A.J. Valencia was 2,800 miles from home and struggled with a language barrier so he naturally gravitated toward someone he could emphasis with to a certain degree.
Valencia will never fully know what it is a like to be a young boy with only baseball dreams on his mind while living in a small village near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, but he got a glimpse of it during winter break.
He saw how the game he loves is nearly the only option for most Dominicans to get a better life in America. They train on the sparse patches of grass and dirt across the road from their small concrete and wood homes. They see their fellow countrymen — David Ortiz, Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre — succeeding and they pour everything they have into getting noticed by MLB clubs before they turn 16 while using equipment nearly tattered as some of their clothes.
They just hope their dreams don’t end up in the same condition.
There is an unrelenting pressure for these young ballplayers to earn a contract in order to give the family a better life.
“Everything revolves around baseball there,” Valencia said. “Here we play for fun, as an extra curricular activity and because we love it. There it is, their life. They have to get signed by 16 or they probably won’t be considered (pro prospect).”
So when it was time for Valencia to consider who he was going to help out, even just a little by donating some baseball equipment, he chose someone about his size.
“I picked him because he was small like me,” the Desert Vista senior said. “I know what it is like to be one of the little guys and I wanted to help him as much as I could,”
Valencia was part of the Trosky Baseball “Dominican Republic Baseball Adventure” that took place Dec. 26 through Jan. 2. Trosky Baseball is based out of San Diego and puts on an annual showcase game. They’ve been heading to the Dominican the last few years to help players develop and learn some life lessons.
“It was unbelievable to see the way they lived compared to what we have here,” Valencia said. “We are blessed, but they live their life the only way they know how.”
The trip also included training on the beach and a game at some of the major league facilities on the island, some Caribbean leisure, experiencing the culture and acts of service by bringing extra baseball equipment to hand out to the Dominican youth.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime and I am so glad I went,” he said. “It changes your perspective on things and makes you appreciate what you have.”
Desert Vista coach Stan Luketich, who has had a chance to coach in other countries, believes these opportunities can really change a player’s perspective.
“It opens his eyes on how good international competition can be,” he said. “Some times kids live in a small area and have no idea how good they can be until they see others at that level.”
The common thread among everyone involved, including the eight players from the states, was the game itself. Valencia, the only Arizonan, played seven games in six days at the Chicago White Sox complex.
“We couldn’t really communicated with them because of the language barrier, but that didn’t matter on the field,” he said. “We could use baseball as our interrupter, sort of. We all know the language of baseball.”
Valencia, who is expected to be one of the players for the Thunder this spring after hitting .356 with 25 runs and 12 stolen bases as the everyday center fielder his junior year, said he is a better player — and person — because of the experience.
“I did pretty good considering I haven’t seen live pitching in awhile,” he said. “The level of play was pretty good. We only had eight players so we always had one Dominican on our team and it was great. I enjoyed the baseball part of it, but the best part was getting to see a new culture and the life experience.”
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.