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Suit and Tie Soldiers: Chapter 1

Posted by daniel.venn on January 9, 2017 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)



New book? Chapter 1?

I shuffled into work with my head down, my chin tucked into my chest. Part of it was that it was Minnesota in December and if you hold your head too high the cold will take the air right out of your chest and leave you gasping. Mostly, I just wanted to avoid making eye contact with anyone because having to engage in conversation with another person at six-thirty in the morning has the same effect on me as the cold. Snowflakes meandered into my coffee cup, fading into my dark roast. I had spilled some of it onto my slacks while trying to sip and drive and I crossed my fingers no one would notice the stain on my upper thigh.

 

Once inside, I couldn’t avoid eye contact any longer. Teaching doesn’t work that way. But, I could keep my door closed, a comfortable boundary keeping my eager students outside while I sat alone at my desk, stared off into the distance, and wallowed until the bell brought my attention back. Usually I’d pull myself together, staple something that resembled a smile onto my face, and force myself out of my chair and over to the door when the first bell rang. More and more, I’d been waiting until the second, sometimes longer, before opening up my classroom.

 

“You look tired again, Mr. Venn,” a student countered when I offered a half-assed ‘good morning’. I just nodded and mumbled something about grading papers and tried to go back to trying to focus on the lesson plan I’d thrown together late last night and not the questions that had kept me up all night. Was I really tired or was this melancholy something more sinister and what could I do about it?

 

I asked a lot of people what it was: tired or worse. My friends told me to get more sleep. My mother told me that I choose my mood so why wasn’t I choosing happy? My doctor told me where I could pick up my prescription. In the meantime, I woke up in the morning, made my coffee, shuffled into work, realized my coffee had gone cold, shuffled out of work, and hit the repeat button.

 

I always wondered if I could zoom out what I’d see. If I could fade back beyond my little school, my little town, my little life and take an aerial view of an average morning in the real world. Would I just be one of many suit and tie soldiers fighting the good fight with their heads down, dreading the day ahead of them, stepping out of their cars into the stiff December air, looking forward to 5 PM but not really sure what they’re looking forward to. I assume we’d look like ants. Little insignificant black dots marching our lives away in neat little lines. Would I stand out at all?

 

Now that I’ve run away, now that I’ve thrown both middle fingers to the wind, now that I’ve decided to stand out (or at least not blend in), I’ve stopped shuffling to work. I think how I walk into work will always tell me if I’m doing the absolute wrong thing with my life. If I shuffle, I’m in the wrong. If I trudge, I’m not even close. If I stumble, it might already be too late (or I’m just still drunk from last night, which poses its own questions).

 

Nowadays, I walk to work. Walk. Head up, shoulders back, both hands gripping the straps on my backpack. Occasionally I break into a jog when I get particularly brave crossing the highway that stands between the safety of my home and the danger of the barrio I work in. I suppose I use the word work loosely, my job description falling somewhere in the delicate in between teaching and changing the world. The highway stands like proverbial train tracks keeping the haves separated from the have-nots, the wrong side of town separated from everything else. I’m not sure which side of the tracks I belong to yet.

 

All my friends back home are in the army of suits. They look at me with confusion spread across their face, unsure if they should consider me a hero or a fool. I always advocate for the latter. Was it bravery or stupidity that convinced me to hold my draft card in the air, pull out my lighter, and head for the border leaving the remains of the carefully constructed real world we’d been born and bred to assume our place in smoldering on the ground behind me?

 

On the rare occasion that they can track me down, they always throw jealous daydreams at me. “If only” has become their catchphrase. If only I didn’t have this job. If only I didn’t have this house. If only I didn’t have this wife. They’d be out there saving the world with me, they swear it.

 

If only I didn’t have this life, they say. But they do.

 

And I don’t.

 

It’s not like I’m bitter or anything. They have a cause worth fighting for, that makes the war worth it, and I simply do not. When we do talk, they want me to tell them stories. To make them laugh. To make them think. To make them gaze outside their window or their cubicle and wonder if this is all there really is. If they could throw it all away and leave it all behind too and see what world exists beyond the comfortable confines of their everyday life.

 

They want to hear about the wonders of this world. They want to hear about poverty and hot nights on dirt floors. They want to question how anyone could survive without electricity, or wifi, or Starbucks. They want to see me shake my head, my eyes some distant far away, and struggle to find the words to explain what’s out there so they don’t have to risk opening their front door to find out for themselves.

 

I don’t mind indulging them. If my life is only worth entertainment at least it’s worth something. But me, I want to hear their stories. I want to be reminded of the delicious, mundane life I left behind and lay in bed and wonder if there will be a day I’ll be ready to put my suit and tie back on and take up the good fight again.

Pro Contact Offered To HKRF Ballplayer

Posted by daniel.venn on December 21, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)


Nixon (#17), the first ballplayer sponsored by Helping Kids Round First to receive a professional contract offer with Coach Johnny Alvarez (#55) celebrating his signing.

Johnny’s wife quietly pointed to the knife sitting on the table next to his plate and with a small nod of her head gestured he pick it up, trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that he had no idea how to use it. She picked up her own and turned it over in her hand to show him how to hold it. She delicately held a piece of meat in place with her fork and cut it slowly while he watched intently before trying to do the same with his own meal.

“So, which team would you like to play for?” I asked, trying to break the nervous tension clinging to the 16-year-old boy sitting next to me and steer the conversation back to baseball, the topic we both knew best, the topic that had brought our lives together at a small café diner in Managua, some three thousand miles from my home.

“I’ll play for anyone,” he said quietly, the knife and fork still awkwardly in his hands.

“But if you had a choice, who would you play for?” It was a simple enough question, I thought. I had stared out the window in class as a kid daily, daydreaming of putting on a Minnesota Twins uniform and bouncing across the turf of the Metrodome to strike out the side for my favorite team. Surely he had grown up with similar dreams, the kind that are a universal prerequisite to being a Little Leaguer.

“Anyone. I’ll play for anyone.” There wasn’t desperation in his voice, but something close to it. Beggars can’t be choosers. Beggars don’t have the luxury of picking favorites. I had heard rags to riches baseball stories before, but watching the kid next to me struggle to use a fork and knife, watching him try to decide from all of the choices on the menu with wide-eyes, his first time in an actual restaurant in his life, as we celebrated the start of his career in professional baseball made the poverty in Nicaragua stand out to me again. I had gotten used to it, the dirt roads, the sheet metal houses, the meager meals, over the last few months. They’d just become part of the background of my daily life. Watching the boy try to figure out how to hold a knife and fork, just days away from signing a life-changing contract to play baseball, brought it all back to me.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we ate, the boy seemingly not noticing the conversation going on around him, although he was the main subject being discussed, simply focused on the hunk of chicken in front of him and figuring out how to get it from his plate into his mouth without embarrassing himself.

“Boston called and offered 40, but with tryouts with the Yankees and San Francisco next week, I think he’ll get more,” Johnny said, a smile spread across his face. He wasn’t boasting, but there was a well-deserved pride carried in his words. It had been a year since he had quit his coaching job at Nicaragua’s top baseball academy, determined to start his own baseball training ground. It had been a huge risk for his career and his family. There’s no money in Nicaraguan baseball unless your players are signed by Major League teams and getting a scout to notice your ballplayers when you’re at the country’s biggest, most well-connected academy is difficult enough. Doing it solo is nearly impossible. The kid sitting next to me was proof his hard work and faith was going to pay off, both literally and otherwise.

“I want you there,” Johnny said, looking first at Craig and then at myself. “When he signs his contract, I want both of you there. None of this would have happened had you not supported our academy. We’d have no equipment or money without you helping us.”

Doubt isn’t the right word, but at times I had been skeptical of the impact we were making in Nicaragua. Bringing baseball equipment to kids in the third world is a nice project that puts smiles on faces of kids who might otherwise not have all that many reasons to smile, but I had struggled wondering if it was actually changing any lives. Knowing that we had made it possible, in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives on under $2 a day, for a kid who had grown up in poverty to sign a contract with a major league team, forever altering his future and his family’s while providing hope to every other kid with a ball and a dream in his community, made every baseball and bat and glove we had handed out matter in my mind in a whole new way.

After dinner, we moved outside to the parking lot. The back of our truck was packed full with bags of baseball and softball equipment we intended to distribute to children across the country. We pulled a few duffel bags out of the load that we had packed specifically to donate to Johnny’s academy. I slung one over each shoulder and the young ballplayer whose signing we were celebrating at dinner did the same. As we carried them across the parking lot to Johnny’s car, he turned to me.

“Are there any gloves in the bags?”

“Of course there are. Do you need a new one?” I rifled through one of the bags I was carrying looking for a suitable glove for a future major leaguer.

“Not a new one, any one. I don’t have a glove.”

I stopped and stared. Here was a kid so talented that multiple major league teams were vying for his services as a 16-year-old, yet he was so poor that he had never eaten in a real restaurant before, never learned to use a knife and fork, and never owned his own baseball glove. Through the game of baseball, his life was about to change in ways too dramatic to imagine. In the grand scheme, our equipment donations to Nicaragua wouldn’t change the world for many, but for one, we had helped make all the difference. An inch is a good start when you’re trying to move mountains.



Thanks to a generous donation by a sponsor, Nixon is now playing with a brand new baseball glove.

 

Travel Stories: Emma Leyden

Posted by daniel.venn on December 12, 2016 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

"This picture of me hiking through mountains in Southern New Zealand sums up how I felt the entire time traveling. I felt free staring out at whatever was to come. I felt awe at how spectacularly beautiful the world is. I felt small - just a little person in this big, vast world. I had so many moments where I felt like I could be, do, or act any way I wanted because it was just me and the world — thousands of miles away from everything I ever knew. "


Travel Series Part 1: In this multi-part series, experienced travelers will answer some of the most commonly asked questions about long-term travel and seeing the world. In this feature, Emma shares her inspiration to circle the globe, what she learned along the way, tips for aspiring travelers, and three pictures from her adventures that best sum up her 12-country trip.

You spent a year on a global trek after finishing college. Where did you go, what made you decide to take such a grandiose trip, and how did you make it possible?

After finishing college, I set off for a 9-month around-the-world adventure through 12 countries. I started in Australia, then New Zealand, onto South East Asia including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmmar, then I spent two months in Nepal, and then finished off in parts of Western Europe (England, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece). I had a dream to travel after college since I was 12-years-old. My parents and their love for travel always influenced me while growing up and hearing their stories. As a kid and teenager, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel internationally with my family multiple times, and these experiences only strengthened my desire to make my dream a reality. I made it possible through a variety of ways. First, I worked odd jobs every summer and saved as much of my money as I could. I did this all the way through college, so that did add up. Also, my parents gave me a budget used for my airfare, which was a huge, huge break for me financially. Other family and friends also helped me make it possible by giving me money for birthdays and my college graduation, which I used entirely for my trip. Throughout my trip, I stayed on a very tight budget, and also cut financial corners by staying with many friends of friends across the globe to save on accommodations.



"Having a blast with kids in a rural Nepali village. I went with a medical team to a remote village that had not had access to a doctor in years. We did medical exams for 300 women over three days. This pack of kids was hanging around while their mothers waited to be seen by the doctor. I played made up games with them for hours. For me, this was the clear highlight of my entire trip."


Now that you’re back, what impact has your trip had on your life? Has the way you lived or the way you think changed because of your experiences around the world?

My around-the-world adventure absolutely transformed the way I think about the world and my place in it. I have stories in 12 different countries about hundreds of different people who added to my journey in big and small ways. I carry these people with me even while being home. They are memories that are now a part of me. I remember the kindness of strangers, the generosity of those with very little, the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner, the struggle of living out of a backpack and in a different bed every night, and the list goes on. Transitioning back home was and still is very hard for me. While traveling, I found a deeper part of myself. I found freedom to be who I wanted to be without any distractions. I found a new perspective on my life back home that I removed myself from. I found a sense of awe in the world regarding its vastness, as well as its smallness. It has been hard to take these new findings and insert myself back into the same context I was in prior to my trip, but while my life externally may be very similar, I feel internally, like I'm a whole different person.


"This picture was the first one of my entire trip. I was in the San Francisco International airport, about to say goodbye to my parents, with my backpack (I named her Gloria) all ready to go. I look back at this photo a lot and feel all those feelings again: excited, ready, nervous, and absolutely terrified. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at someone other than myself."


Most everyone has a ‘but’ that hinders them from getting up and going on an adventure like yours (I’d love to travel, but..).  What advice would you give would-be travelers who are stuck on the ‘but’ in their life, whatever it may be?

DO IT. I promise you will personally grow in a way that is so fulfilling and also so hard to replicate in another setting. The challenge of traveling will be worth it. It will add to your life in ways you cannot even explain on paper. On top of that, you will see things you have never dreamed of, make lifelong memories, and meet incredible people no matter where you go. You will go on a roller coaster of emotions, thoughts, and insights. It is one heck of a ride, but I have yet to meet someone who regretted taking that first leap. There will always be a ‘but.’ Don’t let that stop you from having a transformative incredible journey.

I would also add that many people hold back from traveling due to financial reasons. Most people I met while traveling did not do what I did: save and then travel. Most people, instead, worked while traveling. For example, I met a lot of people who worked odd jobs in Australia for a couple months and then went to South East Asia to travel. Often this is a feasible way to afford a trip like I did. If I did my trip again, I would have worked along the way more, because these are still travel experiences, and saving while home over years is very difficult. I encourage would-be travelers to consider this option.

Have a travel adventure you'd like to share? Hit the 'Contact' button above!

3 Strikes with Jake Reed

Posted by daniel.venn on November 9, 2016 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)



Jake Reed, the Twins 2014 5th round draft pick, excelled in the low minors in his first season of pro ball, allowing just 2 earned runs in 43.2 IP.  He struggled in 2015 after an aggressive promotion to AA-Chattanooga, but mechanical changes allowed him to get back on track and post an impressive 1.69 ERA at the AAA-level in 2016. He enters 2017 as one of theTwins top pitching prospects and a prime candidate to compete for a spot in the Twins bullpen. In this 3 Strikes he talks about his success and struggles in professional baseball.

1. You put up great numbers at AAA-Rochester after being promoted during the 2016 season and seem poised to debut for the Twins in 2017. How do you envision yourself helping the organization next season?
Right now, I'm just focused on getting better this off season and getting myself in the best shape possible for spring training and the upcoming season. There's a lot of talent here, and I'm excited to get back to work.

2. You excelled in 2014 after being drafted by the Twins but struggled in 2015 at the AA-level with both performance and mechanics. How did enduring such a challenging season make you a better pitcher going forward?
Struggling in 2015 and parts of 2016 grew me a lot closer to God and my relationship with Him. My mental toughness comes from the fact that God tells us to be prepared for adversity in life and that those moments are going to be used to strengthen us. 

3. The Twins front office is undergoing big changes this off season and there has been a lot of talk about changes to how the team develops young pitchers. What changes do you expect to see in 2017 in regards to pitching philosophy in the organization?
I'm just as curious as you are! I have no idea what's going to happen with those sort of things, but like I said, I'm just preparing myself for another season and doing what I can to be in the best shape possible come spring.


3 Strikes with Denny Hocking

Posted by daniel.venn on November 4, 2016 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Durable utility player Denny Hocking played 13 years in the Major Leagues, 11 of those with the Minnesota Twins. He was well-known for his flexibility on defense, playing 7 different positions of the course of his career. In this 3 Strikes, he fields questions about his career and what he's been up to since.

 

1. As a 52nd round pick from a small college, you entered professional baseball as a longshot to ever make the Majors, let alone have a 13-year career. What facets of your game, attitude, and preparation allowed you to have so much success despite the long odds?

Basically grinding everyday and trying to ultimately prove people wrong.

2. You played every position besides pitcher and catcher at some point during your Major League career. How does a utility player prepare for a game to allow themselves to be successful at whatever position they end up playing that night?
Just trying to get a feel for who is tired or will be getting a day off soon and spending a little more time there.

3. You retired in 2005 but have stayed close to the game in coaching roles since. What have been the most rewarding parts of retirement and what has drawn you to stay in baseball?
It's rewarding when a kid trusts you with the development in his career, and I just enjoy being around baseball everyday.

3 Strikes with Zack Granite

Posted by daniel.venn on November 3, 2016 at 11:00 PM Comments comments (0)



Twins minor league centerfielder Zack Granite was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year following a strong 2016 season in which he hit .295 with 8 triples and 56 stolen bases and was lauded for his outfield defense for the Chattanooga Lookouts (AA). In his 3 Strikes, he fields questions about the recognition he's received this season and his future in baseball.

1: After an all-around stellar season, you were named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year. What was it like receiving such high praise from your organization and what does it mean for your career?
It was an awesome honor to be named Minor League Player of the Year for the Twins. It is definitely a good thing for my career. I cannot wait to get back on the field next year and I hope to continue to progress and get better every day.

2:  Presumably starting 2017 in AAA, what are your goals for the upcoming season and where do you see yourself fitting in the Twins long term plans?
My goal is always very simple: stay healthy. I try not to think about the numbers because the numbers will always take care of themselves. As for my future, I have no control over how the Twins will use me. Whatever I'm asked to do I will do.

3: Twins manager Paul Molitor described you as an 'aggressive' player with 'moxie' who 'gets after it' and 'likes to get dirty and run the bases'. In your own words, how would you describe Zack Granite the ballplayer?
I would like to think he nailed that on the head. I love being on the bases knowing I'm making a difference in the game. I think the word aggressive fits me well because that's how I like to go about the game and I love stealing bases.

Best-Selling Author Jim Campanis, Jr.

Posted by daniel.venn on October 26, 2016 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (1)


Authors and Authorship: When I last spoke with Jim Campanis, Jr. this summer (read our first interview here), he had just published his first baseball novel Born Into Baseball and was just beginning to explore marketing his book and to reflect on the publishing process. Months later, Born Into Baseball is an Amazon #1 best-selling baseball novel. In this interview, he talks about how he has successfully marketed and sold his book and what's next for him as a writer.

 

Q: Last time we talked, you said Born Into Baseball began completely on accident--you were encouraged to write down baseball stories you told friends and co-workers around the water cooler (well, kegerator) at work. Now it's an Amazon #1 baseball best-seller. Could you have predicted the reception your work has received when you began writing?
This whole experience has been extremely rewarding. Sure, I’ve made a few bucks but certainly not enough to quit my day job anytime soon. But the outpouring of positive reviews and requests for me to speak, teach and consult have been overwhelming! Several readers of the book have asked me to work with their kids with an emphasis on the most important element in sports—the mental side. The reason I was able to go so far in baseball was not by talent alone but rather understanding the baseball situation that presented itself and maximizing my performance by the mental approach, visual focus and aggressive/opportunistic mindset. Now I’m teaching elite baseball players and a golfer these same techniques and each player has improved their game quickly. This has also been very rewarding for me. I could not have predicted these wonderful things that are now happening.

Q: You credit the help of your publisher Summer Game Books for doing an incredible job turning your stories into a book. Since publication, what role have they played in the book's success?
The publisher, Walt Freidman, asked me to send him my “manuscript” when we first were introduced. I laughed out loud when I read that request on an email. Manuscript? It’s 175 random baseball stories—that’s NOT a manuscript in my mind. Well, I sent him all 450 pages and he categorized each story under six different themes which became the chapters. He also whittled down the story count to 100. He then asked me to put each story in each chapter in some kind of order. Once I did that, there was now some order, flow & continuity. He then asked me to go back and make edits to nearly every story. He would send the manuscript back with suggestions like “expound on the theme of this paragraph” or “cut this paragraph down—too wordy”. He also was frustrated with my incorrect grammar. I write the same way I speak. So when I want a dramatic pause, I used the incorrect “…”. I also capitalized too many things and use ALL CAPS for emphasizing. I thanked him for his patience. They are a small publishing house but were able to get me into a number of independent book stores including the Hall of Fame bookstore in Cooperstown, interviews by several reviewers and they continue to push me on their social media handles. He’s also been very helpful getting me dozens of books quickly for book signings. These stories would still be sitting on my Mac’s hard drive if it wasn’t for Walt and Summer Game Books.

Q: Selling books is a grind and you've worked relentlessly to reach readers. What strategies have you found to be most successful to get the word out and attract readers?
Social Media and paid digital advertising have worked the best for me to reach the masses to buy books online, but nothing beats in-person book presentations to large groups of baseball-minded fans to sell lots of author purchased books in a short amount of time. It's like 8 times the profit selling direct versus Amazon! I’ve have done book presentations at Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Elks Lodges, Senior Centers and even the Dodgers and Angels Boosters Clubs. These events turn into a comedy routine as I blow through dozens of photos and tell stories from the book including stories about Jackie Robinson, Winterball, Japan, Joe Maddon, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Nelson, my USC Good Luck Charm and more. These events are so fun and people usually line up with about 60% of the room making a purchase. I’ve also attended dozens of ballgames signing in the concourse areas while running a video of photos from the book on loop. I’ve visited the stadiums in Walla Walla WA, Yakima WA, Everett WA, Bellingham WA, Las Vegas NV, Phoenix AZ, Los Angeles CA, Anaheim CA, the AZ Fall League along with non-baseball events like fairs, tattoo expos, salsa fiestas and community events. People have been SUPER cool to me at these events and very supportive of the book.

Q: You've put on a lot of miles touring with Born Into Baseball. How did the book tour come together and what has the experience of being on tour been like?
I LOVE ROAD TRIPS! Always have and I think I always will. Without really knowing the ingredients for a successful book tour, I decided to try EVERYTHING! By that I mean, I wanted to try signing at stadiums so I set up at the big July 4th weekend fireworks show  at  a team owned by my old USC teammate and 14 year MLB player, Jeff Cirillo. The GM of Jeff’s teams introduced me to Everett and Bellingham and I had the first leg of a tour set. I then added dates in San Jose at a sports bar and an Elks Lodge and more dates were added by simply sending emails to people or getting asked by Facebook friends. Before I knew it, I created a sponsorship program and secured a local tire store chain and even the USC Baseball Alumni supported the tour. The tire store chain let me drive their brand new van wrapped with their company logo for over a month as the tour took me nearly 7,000 miles! USC hooked me up with all of the apparel I would need to represent our prestigious University. I still do my presentations in a USC baseball jersey!!! The legs of the tour where I had to stay in hotel rooms, eat out for every meal and drive hundreds of miles a day chipped away at the profit but I kept reminding myself that there is a cost for the exposure. Sometimes I made a few bucks and others it was break even—but it is ALWAYS fun! I was also able to get interviews on a number of radio and TV shows including the Diamondbacks Pre-Game show as I told my Vin Scully stories. This helped get more interest in my tour and more dates set.

Q: What's next for Jim Campanis Jr. the writer?
The funniest thing I am learning about the book is the old saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”. A good friend reminded me in the second month of release that I’ll be pushing this book until the day I die. That was an eye opener. I did reminded him, there is already another book 75% done and I plan on updating and reissuing my grandpa’s famous baseball instructional book “The Dodgers Way to Play Baseball”. I started a brand extension of the book called “Catchers Union”. This story from my book made an impact on a catcher who had just made All-State in Texas, he’s now a stud at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. He suggested I start a brand for Catchers so I did! Hats, T-shirts, dry fit T-shirts & hoodies are available in multiple colors with two design choices at CatchersUnion.com . I sell these items at my book signings now. MLB Managers have purchased items from the Catchers Union site! I hope to keep the momentum going with more book presentations during the off-season and then several Spring Training appearance in AZ. I have had some introductory meetings with people in TV/Movies to see if there could be a place for these stories on a network cable TV format. There is also an idea for ESPN out there. We will see about that but it’s been fun and exciting to discuss these ideas with people can actually do something with them. I want to release the next book of short stories before February of 2018 and take BOTH books out on the road for another grand adventure!

Check out Campanis' book and the Catchers Union at www.bornintobaseball.com.


I Accidentally Tried Out For The Atlanta Braves

Posted by daniel.venn on October 7, 2016 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)



The legend of the Gringo pitcher has gotten out of hand no matter how hard I’ve tried to dissuade it, to talk them down. It would almost be fun to just revel in it, to let them think I’m somebody bigger than this lanky body. And by lanky, I mean pathetic. But running with it would also run the risk of me having to prove it and if today proved anything, it was how awkward that would be for everyone.


It started innocently enough. I was a college pitcher from the United States, they said. It was true enough, even if leaving out the necessary adjectives like “washed-up”, “broken-down”, and “why-is-that-small-child-on-the-field?” was a pretty serious lie of omission. The next time I was introduced, they added the word “star” before the college pitcher part. I tried to stop it then, but they told me I was just being humble.

I became a fishing story, your baby bass growing into a full-blown shark each time you tell the tale, holding your arms wider and wider to show just how big that fish you caught was until your arms can’t go any farther. Today, that shark turned around and bit me.

I went from star college pitcher to soon-to-be professional ballplayer to star professional pitcher each time I met someone new, Denis, the eccentric (understatement) owner of the softball academy I teach at always delighting in the fact that his academy has an English teacher/baseball star and yours does not, stretching the truth and my talent long past their limits. I hope they’re busy bronzing my plaque in Cooperstown right now, because at the rate his story is evolving, I’ll need it soon if I’m introduced to anyone new.

I had agreed to play in a Sunday-afternoon pickup baseball league. Your average just for fun, canvas bag home plate, no uniforms, someone’s little cousin at second base, forget to keep score, sandlot ball league you’ll find anywhere with enough space to call a ballfield on the weekends in Nicaragua. If you win, you can hop on any of the horses grazing in the outfield and take a Wade Boggs victory lap (I’m allergic to horses, so it’s a good thing I’ve never been responsible for many wins on the field).

I was looking forward to the first game, barely able to focus on my daily 6 AM laundry session (gotta beat everyone else to the washing board if you want to be done by breakfast!), just mashing clothes around in a bucket of cloudy water and tossing them over the clothesline haphazardly. I double- and triple-checked my duffel bag as I waited for Denis to pick me up, making sure my glove, cleats, hat, baseball pants, tall socks, and Kershaw jersey I had elected to wear (if I can’t pitch like a star, I might as well look like one) were tucked safely inside even though the majority of the players on my team would be in jeans and polo-shirts, coming to the game straight from church.

When Denis pulled up (forty-five minutes late, as usual) in his pink pickup truck with eyelashes glued on to the headlights (eccentric, remember?), he declared that I would not be going to the baseball game before I had even closed the door behind me.

“That league is not serious enough for you. We will find you a better team to pitch for.”

We drove into Managua, him offering no more information about where we were headed. I always ask and he rarely tells where we’re going when I get into his truck, previous excursions having included spending three hours getting a tire changed at the mechanic and being dropped off at a boxing gym to spend an afternoon awkwardly sitting by myself and saying “No thanks, I don’t want to fight you” in Spanish, completely unsure why I was there, while I waited for Denis to come back and pick me up.

Across town, we pulled up to a square patch of grass with a baseball field in each corner. The four fields all faced the center of the clearing, the outfielders from the different ongoing games standing next to each other, facing different directions. Denis paid no mind to the games being played on each field, parading me into the dugout of each, announcing that I was an American star here to pitch in their league, watching me awkwardly shake hands with whoever he had convinced to listen, and then stating “Danny, vamos” before leading me to the next team.

It wasn’t until we reached the farthest field that Denis announced we had arrived at our destination. The players on it were both clearly much younger and much better than any we had seen at the previous three fields. Their brick red Atlanta Braves jerseys, each with their names embroidered on the back, stood out in stark contrast to the hodgepodge of mismatching uniforms on each of the surrounding fields.

“I’ve brought you to see a scout,” Denis announced before herding me towards the Braves' dugout. “All of the players here are Braves prospects.”

Puzzled looks abounded in the dugout, my face included. Denis introduced me to the coach of the team, a Braves international scout, and I immediately recognized the name he offered.

“Marvin Throneberry Jr., nice to meet you,” he said, offering a handshake.

“Your dad played in the Bigs, right?” I asked. “Marvelous Marv, with the Mets.”A smile crept on to Marvin’s face as he nodded.

“And Yankees, and Athletics, and Orioles,” he added.

The fact that I immediately recognized the Throneberry name probably reinforces the claim multiple ex-girlfriends have made against me, that they can’t be with someone who likes baseball more than them. Marvelous Marv, a facetious fan-favorite in the ‘60s for his mediocre play and light-hearted attitude is most well-known for being the starting first baseman on the 1962 Mets, the worst team in modern baseball history. Following his career, he capitalized on his popularity and mediocrity by appearing in beer commercials. In one, he is shown at the end of a line of celebrities and quips “I don’t know what I’m doing in this commercial!”

Much like Marvelous Marv, I had no idea what I was doing in the dugout of an Atlanta Braves international prospect team. Denis was quick to fill us all in.

“Danny is here to pitch for your team. He is a great pitcher from America.”

Every head that wasn’t already staring at me turned to now following Denis’ claim.

“How old are you?” Marvin asked me. When I responded twenty-four, he politely explained that I really wasn’t what his team was looking for. International prospects can sign professional contracts at age sixteen, so the majority of the players he had playing for him were in their mid-teens.

Denis didn’t take no for an answer, and I wandered off while he continued to try to convince Marvin of my greatness. Sitting on the step of the dugout, I watched the game, the young Braves prospects taking on a much older adult team. Their talent was clear, smoothness and grace in the field, mechanics and velocity on the mound, power at the plate.

It took a few innings, but Denis finally broke Marvin down or at least convinced him that taking a look at me would be the best way to get us out of his dugout.

“Here,” he said, tossing me a baseball. “Go throw ten pitches.”

I jogged down the left field line with one of his catchers, Denis calling for the players to watch the American pitch despite the fact that they were in the middle of a game. I warmed up and then made it about five pitches before Marvin waved a hand to signal for me to stop. The kid on the mound for his team was throwing in the mid-80's. I was lobbing the ball in comparison. It was painfully obvious that I was nowhere near good enough to play for his team.

When I returned to the dugout, embarrassed, Denis eagerly awaited Marvin's thoughts on my performance, assuming I had been stopped early because I had been so impressive. Marvin tried to let him down easy again.

“Our league requires all players to have residency here, so unless he gets a resident ID, there’s nothing I can do.”

“Danny, vamos,” he said, grabbing my arm and steering me out of the dugout. Soon we were back in the pink truck, speeding across town. He was on the phone the whole way.

“Hello, Norma,” I heard him say into the phone, talking to his sister, a local lawyer, in Spanish. “I need your help getting Danny residency so he can pitch for the Atlanta Braves.”

Roniel Raudes Returns Home

Posted by daniel.venn on September 27, 2016 at 10:10 AM Comments comments (1)



“It’s good to be home,” Roniel Raudes said standing on a street corner in Granada, Nicaragua. Broken glass littered the dirt sidewalk. Barbed wire topped the cement walls surrounding neighboring buildings casting coiled shadows on the ground. A dozen or so of his friends sat in scattered plastic chairs nearby.


The last time we had spoken, prior to the 2016 season, Raudes had talked about how difficult the baseball season is for him, being away from his home and his family and living in a different culture and language for seven months of the year.

“It was harder this season. The season was longer this year.” At just 18-years-old, Raudes had been promoted from short-season Rookie-ball to the Red Sox’s full-season Single-A team for the 2016 season. “Leaving my family behind was so tough.”

Although life off the field was challenging for Raudes, it did not show in his performance on the field this season. He made 24 starts for the Greenville Drive, Boston’s Single-A affiliate. Playing in a league in which the average player is four years older than Raudes, he finished the season with an 11-6 record and a 3.65 ERA. The Red Sox rewarded his efforts by naming him their organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.



Raudes received his award on the field at Fenway Park prior to a recent game between the Red Sox and the Yankees, giving him a glimpse of what life will be like once he reaches the Big Leagues.

“It was really crazy,” he said about walking on to the field at Fenway in front of a near-sellout crowd. “I never thought something like that could happen in my life.”

Experiencing the thrill of standing on a Major League field, thirty-seven-thousand people cheering as he held up the trophy presented to him as the Minor League Pitcher of the Year, cemented the singular goal he had held since the Red Sox first started scouting him as a 14-year-old.

“The Major Leagues. That’s my goal.”

Raudes believes the recognition he received this season is a large step forward in his career, but just one of many steps he’ll need to take to reach the Majors. Returning to his hometown of Granada after the award presentation in Boston, Raudes immediately began working out and training for next season.

“I need to work on my body. I need to get stronger.”

The need to get stronger and fill out his lanky 6’2 frame is a common refrain in scouting reports. Listed at just 160 pounds, many within baseball see tantalizing potential in Raudes’ fastball that currently can touch the low-90s. With added strength as he fills out his body, his velocity should improve, adding another tool to an arsenal that already contains poise and command his coaches laude as highly-advanced for his age.

“There will be no rest days,” Raudes says of his off-season plan and his quest to get stronger for next season.




 Despite his demanding training schedule, Raudes has also found time to visit local Little League teams in his hometown since returning home to Nicaragua to work with and encourage young ballplayers.


“It’s important to me because that’s where I came from,” Raudes says about his work with the next generation of Nicaraguan baseball players. “If I didn’t get to play baseball, I don’t know what I’d be doing today.”

Although Nicaragua shares the same fervor for baseball that exists in Latin American baseball powerhouse countries like the Dominican Republic and Cuba, political instability in the country has delayed the country’s development internationally in the game. However, each prospect like Raudes that has success in the game brings more attention to the country from Major League teams and provides hope and inspiration to young ballplayers within the country.

Through his presence in Granada and his work with Little League ballplayers, Raudes has already become an inspiration in his community. As I got back into the car to leave following our interview, a father knocked on my window, his son standing next to him.

“Next time you are here, I hope you will be interviewing him,” the father said, gesturing to his son. He held up the boy’s right arm. “He is the next Roniel Raudes.”

 

 

 

Dominican Dreams: Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Liriano

Posted by daniel.venn on August 3, 2016 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)


Standing on the shore of the river that cuts through his hometown of Cotui, Dominican Republic, fishing lure in the water, Ramon Ortiz just wanted to catch dinner for his family. At twenty-two, he had long outgrown his baseball dreams and had turned to fishing simply to put food on the table.

“All of a sudden, a friend of mine comes out of nowhere and says “A scout is here to see you!” I threw down my fishing pole and sprinted.” 

Sitting next to him, his cousin Pedro Liriano, a former big leaguer himself, nods his head and smiles at the story he has heard countless times over the years.

“Ramon’s story should be a movie.”

It didn’t take long for Ortiz to convince the scout that he could pitch.

“I only threw a few pitches and the scout signed me on the spot. I didn’t even know that any teams knew I existed, but I was so excited to be able to play baseball and help my family.”

If a movie were to be made about Ortiz’s career, it would culminate in Pacific Bell Park during Game 3 of the 2002 World Series. Playing on the road against the heavily favored Giants, the series tied, Ortiz took the mound and delivered a win for the Angels, pitching five gutsy innings against one of the highest-powered offenses in baseball. The end credits would roll as Ortiz and his teammates swarmed the field following the final out of Game 7 as world champions.

But it would be far from the end of Ramon Ortiz’s baseball story, and the impact he has made on the game has been far greater than any World Series title.

“It was through Ramon that I was able to get scouts to look at me,” Pedro Liriano says about his own start in baseball. “Ramon always took me under his wing and when it was time for me to come to the States, he made sure to help me adjust.”

Adjustment to the United States can often be an incredible struggle for Latin American baseball players, often signed away from their families and homes as teenagers and forced into a new country, culture, and language with little support off the field.

“Luckily for me, I always had Ramon to lean on to help me adjust to the United States. When I was playing minor league ball in California, Ramon would come and pay me a visit, take me to dinner, and show me around.”

Following his baseball career, one that lasted twelve major league seasons, Ortiz returned to the Dominican Republic determined to continue to help young baseball players like he had Liriano.

“Coming back home after playing baseball really opened up my eyes to see that my people need help and that the Lord blessed me with a talent that would allow me to reach a lot of people."


With Liriano’s help, Ortiz has established a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic that provides young ballplayers, many from impoverished backgrounds, the opportunity to pursue their baseball dreams. Together they founded the Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Liriano Foundation to raise the necessary funds to provide little league ballplayers in their country with adequate equipment, playing fields, and uniforms.



“We’ve both been blessed to see the world and experience things that many people only dream of. Helping the people in our country is an honor and the least we can do to give back. Our dream for the academy extends way beyond baseball. Our goal is to provide the people of our country with the ability to lead successful, self-sustaining lives, have proper health care and education, and a safe place to live.”

Ortiz and Liriano have chosen baseball as the vehicle through which to achieve their lofty goals for their home country for many reasons.

“Baseball is in our blood. It’s our entertainment, exercise, a way we all can connect. For some, it’s an opportunity to leave the country and then come back to help others.”

Even with Ortiz and Liriano backing it, their academy has many needs.  Quality equipment is hard to find in the Dominican, as are adequate playing fields. Isaias Franco, a teacher from northern California, was moved by the Ortiz and Liriano Foundation's mission and took it into his own hands to outfit Dominican little leaguers with equipment and uniforms. After collecting donated equipment for months, Franco traveled to the Dominican to distribute it in July.

"Currently, they're in need of a lot of work," he said upon his return to the United States. "There are cows wandering in the outfield, the grass is more like weeds, the ground itself is a very bumpy, and there's not a proper backstop."



 

But after meeting Ortiz and Liriano and the young players at the academy, Franco is optimistic for the future of Dominican baseball.

"I thought their academy was such a beautiful concept. It's not only baseball-centered. It's community-centered.  Parents and families come out and are a part of the entire process, cheering on the kids and keeping the field in shape.

After donating hundreds of gloves, jerseys, bats, balls, and hats on his first visit, Franco has already begun planning a return trip to bring more equipment to Dominican little leaguers. In partnership with many stars from the island, including future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, he has also organized a baseball tour and fantasy camp during which fans will tour the country and play against many of the big league stars from the island to raise money to support future projects in the DR.

"As a life long baseball fan, giving back to those less fortunate is the least I can do after having received so much from baseball and life in general," Franco says when asked about his inspiration for his charitable work in the Dominican. 


Franco has many goals for Ortiz and Liriano's academy and surrounding communities.

"My goals for the academy are initially to provide the community of Fantino with a program that educates children not only on baseball but how to lead physically and emotionally healthy lives through good sportsmanship and role models. Next, the goal is to impact the lives of all members of the community by providing medical relief, employment opportunities, and proper housing. From there, the goal is to replicate these community building opportunities across the Dominican."


How you can help:


If you are interested in finding out how you can support Ramon and Pedro’s foundation and academy in the Dominican Republic, please contact Isaias Franco at IFranco@GlobalBaseballAdventures.com. Donations of baseball equipment are greatly appreciated as are monetary contributions through Pro Athletes With Jesus. Monetary contributions will be utilized to help build a baseball field for little leaguers in Fantino, DR. In partnership with Ramon and Pedro and other Dominican baseball stars like future HOFer Vladimir Guerrero, Isaias will be hosting a fantasy baseball camp in the Dominican Republic this December with proceeds being donated to support baseball projects in the DR.

 


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