Ex-Brewer Torres helps team re-establish baseball academy in Dominican Republic
JUN 10, 2014 2:16p ET
FOX Sports Wisconsin is presenting a special series on the Brewers in the Dominican Republic. The third special airs Wednesday, June 11 after the Brewers-Mets game, and is on the team's baseball academy and how it was established as well as the details and purpose behind it.
Salomon Torres played a major role in the Milwaukee Brewers snapping a 26-year postseason drought, but the reliever's impact on the organization may last well beyond his 71 relief appearances in 2008.
Sensing an opportunity, Torres began pitching an idea to Brewers officials at the winter meetings in 2010. Milwaukee had closed its permanent base in the Dominican Republic in 2003 and was the only organization without a team playing in the Dominican Summer League in 2009.
Torres had a vacant baseball complex in San Pedro de Macoris, and his former team seemed like a perfect match.
The Brewers and Torres entered into a long-term partnership in 2011 to open the academy at the facility with two baseball fields, batting cages, bullpens, a weight room, cafeteria, classrooms and dormitories.
"A boarding school for baseball is the best way to explain it to the fans," Brewers special assistant to the general manager Craig Counsell said. "These kids make baseball their life. There's dorms, they eat here, they don't leave here. You're really in a school of baseball is what you're in"
Shortly after Doug Melvin took over as Milwaukee's general manager in 2002, the Brewers chose to eliminate their permanent facility in the Dominican Republic to try a different approach. Milwaukee was going to spend the same amount of money on higher-quality players and bring them right to its spring training facility in Arizona.
"We thought the appeal to the players (in the Dominican Republic) or anywhere in Latin America to come straight to the U.S. would be an enticement for them to sign," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "But that really didn't work in the long run, so we looked to re-establish ourselves here.
"When Solomon Torres was in Milwaukee and he talked about having this academy and it just seemed to all come together and make a lot of sense for us"
While the long-term goal of the academy is to develop the prospects on the field to eventually contribute over in the United States, so much more goes into a player's experience while living at the complex.
English classes are taught by RBI Consulting, while the Brewers try to prepare the players for transitioning to life in a foreign country. The dormitory can hold as many as 44 people, while the dining hall serves three meals a day.
"The first thing we try to do is teach them the basic stuff to get you through everyday life when you go to the United States," Brewers director of Latin American scouting and operations Eduardo Brizuela said. "How do you get in a taxi? How do you order some food if you need to? If you're at the airport by yourself, how do you find out where your gate is? Little stuff like that. Going through immigration. Once they get that in, then we start learning some baseball terminology."
The Brewers learned how damaging bring someone over to the United States without any kind of education could be when they were hauling players straight to Arizona.
"I think the biggest thing is really a very simple item and that's discipline," Brewers special assistant Dan O'Brien said. "(In the Dominican) things are very free, there's not a lot of punctuality. When you come to the (United) States you have to be somewhere on time, you have to be disciplined. You have to know what your daily routine is, you have to be accountable -- all of those things that you and I might be accustomed to on a daily basis is somewhat foreign down here, so we have to start from scratch in teaching all of those various skills."
Because of the success Dominican players have had. the emphasis on discovering and developing talent has become a high priority of organizations. According to Major League Baseball, 11.1 percent of players on Opening Day rosters in 2012 hailed from the Dominican Republic.
All 30 clubs now have academies in the country, a concept ramped up in recent years. According to MLB.com, the first Dominican academy dates back to the early 1980s.
"Unfortunately there was a bit of a 'wild west' mentality here back 20-30 years ago and there were players as young as 13 years of age signing," Ash said. "Since that time, clubs have done a good job and MLB has done a good job in mandating some changes . Also, the programs that are now in place are much more formal, much more professional in the presentation I think it does make a difference."
Dominican players are eligible to sign with big-league teams when they turn 16 years old, but that doesn't mean the scouting process starts at that time. Teams are searching the country for talented kids 15 years old or younger.
It's a challenging process, but one that could change the way of life for an entire family.
"The kids that try out are 15 years old," Counsell said. "Those are freshmen in high school, and the pressure is incredible. If you then compound that with their economic backgrounds and how much their families and people around them are relying on them for income from these tryouts -- they're really brave for what they're doing really. I couldn't imagine being able to handle that at that age. I really couldn't."
The Brewers kicked off their Dominican Summer League schedule just over a week ago, as their entry will play 72 games against mostly teams in the San Pedro de Macoris division.
A good number of players have come from the Dominican Summer League team to other minor-league teams in the Brewers organization, proving the academy is doing its job. Last July, Milwaukee invested the most money it ever has into an international free agent, signing Dominican shortstop Franly Mallen and center fielder Nicolas Pierre to deals worth a reported $800,000 each.
"We're really excited," Brewers senior director of baseball operations Tom Flanagan said. "Over the last few years when we got away from the academy complex we haven't really seen the home grown Brewers.
"To see the upside on a lot of the players down here I think we're excited. We signed a number of players at the start of the signing period this year and we're really excited for the future."