No time to rest at Rangers’ Dominican academy

02/07/2014 3:56 PM

11/12/2014 3:51 PM

A peaceful stretch of waterfront restaurants and homes is tucked away only a half-mile south of Autopista del Este, the main highway from Santo Domingo and the international airport.

So clear and blue is the water that it looks more like a swimming pool than it does an ocean, and the Presidente Light seems to go down far easier from a corner table that overlooks it all.

The spot seems a world away from a paved rural road just across the highway that, after a mile or two, is dotted with baseball complexes. The Dominican academies for Colorado, Philadelphia, Baltimore and both New York teams are reached before two more appear on the right a little farther down the road.

Uniformed and armed security guards, more Barney Fife than John McClane, stand at a gate that blocks entrance to four fields and two complexes that serve as the Dominican homes of the Miami Marlins and, through another Fife-defended gate, the Texas Rangers.

Any visitor who pulls into the Rangers’ side at 7:30 a.m. is late, significantly late, and arrives to find as many as 65 players, all under contract and almost all teenagers, oozing sweat.

Long days are part of the routine at the Rangers’ Dominican academy for each of the 270 days each year it is open for business. It’s a tough business, as a staff of coaches attempts to teach the game to a group of prospects who, for the most part, have never played organized baseball or had a structured workout program.

But the players, grateful for the opportunity and driven to make good on the Rangers’ investment, complain little and revel in it all.

“Some of these kids are given an opportunity where they know that they have the chance to change not only their parents’ lives and their children’s lives, but their grandchildren’s lives by signing that baseball contract and continuing to further their careers,” said Ryley Westman, who managed the Dominican Summer League team the past two seasons.

“If you do regular things and the day finishes, you’re going to be a regular guy. But if you do special things all day, at the end of the day you can lay your head on the pillow and you’re going to be special because you’re doing those things.”

The word used most often last week to describe the Rangers’ complex, which they rent, was functional. It’s more like a Super 8 than a Ritz Carlton, and the fields aren’t nearly the same quality as those found at other complexes nearby.

But, like an older hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip, it gets the job done.

Players live in two barrack-style rooms, which can accommodate 40 players apiece. The bunk beds have seen better days. But the players don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters, and some hang blankets to create a semblance of privacy.

Some of them come from next to nothing and consider the complex an upgrade. There is electricity, indoor plumbing, warm water, a kitchen that serves three hot meals a day, and a classroom with Internet access.

The weight room, training room and clubhouse are small, but players have found a way to make do. The infield and outfield can be a bit bumpy, eliminating the concept of a routine grounder, and there are only two batting cages and two bullpens.

The coaching staff lives on-site, too, in what essentially are two large bedrooms, but at least each coach has his own bed. Stosh Hoover, who runs the complex day-to-day, will live off-site for the first time in three years.

The Rangers employ a full-time staff that cleans the complex throughout the day and prepares the food, often rice, beans and the choice of two meats that is piled high on most diners’ plates.

“It’s functional, and it serves its purpose,” general manager Jon Daniels said of a complex that was previously the Dominican home to Toronto and Cleveland. “From a basic health and safety standpoint, you always want to do better. From a development and education standpoint, there are some resources that we don’t have here. We’ve tended to it as much as you can.”

But a new complex is needed, and it’s in the plans.

Rangers officials toured the new Colorado and Seattle facilities, which offer more modern amenities such as classrooms with multiple computers, updated clubhouses, weight rooms and training rooms, and better fields, bullpens and batting cages.

The Rangers first need to find land for the new academy, and then will need at least a year for the build time. The final price tag will likely be between $10 million and $15 million.

“A couple years ago we were kind of headed in that direction, but we backed off because we didn’t know how the new spending rules would play out,” Daniels said. “It’s become pretty clear now that having a facility is going to be an important piece. It’s something we need to address.”

Busy days

But after a typical day at the complex, the players simply want a shower, a hot meal and bed.

During the 2013 Dominican Summer League season, which spanned three months, the lights were usually out by 9 p.m. as players got their rest for the day that awaited them.

The alarm sounded before sunrise at around 5 a.m., giving players enough time to clear the cobwebs and crowd into the small weight room at 5:30 for an hour of lifting for position players and an hour of running for pitchers.

Breakfast followed, a 45-minute break to eat and dress for stretching and agility drills that began at 7:15 a.m. At 8, the group would throw, work on individual defense and break into team fundamentals, which were hammered home each day. There was just enough time remaining for some batting practice ahead of the 10:30 a.m. first pitch.

The game might have been the easiest part of the day, which continued after the final out and lunch with some extra work in the afternoon. Players then took an hour of English class, divided among beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. The only interruption was a 6 p.m. dinner.

Westman devised the early-worm schedule after reading about the habits of sport’s most successful players. A common trait was that they got a jump on their days.

The Rangers’ DSL team, whose players made $600 a month, opened the season 18-3 en route to the league championship.

“The way that their bodies responded, I felt like that we would show up at the ballpark to play the other teams, it almost looked like they were just waking up,” said Westman, who will be based in the U.S. this year as a catching instructor. “These guys were in bed at around 9 o’clock every night. They took so much pride in executing their plan.”

The schedule wasn’t quite as regimented during the January program, which Daniels, manager Ron Washington, other members of the front office and every scout in Latin America attended during the final week of the month. But the workload didn’t seem to be lessened much.

Players were on the field before 7 a.m. for conditioning work. The campers were then split in two, with half drilled on fundamentals while the other group hit the weight room. They swapped duties after lunch.

The three members of the 40-man roster — Leonys Martin, Jurickson Profar and Luis Sardinas — were part of the workouts, and were granted asylum in a hotel about 15 minutes away.

But not even second baseman Rougned Odor and catcher Jorge Alfaro, No. 1 and No. 1a on the Rangers’ prospect list, were exempt from complex quarters.

Neither were Ronald Guzman, Nomar Mazara and Jairo Beras despite the combined $12.9 million in bonuses paid to them in 2011 and 2012.

Fundamental focus

Much of the work focused on fundamentals, which can be the hardest thing to teach prospects who usually don’t play in organized leagues before signing and are taught by their buscones only what to showcase to scouts.

Needless to say, the key for the coaches at the academy is patience.

“From 12 to 16 years old, they are taken to tryouts and told to throw the baseball as hard as you can and hit the baseball as far as you can,” Westman said. “They’re not taught any of the elementary basics like how to take a proper leadoff or the proper fundamental for hitting a cutoff man. We take this extremely raw talent that knows nothing about executing a baseball game.”

Whatever the Rangers’ scouts and coaches in the Dominican are doing, it’s working beyond their league championship. Washington has been working with prospects at the academy since 2007, before his first season, and he said that each year the players have been of a higher quality and better at the basics.

“I see the work those coaches are doing with those kids,” Washington said. “The technique of how to play the game is improving daily. Those coaches down there need to be recognized. I’m pretty excited when I go down there and see them work with those kids.”

The Rangers have plenty of kids, spanning a wide range of signing bonuses. Some are signed for the minimum bonus of $2,000 to $10,000 and are considered roster-fillers, though they will get a chance to develop. In some cases, they have.

Hanser Alberto, for instance, signed for $7,000 in 2009, four months after the July 2 period opened. He won the 2010 DSL batting title and opened 2013 at Double A Frisco before his struggles sent him to Class A Myrtle Beach. The Rangers haven’t given up on him.

Left-hander Joseph Ortiz, who made the Rangers’ Opening Day roster last season, was signed out of Venezuela in 2006 for $10,000. Odor, also from Venezuela, wasn’t the same bargain, but was a $425,000 haul in January 2011 six months after the J2 signing period opened.

“You’ve got to keep getting numbers because you never know which ones are really going to pop to the point they can play in this league,” said Rangers senior special assistant Don Welke, who first went to the Dominican Republic as a scout in 1978. “If they take five years, so what?”

If a player at the Dominican academy does “pop,” even if it takes five years, he will know that his long days there played a significant role in his development.

“You have the opportunity to get these guys at age 16 and get the opportunity to get these kids with character already and mold that character and teach these guys baseball,” Welke said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to advance these kids.”

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