Once the high school season concludes toward the end of the spring, the summer showcase circuit will kick into gear. Underclassmen from all over the country will make their stops at camps in an effort to hone their skills and get noticed by college recruiters or professional scouts.
However, some high school players will bypass the circuit and head to the beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republic to play on the diamonds and experience the culture of the baseball-rich Caribbean island.
Sam LeBeau is an assistant coach at Albemarle High (Charlottesville, Va.) and an entrepreneur in the culture of baseball. He is spreading the word about a camp he has organized where high school-aged players travel to the Dominican Republic to practice and play games, but also learn about the culture and the game of baseball from the Dominican perspective.
The idea stemmed from LeBeau’s own experience playing baseball every day in the Dominican. LeBeau didn’t opt for the post-college romp around Europe when he graduated from James Madison in 1996. He was all about baseball and intrigued by the number of talented players that came from such a small country. In a search for answers, he worked and saved up money for a year then packed his baseball equipment and bought a plane ticket to the small Caribbean island. He had no agenda, only a hotel to stay in and a desire for more information.
“I went out and discovered a local field,” LeBeau said. “I started to practice with some local players. I was invited to play in a local tournament and eventually joined a team.”
LeBeau spent four months there, practicing and playing every day. He had found an apartment to rent for the equivalent of approximately $140 per month and had enough money saved so he didn’t have to find a job.
After the four months was up, he returned to the United States ready to share his unique experience.
It’s been more than a decade since LeBeau made that first trip, but the experience is fresh in his mind and he’s scheduled to return this summer with several high school players. The camp’s participants will travel to Boca Chica, a seaside town about 30 miles east of the capital city Santo Domingo and where LeBeau originally found himself.
A day’s itinerary is packed from sunrise to sunset, but each day has its own exclusive element. The basics of every day consist of three meals and baseball. One morning they’ll receive instruction from a native coach and another they’ll learn from a U.S. college coach. They’ll also play games every afternoon against a local team and on the last day, the teams will be mixed, giving players from both countries an opportunity to play alongside each other.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity for the players,” LeBeau said, “and that feeling they’re going to get when they’re somewhere that is complete foreign to them, and then they get out on that field and all of a sudden it’s something familiar again.”
If the camp were to fill up to its maximum capacity there would be 10 week-long trips. The different trips have different age ranges with a college coach accompanying each. There are two trips scheduled that will take college-aged players and one that is just for 13-15 year olds. The rest are for players 18 and under.
Kevin Tucker, an assistant at Kansas, is scheduled to accompany head coach Jeff Diskin and a group of his players from Kansas City’s Pembroke Hill High. Tucker received an e-mail from LeBeau and ran with the idea. It offers him an opportunity to work with the younger athletes and provide them with tips on getting to the next level. Tucker is excited for the opportunity and the personal experience.
“It’s an area that is untapped for us from a recruiting standpoint,” Tucker said. “I’ll oversee the practices, but also learn what they’re all about down there.”
As for Dominican recruits: “My eyes are always open,” Tucker added.
Eight Pembroke Hill Raiders, all underclassmen, will make the trip to get another angle of the game.
“My goal is to have them hear another voice about baseball and learn another perspective of the game,” Diskin said. “It’s not uncommon for teams to take big trips like this. It’s a special trip with an opportunity to learn.”
The camp is not entirely about baseball. Players will get a chance to visit local sugarcane fields, essentially in the middle of nowhere. Not only will they get to see a big part of the culture and industry that drives the country, but there they have a baseball diamond carved out, surrounded by sugar cane. It’s the Dominican’s version of the Field of Dreams.
It would seem that a trip of this nature would fill very quickly, but there are many spots left.
“Kids will still have an opportunity to sign up right up until June,” LeBeau said. “You can always really sign up until the day, but the longer you wait, the more you risk the airfare going up.”
LeBeau found the common ground of baseball in his post-graduation trip and is using that to continue developing a relationship with the people of the Dominican Republic. When he was playing there, local kids and fans that he didn’t even know would come up and say hello. And they still do that when he makes return visits, more than 10 years later. Tourism is important there, but the native people haven’t warmed up to them as they have to LeBeau. Baseball was his in.
“It was a great baseball experience, but also a great cultural experience,” LeBeau added. “I really had not had a lot of experience outside my comfort zone of the U.S. Me, playing baseball down there, they loved it. They really respected that.”
AROUND THE NATION
• John Lowery Sr., head coach of Jefferson High (Shenandoah Junction, W.Va.) only needed the first two games of the season to eclipse the 1,000 win mark. The Cougars defeated Freedom High (South Riding, Va.) 10-0, then put on the real show, honoring their coach with a postgame ceremony. Lowery is in his 38th year of coaching, all of which came with Jefferson (originally Harpers Ferry High). Along with the 1,000 wins, Lowery also has nine state titles to his credit.
• Winter Springs (Fla.) High righthander Bryan Brown was unhittable for three games, unofficially. He tossed two no-hitters, back-to-back, pitched in a game that was postponed and came out in the following game only to throw another no-no. He was 4-0, 1.14 in 37 innings with 47 strikeouts. He’s committed to Central Florida and throws four pitches, but doesn’t blow hitters away.
“He’s not a power guy,” Winter Springs head coach Jeff Perez said. “He has four pitches and keeps hitters off balance. His slider is his best pitch. He has confidence in it and throws it any count.”
• Patrick Schuster, a lefthander for Mitchell High in New Port Richey, Fla. fell two strikeouts short of the state record in an April 15 start. Schuster took the hill against local opponent Gulf High and struck out 20 Buccaneers, nine in a row at one point. He did give up three runs on four hits and a walk, but those runs didn’t cross the plate until the bottom of the seventh and the Mustangs held on for the 10-3 win. The original record was set 15 years ago by Steven Keen, who struck out 22. (Two of his strikeouts reached base.)