when the Reds did a Spring Training tour of the Caribbean, including the D.R., to play against local clubs. The Brooklyn Dodgers followed suit in 1948 to play against a team of local stars, as did the Pirates in 1967.

A decade later, the Dodgers played Spring Training contests against the Mets in 1977, a series remembered here for Manny Mota’s home run off future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. They were followed the next spring in the D.R. by the Cardinals and Phillies.

More recent history of Major League Spring Training games in the Dominican includes the two-game series between the Expos and the Mets in 1999. The biggest attractions were Montreal’s manager, local legend Felipe Alou, and Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, a budding superstar at the time.

One year later, the Red Sox and their ace -- another future Hall of Famer, Pedro Martínez -- played a two-game set against an Astros club that featured Moisés Alou and José Lima.

At the time, few would have imagined that the Dominican Republic would have to wait 20 years for the next MLB game here.

“That’s been the aspiration of all followers of baseball in the Dominican Republic,” said Ricky Noboa, Commissioner of Baseball in the country. “It’s the King Sport of the Dominicans and we have a lot of stars, young stars with great futures. Those stars have their fans and naturally, that’s the motivation to attend and support their Dominican players.”

Local names to follow at Estadio Quisqueya

For the Twins-Tigers contest, Cruz will be the biggest Dominican name on hand, along with Minnesota teammate Miguel Sanó and prospects Wander Javier, Gilberto Celestino, Jorge Alcalá and Jhoan Durán. Shortstop Jorge Polanco did not make the trip. After right ankle surgery during the offseason, the 2019 All-Star got a late start in the Grapefruit League, playing just three games so far.

“That was the organization’s decision,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We know how important it is for all of our players, especially our Dominican-born players, to be a part of this experience. But with him recovering from surgery and the days being very precious that we have to get him back on schedule, if he did go down to the Dominican, it would probably set him back a few days.

“He was disappointed in some ways about not being able to go, but it was something that was taken out of his hands and something that if we didn’t feel strongly about, we wouldn’t be going down this road.”

The Tigers’ D.R. contingent includes Saturday's starter Iván Nova, Dawel Lugo, Jeimer Candelario, Jorge Bonifacio and Gregory Soto. Also making the trip is Daniel Norris, who made three starts for the Águilas Cibaeñas in the Winter League here two seasons ago.

“There's a lot of Dominican players in our system and on our club now,” Tigers chairman and CEO Chris Ilitch said. “They're very excited to go and play in front of friends and family. I think it's also great for our ballclub to expose the Dominican to the Detroit Tigers.”

The Avila family returns to the D.R.

Tigers general manager Al Avila has strong ties to the Dominican Republic through his father, Rafael (Ralph). Al’s son, veteran Major League catcher Alex, will also be part of the series for the Twins.

Ralph was the driving force behind the creation of the Dodgers’ pioneering academy in the Dominican, Campo Las Palmas, in 1987. Al, a longtime MLB club executive, has been the Tigers’ GM since 2015. And Alex, starting his 12th big league season, has credited much of the beginnings of his baseball acumen to spending summers at Campo Las Palmas with his grandfather.

“I thought it would be nice to go back and pay homage to my grandfather and everything that I learned while going over there as a kid,” said Alex, who also played in the winter league here with Leones del Escogido in 2009-10. “It should be a good time and fun. I’m sure I’m going to see people I haven’t seen in forever.”