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The Bahamas Are On The Rise

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Tahnaj Thomas (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Talk to enough minor league baseball players from the Bahamas and you'll swear that every player is related to one another, as they often refer to each other as their brother or cousin. It would perhaps take the investigation of a professional genealogist and an array of DNA tests to determine who's related and who's not, but it really doesn't matter to these guys.

“A few of us actually have blood (relations), but not all of us,” said Diamondbacks outfielder Dominique Collie. “But growing up in the Bahamas, once you play baseball you play baseball forever. Everybody knows you and everybody's been practicing with you for so long, it's basically a brotherhood. Blood couldn't make us any closer.”

Collie is one of at least nine native Bahamians currently on the extended spring training rosters of the 15 Arizona-based organizations, and that doesn't count players like D-backs shortstop Jazz Chisholm and Indians outfielder Todd Isaacs who received full-season assignments out of spring training. In addition to Collie, other Bahamian players currently in Arizona include Trent Deveaux (Angels), D'Shawn Knowles (Angels), Kristian Robinson (Diamondbacks), Tahnaj Thomas (Indians), Reshard Munroe (Reds), Courtney Smith (Rangers), Keithron Moss (Rangers) and Shameko Smith (Rockies).

The Bahamas is made up of more than of 700 islands, islets and cays spread across 760 miles in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cuba and east of the Florida Keys. Seventy percent of the approximately 400,000 citizens reside on the island of New Providence, also the home of the capital city of Nassau.

Six Bahamians have played major league baseball. The first to make it to the big leagues was Andre Rodgers, who played for three teams from 1957 to 1967, the longest career of any Bahamian native.

The quantity of players coming from the Bahamas obviously pales in comparison to Caribbean baseball hotbeds, such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, but the number and quality of minor league and college players is definitely trending up.

“The sport is growing (in the Bahamas),” said former outfielder Antoan Richardson, the most recent Bahamian to play in the big leagues. “More importantly, you have guys just actually believing that this is a possibility for them to do. There's a lot more room for us to grow in terms of creating opportunity for more young men …. You see a lot more children gravitating to baseball in the recreational leagues that are provided in the Bahamas.”

Richardson, who scored the winning run for the Yankees in Derek Jeter's final at-bat on the last day of the 2014 season, has become a significant driving force behind Bahamian baseball since his retirement as an active player. His Project Limestone organization (www.projectlimestone.orgemphasizes not just development in baseball but also in science, technology, engineering and math.

Bahamian minor league players all point to Richardson as a major influence in their careers to date.

“I decided I needed to go back home and invest in the community,” said Richardson, a Vanderbilt product who went on to play 12 seasons as a professional. “It was very important for them to have information and resources available to them to make those decisions because starting a professional career is not an easy one to make … The goal is to create an environment that encourages learning, safe environments that challenge them to be self-exploratory individuals, but also breeding an environment that they feel they can go after anything they want and go after their dreams.”

Many of the minor league players from the Bahamas get started in baseball early in life. The most common little leagues are Freedom Farm and Junior Baseball League of Nassau, both of which have programs for multiple age groups. Collie said he got started at the age of three, while Robinson, Knowles and Deveaux all began playing in leagues when they were just a year or two older than that.

“My older brother started playing baseball,” Knowles said. “My mom took me and my twin brother, and we loved it. We just played all up in the dirt … it was good for us, keeping us occupied.”

In Deveaux's case, he had plenty of family members encouraging him to continue his baseball career as a youth.

“I had a cousin who played in the big leagues named Wenty Ford,” Deveaux said. “He was a pitcher with the Braves. On my mom's side there were tons of baseball players. I had big shoes to fill and I just loved to compete with my family, so I looked up to (Ford) and wanted to be like him someday. Even though tragically he died (in a car crash) before I was born, it was like, 'If one of my cousins did it, why can't I?' I just ran with it.”

The soon-to-be 18-year-old Deveaux agreed to terms with the Angels last year for $1.2 million. He was eligible to sign the previous year after appearing before scouts at the 2016 MLB International Showcase in Santo Domingo, but instead spent the next year training first in Florida and later in the Dominican Republic.

“I chose to wait a year because honestly at that time in my life I wasn't training seriously,” Deveaux said. “I was just going off my athletic ability. I wasn't into any structured training …. I said, 'I can really do this.' That's when I knew that I really had something, so I decided to sharpen my skills and get really focused and started training hard."

It was during this time that Deveaux switched from shortstop to the outfield—a position better suiting his tools and athleticism.

Scouts covering extended spring training games in Arizona are already going gaga over Deveaux's potential. They see an extremely athletic player who will be at least an above-average runner with a good feel to hit and an easy stroke from the plate. He's added at least 20 pounds of muscle since joining the Angels organization, and should continue to get stronger with maturity. Deveaux acknowledges that an important element in his development is to continue to improve his mind, as well as his body, and to not overthink when he's on the field.

Deveaux will make a strong case to be considered as a Top 100 Prospect when he officially begins his career this summer in the rookie-level Arizona League, as should D-backs outfielder Kristian Robinson. The latter is still a more raw, unpolished player, although he's made considerable strides since first coming to Arizona last fall for instructional league.

“The polish is shocking,” said Mike Bell, Arizona's Vice President of Player Development, about Robinson. “I've seen him do some things that you don't expect a young kid to do no matter where they come from. He's certainly made a good impact on and off the field … a tremendous kid and he's played very well here in extended.”

Still just 17, Robinson, who stands a muscular 6-foot-3 and tips the scales at more than 200 pounds, signed last summer for $2.55 million. Needless to say, he's an impressive physical specimen, with a physique that wouldn't look out of place on the gridiron. He's less refined than Deveaux right now, but with an extremely high ceiling. While the swing has improved considerably since last fall, scouts note that he sometimes has trouble getting the bat through the zone and is susceptible to offspeed pitches. He moves well for his size with easy long strides, projecting to be an above-average runner with plus power. To his credit, Robinson knows that he still has room to grow as a player.

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“I feel like I need to bring all five tools into play,” Robinson said. “I need to be able to transition from one tool to the next. If I'm at the plate and I get on base, then I need to transition to, 'I need to steal this base' and, 'I need to get to the next base and score this run.' In the field, I need to do the same thing and bring all my tools into play, and that will make me a better player.”

Robinson, who spent time in the states with a couple of travel ball teams prior to signing, said that choosing to align with Arizona was an easy decision.

“They basically just laid the best plan on the table for me,” Robinson said. “They told me what they had in mind. They gave me the best offer so I just decided to choose that team.”

What's obvious in talking to the players from The Bahamas is the strong character and makeup they all possess. It's a trait that has been ingrained in them their whole lives.

“We have a culture that is friendly, one that is mannerly,” Richardson said. “When your leading industry is tourism, you're going to learn to build good relationships and be respectful to others … We pride ourselves on being respectful, being mannerly, and being good people.”

That solid makeup and how the players carry themselves on and off the field will help pave the way for more Bahamians to get a chance in pro ball. It's a lesson that Richardson has stressed with this current group of young professionals.

“We have a responsibility to another generation,” Richardson said. “It's to not just think that the journey we are on belongs to ourselves. It belongs to a lot more people than ourselves … To make sure that we leave the jersey a little cleaner for the next group to come onboard, and make it easier for them to make that transition.”

This group of players has certainly absorbed that message.

“Our coaches that trained all of us—professionals now—the one thing they always talked about was that there is already a small group of us,” Collie said. “If something bad happens to one, they talk about all of us. We need to take care of one another …. show good character, good attitude all the time.”

“We're not just representing ourselves and our team,” Deveaux said. “We're representing the whole Bahamas …. if we mess up, the chances of them (MLB organizations) going back to the Bahamas to pick someone will slim down. We're hurting our country and the people coming up behind us with dreams looking up to us …. we've got to to help clear the way and not hurt it.”

Unlike most other imports from other countries, the Bahamian players come to the States with the advantage of English being their primary language. It certainly helps their transition to professional baseball and to life in the United States, in general. But there's one facet of life in the Bahamas that they miss just about every day—the type of food they are used to eating back home and especially the availability of home-cooked meals. Deveaux and Knowles have at least been able to find a Caribbean-style restaurant near the Angels' minor league complex in Tempe, Ariz., and they've been enthusiastic about sharing their native food with their American teammates.

“I gave them some curry goat at the pool,” Deveaux said. “Everyone (ate) a small piece. They loved it!”

While they can look forward to getting the full array of curry, jerk, fresh seafood and fresh fruit when they get home in the off-season, each Bahamian player believes they have a more important role—to share their experience from professional baseball and to provide sound advice to the next group of young players. Robinson's advice is to practice every day, get into a routine and work to become consistent, while Deveaux emphasizes working on the mental part of the game and strengthening your mind.

Knowles has an even stronger message for the next group of young Bahamian players.

“The most important lesson I can teach them is to trust the process and believe that you can do it,” Knowles said. “ … Just trust the process and work hard. Work hard and strive for your goals. If you want to be a professional, you've got to act like a professional on and off the field … that's basically the biggest part.”

While Andre Rodgers died just a few years after this latest group of Bahamian ballplayers were born, they all recognize his place in helping baseball in their country grow to what it is now.

“When people talk about us being professional baseball players, they ask us if we know about Andre Rodgers,” Collie said. “He has left a legacy in The Bahamas. What we're trying to do is create an even bigger one.”

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