New academy boosts Mariners' presence in Dominican
Cano among players offering praise at grand opening for state-of-the-art complex
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- As Jochi Ogando sits playing dominoes with three other young baseball prospects, two huge photos loom on the wall behind his head.
Felix Hernandez and Edgar Martinez, two Latin American legends, cast a silent -- yet constant -- reminder to the youngsters in the outdoor patio adjacent to the shiny, new dormitory at the Mariners' Dominican Republic baseball academy.
The Mariners are jumping full speed ahead into the Dominican baseball world with Thursday's lavish grand-opening ceremony of their $7 million facility in Boca Chica, on the heels of their offseason signings of local heroes Robinson Cano and Fernando Rodney.
Ogando, a 20-year-old pitcher, is one of about 30 players already living and working out at the new facility, which ultimately will house 80 youngsters in a sparkling complex that includes three baseball fields, covered batting cages, weight rooms, classrooms and dormitories for Mariners' Minor League prospects from the Caribbean area.
"When I see a photo like that, it gives me the will to work hard and someday be in a picture like that myself," Ogando said, nodding toward the imposing images of Martinez and Hernandez.
Another gigantic picture around the corner shows Cano swinging a bat, but the young Dominicans don't need photographic evidence on that one. The newest Mariners star took batting practice at the facility Thursday and then spoke at the opening ceremony, throwing his considerable local support behind a project he hopes will help others follow his path.
"This is good," said an appreciative Cano, whose offseason home is a 10-minute drive away. "I've been in some academies before, but what they've done here is amazing. Not only for these kids, but for all Dominicans, this means a lot.
"We have more chances to get guys signed and get a chance to play baseball. It's more opportunity for a career."
To understand the Mariners' motivation for their new international investment, one need only look at baseball's current bloodlines. About 10 percent of current Major Leaguers hail from the Dominican, and this island country south of Cuba has produced such stars as Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Adrian Beltre and, yes, Cano.
Virtually every team in the Majors has a significant Dominican presence, with the Mariners' current camp competition including outfielders Abraham Almonte and Julio Morban, infielder Carlos Triunfel, pitchers Anthony Fernandez, Hector Noesi, Jonathan Arias, Ramon Ramirez and the newly signed Rodney and Cano.
"We need to get better," new Mariners president Kevin Mather said after Thursday's ribbon-cutting, "and there are good ballplayers here."
All 30 Major League teams have some facility in the Dominican. The Mariners, who previously shared an older complex with the Dodgers, will now run their own state-of-the-art academy with the hope of improving their profile and ability to sign and develop top young prospects.
The Cubs, Rockies and Phillies are among the other MLB clubs that have opened complexes in recent years, but the Mariners believe they've leapfrogged to the top of the class with their facility.
When Mariners officials first looked at the 24-acre property, the trees and vegetation were so thick that workers had to clear paths with a machete.
Now, after a 13-month construction project, players will perform on a main field bearing the name of Ken Griffey Jr. that has the exact same fence dimensions as Safeco Field. Adjacent fields are named after Martinez and Alvin Davis, with an extra half-field bearing Dan Wilson's name.
The fields are a short walk from the dorms and workout facilities that rise out of the surrounding fields like a baseball oasis.
"This is so perfect," said Martin Valerio, the Mariners director of administration in the Dominican. "Everything is so well done. The feeling is just 'wow' for everyone who sees it. It's a big thing to our economy, to our population, to our country. We are so proud as Dominicans to have this facility here. We can only say thank you."
The Mariners had the opportunity to split the new facility and its costs with another Major League club but chose to stay on their own for now, wanting to get full value in establishing their brand with local players.
In return, they vow to give those prospects more than just a baseball education. The academy offers English and computer classes to help the youngsters prepare for life in the U.S., knowing that it's hard enough to compete in the Minor or Major Leagues without worrying about adapting to a new language and culture as well.
"It's important to do right by the players we have coming from different places," Mariners Minor League director Chris Gwynn said. "This gives them an opportunity to develop their game, help them with nutrition, with self-esteem, everything they need to come over and be productive. Not everybody makes it to the big leagues, obviously, but this will help them in their life, just to become more whole."
As the Minor League coordinator, Gwynn appreciates the franchise's willingness to invest in long-term development.
"Every facility that is new always has the hope and everything that you need," Gwynn said. "But if you look at all the stuff this one will provide -- the language, nutrition, full-time cooks, let alone the baseball stuff -- this is just an incredible thing. I don't think the Mariners will really feel the impact until a little later, but in my world in the Minor Leagues, we'll feel it immediately.
"Looking at our players' faces today, they are so happy," Gwynn said. "They're as happy as anybody I've ever seen because they know what this is going to mean during the offseason, not having to worry about where they're going to live or work. It's a great deal and it should impact the Mariners. Players are living better and are more productive and happier. Happier players are usually better players."
Almonte, who started his career in the Yankees' Dominican academy, worked out at the facility on Thursday and gave his stamp of approval as well.
"Confidence really helps young players," said Almonte, who lives about 20 minutes from the new academy. "When you have a complex like this, you want to accomplish things and do your best. You feel more into things. You do extra to make yourself a better player."
And for the Mariners, that is the ultimate goal.
"We've had our problems in the Dominican Republic signing players," said general manager Jack Zduriencik. "This will be a huge step toward improving that."