With eyes closed, it sounds like a typical neighborhood Little League field on a late spring afternoon. The ping of solid contact. The unmistakable thwap! of ball meeting glove. During breaks in the action, kids joke around and laugh with their friends. This being the Dominican Republic, the intermittent clanging of a cowbell from a man selling helados naturales from an ice chest strapped to his parked moped has replaced the tinkling music of a Good Humor ice cream truck.
The action on the field, though, looks different. There is a seriousness to the work taking place not often seen among players so young. It's all drills; no games. "It's different here than in the States," said Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances, one of several Big Leaguers and prospects who train on this field during the offseason. "In the D.R., kids train to get signed."
Advanced defensive exercises take place on the uneven playing surface, where blades of grass fight an uphill battle against cleats. Off to the side, on a barren patch of earth beneath a broad-leafed tree, a coach works diligently with a barehanded young catcher on the nuances of receiving. Behind the concrete grandstand, a boy flings a bottle cap past a batter, honing hand-eye coordination until it is time for practice to resume.
The results are real. On July 2, 2016, 20 players who train here signed professional contracts. Another 15 are expected to sign contracts this summer.
More than 300 players attend the Chiqui Mejia Baseball Academy in Bonao, and nearly half of them are gathered in the grandstand on this hot February afternoon. The logo of nearly every team in Major League Baseball is represented on the caps they wear. They are not awed by the presence of Betances -- they see Big Leaguers all the time -- but when he speaks, they hang on every word. His message and his example are fuel for their fire.
"At some point in my life, I was the same age as you guys and had a dream: to become a professional baseball player," Betances tells them. "And fortunately, God blessed me with the opportunity to play for my favorite team: the Yankees. All I want to say is that you need to keep working hard because dreams do come true. If you believe in something and work hard, you can achieve many things in life."
This is not the field where Betances learned to play. It's not even the country in which he learned the game. But the Dominican Republic courses through his veins, and he sees himself in these kids. They spend long hours out here in the hot sun, hoping that one day they can play in de grandes ligas and provide a better life for their families and their community.
On this day, Betances goes above and beyond to help make those dreams come true. As a kid, his dream was not just to make it to the Majors but to be able to give back, as well. Now that he is in that position, he has gone to great lengths to personally distribute top-of-the-line baseball gear to the kids who train on this well-worn field in Bonao.
He is grateful for the opportunity. If it weren't for this place, and for the man known as "Chiqui," Betances might still be chasing his dreams, too.
"We Want Mo!"
Dellin Betances was at a crossroads. It was Sept. 26, 2013, and a crowd of 48,675 was packed into Yankee Stadium to say a tearful goodbye to a legend. The cover of that night's game program asked the question on everyone's minds: "Will The Mighty Mariano Rivera Pitch One Last Time?" The "We Want Mo!" chants started early and often.
Betances drew the unenviable task of preceding Rivera into the game to begin the eighth inning. Once touted along with Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman as part of the can't-miss "Killer B's" trio of pitching prospects, Betances struggled with his command in the Minors. After seven seasons as a starter, he had a sub-.500 record and a plus-4.00 ERA, and in an effort to salvage the 6-foot-8 right-hander, the Yankees sent him to the 2012 Arizona Fall League to convert him to a reliever. Betances pitched well out of the Triple-A bullpen in 2013, but in four Big League appearances so far that season, Major Leaguers were hitting .462 off him.
Out of Minor League options and approaching his 26th birthday, Betances was running out of chances to show the Yankees he was worth hanging on to.
Benjamin Zobrist grounded to first, but Betances was late getting off the mound and the Rays' leadoff hitter slid headfirst for an infield single. An 82-mph knuckle-curve to the next batter, William Myers, was one of several deliveries that ended with Betances, searching for consistency in his mechanics, twirling onto the grass to the first-base side of the mound.
Myers struck out, but Betances yielded a double to James Loney. "MAR-i-A-no!" chants gained steam. Nearly everyone's focus turned toward the Yankees' bullpen in right field, but one person in the crowd couldn't take his eyes off the tall right-hander struggling on the mound. Even after a two-run single from Evan Longoria and a walk to David DeJesus knocked Betances out of the game, ballooning his ERA to 20.25 and causing an eruption from the crowd as the bullpen door swung open for No. 42, this man could not shake one thought.
Look at that huge guy. He has so much talent. If I could just get my hands on this guy, I could make him a pitcher.
Betances grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the third of Jaime and Maria Betances's four children. Like many Latino families in New York City, the Betanceses would return to their native country once school let out.
Up until his early teens, Betances spent his summers in Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic. Maria's parents and sister lived in a small neighborhood not far from the Santiago airport, so he would stay with his cousins, or they would stay at the house his parents still own, playing games, riding bikes, going to water parks and doing all the things kids do in summer -- except play baseball.
Santiago, with approximately 750,000 residents, is as baseball-mad as the rest of the D.R., but Betances was initially drawn to football and basketball, becoming a fan of the Michael Irvin-era Dallas Cowboys and the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers. But his older brothers, Anthony and Dioni, loved baseball. So when their little brother sprouted up taller than his classmates and began displaying natural athletic ability, they literally bribed him to pick up a baseball.
At age 10, he joined the Felix Millan Little League in New York and played several positions, including shortstop. After spending the next two years in the OLS Little League, where he thrived among stiffer competition, he tried out for the vaunted Youth Service League in Brooklyn, an all-volunteer organization that has been around for more than 60 years and has spawned more than a dozen Big Leaguers, including Manny Ramirez. Once he made that team, where legendary New York City youth coach Mel Zitter helped mold him into the pitcher that would get drafted by his hometown Yankees in the eighth round in 2006, those summer trips to the D.R. fell by the wayside.
"Baseball started becoming more serious, and I couldn't just leave the team I was playing with to go away for a month," Betances said. "In New York, that was the prime time for us as far as weather, so I couldn't just pick up and leave."
He had gone back for his grandmother's funeral when Jaime's mother passed away, but it had been seven years since his last trip to Santiago when, after the 2013 season, his brother, Anthony, relayed a message to him: Anthony's friend Joseph Hache had been at the Sept. 26 game with a man named Fausto "Chiqui" Mejia, who runs an academy in the Dominican Republic. Mejia wanted to talk.
Betances had heard Mejia's name before and was intrigued. He also knew that he had nothing to lose.
The reliever with the raw talent but disappointing results met Mejia for the first time that December at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. After the two spoke for more than an hour, Betances decided he would give it a go.
"I was just trying to do something different so I could come prepared for Spring Training," he said. "I knew I had to fight for a spot. I was like, 'You know what? Why not?'"
The following month, Betances got on a plane and headed for an unfamiliar spot in a familiar country. He couldn't have known it at the time, but his career was also about to take off.
"We Had to Change Him Completely"
Sitting under the gazebo in the artfully landscaped backyard of his home in Bonao, Mejia smiles as he recalls seeing Betances pitch that fateful night at Yankee Stadium. "I saw this gigantic and clumsy guy who couldn't throw a strike." Before offering his guests the delicious home-cooked chuleta (pork chops), mora (black beans and rice; Dellin's favorite), fried yucca and fresh avocados that his wife has prepared for lunch, the 47-year-old Mejia -- who spent four years in the Milwaukee and Oakland organizations -- talks about his first time working with Betances.
"We worked on his mechanics," Mejia said in Spanish with Betances, like a patient relaying his own doctor's prognosis, interpreting. "We had to change his posture when pitching; his angle. We worked on this, along with many other things.
"In other words, we had to change him completely."
Bonao sits roughly midway between Santiago and the capital city of Santo Domingo, along DR-1, the country's main highway artery. When Betances first arrived at the academy in January 2014, it was his first time traveling outside of Santiago.
He wasn't fazed when the 70-minute drive led to a beat-up field with a rusty chain-link backstop. The outfield wall, made of concrete to keep the encroaching flora at bay, was the faded green of a New York City public pool.
Among the first people he met at the academy was Joel Peralta, who had been warming up in the Rays' bullpen the night Betances forced the Sandman to enter early. Peralta had the same thought as Mejia.
Who is this beast throwing 99 mph? If Chiqui could just have a chance with this guy …
Peralta grew up in Bonao at a time when Dominican scouts were tripping over each other to find the next Tony Fernandez or Miguel Tejada in "the cradle of shortstops." The A's signed Peralta in 1996, but his pro career as an infielder was short-lived: He was released in 1998.
That December, Mejia began transforming Peralta into a pitcher. By February 1999, Peralta earned a contract with the Angels, and after six years in the Minors, he was called up to The Show. Peralta would pitch 12 seasons in the Big Leagues, appearing in more than 60 games six times.
"You've come here, so you've already taken the first step," Peralta told Betances that first day in Bonao. "Listen to this guy. He will make you a pitcher. Trust him. Listen to him. And work hard."
Betances heeded Peralta's advice. For three weeks, he traveled from Santiago to Bonao every day to spend a few hours working with Mejia, focused on finding a delivery that he could easily repeat. Much of it was "dry" work -- holding a towel instead of a ball so that the pitcher could concentrate solely on his mechanics and not worry about gripping or throwing a baseball. Betances returned to the Yankees and soon discovered that all the adjustments were working. He had his best Spring Training to date. He made the 2014 Opening Day roster, then allowed just one hit over his first seven appearances. Everything was clicking.
"I changed up a lot of stuff that I was doing, and I definitely owe a lot of the credit to Chiqui," Betances said. "I've gotten a lot of help in my career, but I feel like that was a turning point. He knows what to look at, and that not every pitcher's the same. He knows what he needs to do with you to fix flaws in your game.
"If you have any flaws, he's able to pick that up and make you a better player. You just continue to work and work, and he's looking at everything while you're doing dry work, and you spend one-on-one time with him just to work on certain stuff. To be successful, you've got to be able to repeat [your delivery], and that's what you do while you're down there. He's able to take the time and just kind of drill it into your head."
In July came word that Betances, who entered the season with a 9.39 ERA in eight career Big League appearances, was an American League All-Star.
"After that," Betances said, "the Yankees were like, 'Hey, just keep doing that.'"
Today, Betances is a three-time All-Star coming off a 2016 season in which he led all Major League relievers with a 15.5 K/9 ratio. Analysts will tell you that his knuckle-curve is the most effective pitch in baseball. (Batters have had more success against Clayton Kershaw's curveball.)
Each winter, Betances and his wife, Janisa, spend four weeks in the D.R. Two of the cousins who he grew up playing with, Yormi Rosario and Lleuri Rosario, serve as his personal drivers, shuttling him back and forth between Santiago and Bonao, where the training continues to evolve.
"This year, we are working on consistency of location when it comes to fastballs, so he can use them more," Mejia said. The two men exchange knowing grins as Mejia adds, "Also, we are working on his pick-offs and PFP's."
Mejia's tutelage has helped Betances become a star in New York, and with that star power, Betances is finally able to do something else he always dreamed of: give back.
"Today, in One Word: Wonderful"
At the academy, excited young players jostle to line up alongside their teammates. One by one, they approach the table where Betances, Mejia and Peralta are handing out equipment.
By leveraging his sponsorship deals and working with Pitch In For Baseball -- a nonprofit that collects and distributes baseball and softball equipment to underserved youth -- Betances is outfitting the kids in Bonao with brand-new Wilson A500 gloves, Nike baseball cleats, New Era Yankees caps and T-shirts bearing his own silhouette on the front and his No. 68 on the back.
"The reaction of the kids -- I think that's what I get the most out of," Betances said. "It's my first time actually doing something like this. I've always helped out others, but I never really did something of my own in that manner. Obviously a lot of these kids can't afford some of the equipment, so for them to get brand-new gear -- they're really happy and excited. Hopefully one day they can look back and be like, 'I remember when Dellin gave me this glove,' and now they're giving back themselves. Kids are the future, so that's the message we try to get out as athletes."
As each youngster steps up to receive his gifts, Betances looks him square in the eye. He inquires about the player's position, his shoe size; he offers encouragement. While the gear is sorely needed and much appreciated, the personal interaction might make an even bigger impact.
"Out of all the distributions I've done, this has been truly the most rewarding one," said Meredith Kim, chief operating officer of Pitch In For Baseball. "You could see the gratitude and appreciation from these kids. And I'm not saying that other kids don't appreciate it, but it was just so much more palpable. I could feel it. As a result of it, there was this really great energy and synergy, and it was infectious in a really positive way."
"Today, in one word: Wonderful," said Peralta, who retired to Bonao after pitching for the Mariners and Cubs in 2016 and now helps Mejia run the academy. "The idea for Chiqui and me is that every kid we have in the field is one kid that's off the streets, because that's at least four or five hours a day that he's going to be away from dangers and all kinds of stuff. So I am grateful to have somebody like Betances do this, knowing that everything starts just from his being willing to come over here to get better, and now he's feeling part of us. It's just amazing what he's done."
For Betances, the positive feelings extend beyond the academy. Coming here has allowed him to do more than simply prepare for the upcoming season. By training here each of the last four offseasons, he has been embraced by people throughout the Dominican Republic, and he was honored and excited to represent them in this year's World Baseball Classic. He has reconnected with his family's homeland, a place that was a huge part of his life growing up and has become so once again.
"It's meant a lot," he said. "When you're getting older, you get to know more about the country, learn a lot of stuff that, as a kid, you really don't pay attention to. I'm grateful for the years I've been able to go there, spend time with family that I haven't seen in a while. To see the happiness that those people have for the success I've had plays a big part. They're always thankful and happy to see you every time you're down there, so it's pretty cool."
After the last piece of gear is distributed, Betances heads out to right field. The sun will soon set over the Cordillera Central mountains, but there is still time to get in a quick workout under the watchful eye of the man who helps make dreams come true.