University of Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb spent the final week of July in the Dominican Republic as a coach for the Dominican Baseball Camp.
Sept. 10, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb knows the importance of working hard for what you get. After spending a week in the Dominican Republic at the end of July for a high school baseball camp, Hartleb experienced first-hand how the people in the Dominican live their lives through baseball.
"Eighty percent of the foreign players who are in major league baseball are from the Dominican," Hartleb said. "When we would drive through villages and towns at eight in the morning, there would be hundreds of kids playing games. The desire, the work ethic, the love for the game, the passion, it was eye-opening."
Hartleb learned about the Virginia-based Dominican Baseball Camp while visiting with fellow Big Ten coach, Tracy Smith of Indiana.
"He just told me it's something I need to look at and it was a great experience," Hartleb said. "I wanted to go down there and learn a little bit more about Dominican baseball, what things made them successful and see if there were things we could bring back to help our players."
The Dominican Baseball Camp was started in 2008 by Sam LeBeau, and the organization invites high school players to spend a week in the Dominican Republic with college coaches to explore baseball in the island nation. Throughout the week, players and coaches are exposed to playing baseball in a completely different environment. Most of the time is spent playing games with the locals, checking out the Major League Baseball complexes located on the island, as well as sightseeing, recreation and cultural opportunities.
The campers played six games in five days against Dominican teams, and the group of 14 players was split between the two coaches for training purposes. The island is home to multiple MLB academies. The campers were able to tour the facilities, watch a game at the complex and even get out on the field during their own practice and games.
"The camp is set up to learn about baseball and to learn about baseball in the Dominican," Hartleb said. "But I would say it's probably more of a cultural trip than it is a baseball trip. It's a great learning experience. I learned a lot about the people, learned a lot about their desire, and the desire to excel in baseball and basically get off the island and into the United States."
Hartleb was accompanied by Michigan State head baseball coach Jake Boss, and the two coaches also took their sons along for the trip.
"He loved it," Hartleb said of his son, Zak. "It was a great experience for him. I've been to third-world countries, so I knew what I was getting into but I wanted my son to understand how fortunate we are compared to other people."
Being in a new place, in a beautiful setting, it was hard to decide what the stand-out part of the trip was for Hartleb, but the memories he made with those he met will stick with the coach.
"The interaction with the natives was neat," Hartleb said. "Even though most of them couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Spanish, I was still able to interact with them. They were fun, upbeat people. Even the ones that had absolutely nothing still had a great disposition. They were always happy and joking and just didn't understand that they don't have anything. It's just a way of life for them."
Saying baseball is popular in the Dominican is an understatement. Those that live in the small Caribbean nation don't have much, but they have enough to enjoy the simple things in life, and baseball is at the top of that list.
Using baseball as a way of making a living and getting off the island is one thing, but it's also a favorite past-time. While on the trip, Hartleb learned that baseball actually started in the Dominican when sugar cane workers would take their one day a week break on Sunday and play the game of baseball for fun and competition.
The nature of the games during the camp was much more casual and relaxed than in America, but the fields that the teams played on weren't always ideal. Some were full of trash and rocks, and one even had to be shared with some cows, but it didn't hurt the flow of the game and how fun the game was. It was just normal.
During one of the games, one of Hartleb's assistant Dominican coaches, Arno, arrived at the third-base coaching box and handed Hartleb a fresh mango from a mango tree next to a small hut-type house near the field. Hartleb asked Arno if he climbed the tree to get the snack. Arno's simple reply was, "No, all good Dominican pitchers knock them out of the trees with rocks."
"I knew there would be poverty being a third-world country, but I didn't think the poverty would be as significant," Hartleb said. "Everywhere you drove [there were] little shack-like huts with dirt floors that only used candles at night for their lighting."
Part of the trip included coach Hartleb wanting to give back to the people who had so little. He and Mike Namoff of "This is it Furniture" helped collect donations with his dream organization for people to drop off equipment to be taken down with campers to the Dominican.
"We came up with ten huge bags of equipment," Hartleb said. "I was only able to take two over on this trip. We were able to take a number of spikes and old gloves to them. Some of the Dominican players would run in and lay their gloves down for somebody else to use. Very few of them had spikes and some of the things they had were completely torn up. Being able to help, and almost being on a little bit of a baseball mission trip was very rewarding."
Now, Hartleb is going to work on getting his own players to have the Dominican experience after being invited to return.
"That's one thing that I'd really like to do is raise the funds to go down there with our team," Hartleb said. "We would play some of the Dominican summer league teams, which are affiliated with Major League Baseball since each organization has a facility down there. I want our players to understand what it's like to play that type of talent as well as learn the culture a little bit and understand what the poverty is like in other parts of the world."
The Illini will have to be approved for the trip and are targeting Thanksgiving break of 2014 if they can raise the funds. According to NCAA rules, teams may take a foreign tour once every four years. The team would be allowed to play the games in the Dominican without being penalized on their 56-game schedule, and would be allotted 10 extra practice dates prior to the trip which would help with the development of the players.
"It's something I hope to be able to do again," Hartleb said. "It was very rewarding and something I want to do with our players. We'd get to play on all of the academy fields over there, and it would give our guys a chance to understand the culture and really see how fortunate we are."