Emotions high as 7 Rockies graduate in DR

Club, MLB work through Dominican Ministry of Education to aid young Latin players

January 30th, 2018
Left to right: Zach Wilson, Jefry Valdez, Alexander Martinez, Raymells Rosa, Helcris Olivarez, Jose Grullart, Aneudy Duarte, Angel Amparo, and Josh Rosenthal (Rockies)

DENVER -- There is crying in baseball, especially when it's something bigger than home runs and strikeouts. So Josh Rosenthal, the Rockies' supervisor of cultural development, wasn't afraid to let some tears flow on Friday when he entered Instituto Tecnico Superior Comunitario in the Dominican Republic.
Major League Baseball helped organize and execute an initiative through the Dominican Republic Ministry of Education to help clubs provide educational opportunities for young Latin American players, who are eligible to sign with teams as long as they are 16 by July 2. It culminated with Friday's ceremony during which the Rockies welcomed their first high school graduation class -- seven players. About 40 players representing five teams -- the Rockies, Reds, Giants, Athletics and Yankees -- walked the graduation line at Friday's ceremony.
"When I walked into the graduation ceremony theatre, I got tears in my eyes," Rosenthal said. "It was just a dream realized. That's where baseball is really part of the solution here in helping break the cycle of poverty here."
The Rockies have a complex in Boca Chica, where they not only train players on the field but have a program to prepare them for careers in pro ball by teaching work ethic, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and English. But actual schooling toward a high school diploma -- often taken for granted in the U.S. but something precious and hard to achieve in the Dominican -- was a missing piece.
The Rockies have spent years looking to solve that puzzle.
Players in the U.S. and abroad harbor big league dreams when they sign, but roughly only 5 percent overall make it to the Majors. The figure is lower in Latin America, in part because they are not eligible for the MLB Draft and are signed at 16 -- as opposed to 18, when the player's body and knowledge are greater.
Add to that a difficult educational situation in the Dominican. Rosenthal, citing statistics from four years ago on the CIA's website, noted that the Dominican Republic was in the bottom 10 in percentage of gross domestic product contributed to education. The average child went to school between the ages of 7 and 12, generally missed a year or two during that period, and spent just 1.8 hours of class time.
"When you come from a family with limited resources, a lot of these kids aren't going to school because they need to work to help support their families," Rosenthal said. "It's really incredible what these kids do with their signing bonuses. The ones that are really fortunate to sign for a good amount of money, they usually buy a new home for their family, usually put their siblings through school, really just support the family."

Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies' vice president of international scouting and development, approached Rosenthal about attacking the educational issue in 2006, when Rosenthal was finishing his time in the Peace Corps, and stayed in touch while Rosenthal was teaching, coaching and earning a master's degree from Brandman University, through the Chapman University system. Eventually, Fernandez hired Rosenthal, who spends part of his year in the Dominican. Angel Amparo, the Rockies' cultural development coordinator, is hands-on at the Dominican complex.
"Our goal is to put a program in place -- not only a baseball program, but an educational program -- that when a player's career is over, whether it's 10 years in the big leagues, one year, Triple-A, Double-A, Rookie ball, whenever their career is over, they have a better opportunity after baseball," said Fernandez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and -- at the insistence of his parents -- went to Chipola Junior College and Northwestern (La.) State before playing three years in the Cubs' system. "They can become very good citizens of the United States or their country of citizenship, great parents, great teammates, great people for their community. That is a very realistic goal that takes everybody's effort."
MLB, with work from director of Dominican operations Rafael Perez and head of educational operations Neskys Liriano, helped bring the Rockies' dream to reality.
It's a blended program through a charter school that provides teachers, all with master's degrees. They come to the Rockies' complex on Wednesdays, and players take online classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while being responsible for independent assignments. This is in addition to the baseball work, and to the practical instruction in English and adapting to the U.S. the team provides.
Graduating takes effort.
Three players finished the program while playing on the 2017 Rookie-level team in Grand Junction, Colo. Jefry Valdez went 2-3 with a 4.20 ERA in 27 relief appearances, Alexander Martinez posted a 3.41 ERA in 18 relief games, and Aneudy Duarte was 0-0 in six games. Dominican Summer League players who graduated included pitchers Raymells Rosa (3-3, 4.50) and Helcris Olivarez (0-1, 3.55), outfielder Jose Grullart (.221) and infielder Henry Garcia, who was released from the organization as a player but with a diploma.
Second baseman Shael Mendoza (.364 with 25 stolen bases) and outfielder Ramon Marcelino (.318 with 19 homers and 55 RBIs) moved closer to their diplomas while having excellent years.
It's hard to quantify how much formal education helps a player reach the Majors, although generally U.S. collegiate players (especially position players) drafted in early rounds stick in the Majors at a higher rate than high school players. So any narrowing of the educational gap by Latin American players can only help.
"An educated player is a better player," said Zach Wilson, the Rockies' senior director of player development, who attended the ceremony. "They're certainly a better person. Our goal as an organization -- not just for our Latins but our Americans, too -- is to ensure that as they're Colorado Rockies and after they're done being Colorado Rockies, that they're able to carry on so much of what they've learned on and off the field."
Rockies personnel in Latin America and the U.S. credit owner/CEO Dick Monfort and general manager Jeff Bridich for supporting the program financially and personally.
"I'm pleased with where we are at this point, but it's a never-ending process," Fernandez said. "We're never going to say, 'OK, the process is complete.' Everybody -- from ownership to Bridich to everybody that's involved -- believes in what we're doing."