Sophia Minnaert: Highlights from baseball trip to Dominican Republic

By Sophia Minnaert
FOXSportsWisconsin.com

In early November, a group from FOX Sports North and FOX Sports Wisconsin departed for Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Coordinating producer Trevor Fleck, Ralph Gasow, Dan Truebenbach and I had an ambitious list of stories, places, and people to see and cover. Escape from the cold and snow as I highlight 10 memorable moments from our trip.

Why the Dominican Republic in November? It wasn’t just an excuse to leave the Wisconsin winter. The Dominican is a baseball hotbed, producing more MLB players than any other country other than the United States. On Opening Day rosters this year, 89 players were Dominican. It was an opportunity to visit Brewers and Twins players in their hometowns, see the major-league academies where young prospects train and live, and attend Dominican Winter League games.

In a 15-day span, we interviewed more than 70 people and shot more than 50 hours of footage. Our stories take a look at the past, present and future of baseball in the Dominican, and also the Brewers and Twins presence there.

It was an unforgettable trip, and these are just a few of the highlights!

Back Home With Segura

Our first trip was to San Juan de la Maguana, the hometown

of Brewers all-star shortstop Jean Segura. We spent two days with Segura there,

including a visit to his grandmother’s house where he lived as a child. We had

the opportunity to meet all four of his grandparents — his grandfather,

Henrique, was proudly wearing a Brewers hat! Segura showed us how he would help

his grandmother, Tereza, make candy. Segura also gave us an instructional on

how to make a ball out of a sock!

A Baseball Trailblazer 

We had the opportunity to meet Ozzie Virgil Sr. at the New

York Mets academy. Virgil was the first Dominican to play in the majors, making

his debut in 1956 with the New York Giants. Virgil landed in Detroit in 1958.

There he was the Tigers’ first minority player. He shared stories of the

language and cultural barriers he experienced in a similar fashion to Jackie

Robinson during that time.

Virgil is now 81 years old and still working with young

players at the Mets academy. His unique perspective on the history and

tradition of baseball in the Dominican was an honor to hear.

Top Twins Prospect

Twins fans are awaiting the big-league debut of the team’s top prospect, Miguel Sano. When Sano signed with the Twins in 2009, his $3.6 million bonus was the largest ever for a Latin player outside of Cuba. There were questions regarding his age, but he was cleared after a yearlong investigation. Sano is a native of San Pedro de Macoris, where he took us to his neighborhood and fields where he played. His family and trainer, Moreno Tejeda, spoke with us about Sano’s rise to fame and much anticipated big-league debut. A highlight at Sano’s house was meeting his pet monkey, Mr. Wilson!

Scouting the Competition 

While our trip was focused on the Brewers and Twins, we also spent time at other major-league academies to help FOX regional affiliates. We spent time at the academies for the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves.

July 2 is the annual signing day for players 16 years old and older to sign with major-league teams. Prospects may then be sent to live and train at the respective team’s academy. Signing a professional contract is often life changing for not only the player, but also their family, and their road to the big leagues begins at these baseball boarding schools.

The Cradle of Shortstops

San Pedro de Macoris is appropriately heralded as “The Cradle of Shortstops.” The city of nearly 200,000 people located on the country’s southern coast has produced dozens of major-league players including Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Cano and prospect Sano. Baseball has its roots in the San Pedro area because of the sugar cane industry and the teams the mills fielded. Some of baseball’s biggest stars call San Pedro de Macoris home and San Pedro’s winter ball team is called Estrellas Orientales, or the Eastern Stars.

Beach Day with Pedro Florimon

La Romana is the third-largest city in the Dominican with

about 130,000 people. Its picturesque beaches make it a popular tourist

destination. It’s also the hometown of Twins shortstop Pedro Florimon. Florimon

showed us his beautiful city, including the fields where he grew up playing and

training. It was great to see how the young kids playing there reacted to

seeing Florimon!

Tigres vs. Aguilas

The Dominican Winter League is a professional league of six

teams. It features the Dominican’s best players, including current minor and

major leaguers. One of the biggest rivalries is the Tigres del Licey of Santo

Domingo and Aguilas Cibaenas of Santiago. The Estadio Quisqueya in Santo

Domingo holds about 16,500 people and with horns and music blaring all game

long, it was truly one of the loudest and most lively environments I’ve ever

experienced.

We caught up with Brewers infielder Juan Francisco, who

plays for Licey, and Mike Guerrero, the newest addition to the Brewers coaching

staff, who serves as the Licey manager. Former outfielder Moises Alou is now

the general manager of the Leones del Escogido — he was kind enough to offer

his perspective on playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

Brewers Brass in the DR

The Brewers academy is located just outside of San Pedro de Macoris, and is owned by former reliever Salomon Torres. Much of the Brewers front office staff — including Gord Ash, Dan O’Brien, Reid Nichols, Craig Counsell, Tom Flanagan and Zack Minasian — was there to evaluate the 41 prospects currently there, including a tryout for 30 prospective players. We also visited the Escuela Basica Monte Cristy, where players had helped remodel the school and were on hand for the opening of the school’s new multimedia lab. Students were very excited to see the Brewers there!

Meet Me in Baseball City

Midway between Santo Domingo and San Pedro de Macoris is

Baseball City, a complex featuring the academies of four teams, including the

Twins. We spent two days with the 30 players currently playing and training

there. A day in the life of a prospect there is very busy with work starting

early in the morning with stretch, field work, hitting in batting cages and

weight lifting. They play games against other academy teams and have English

class in the afternoon. The academy aims to develop them as baseball players,

but also for life in the United States. We also spent time with Twins prospects

Jorge Polanco and Danny Santana at the academy.

An International Fan Favorite 

The final leg of our trip took us to Santiago, hometown of

Brewers All-Star and Gold Glove winner Carlos Gomez. Santiago is the

Dominican’s second largest city and Gomez showed us his beautiful hometown and

the neighborhood where he grew up. We also made a visit to the Escuela Luciana

Diaz, which Gomez attended from ages 10-15. The director of the school shared

stories of Gomez as a kid — he was as energetic then as he is now! As soon as

the students realized Gomez was there, some came running out of the classrooms

to see him and ask for autographs. Kids were cheering and screaming in every

room he entered. Go-Go is a fan favorite in Milwaukee, and even more so in his

hometown!


Sophia Minnaert is FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Brewers &

Bucks social media/sideline reporter