Peña, Jiminian among Rockies enjoying Grand Junction
Franmy Peña smiled and looked over his shoulder toward a woman watering the baseball field after an evening home game victory at Suplizio Field.
That’s just not something that happens in the Dominican Republic. It would be a man’s job, he said, providing this as just a small example of a cultural difference.
Peña, 20, a catcher for the Grand Junction Rockies, arrived in June along with other players from the Dominican Republic and Latin American countries — all hoping for their shot at playing Major League Baseball, some seeing it as a ticket out of poverty. And with family more than an ocean away, these young men work just as hard at overcoming cultural, language and climate challenges as they do at their craft.
“My advice is to work hard every day, trust in God and never lose hope,” pitcher Johendi Jiminian said in his native language of Spanish.
Jiminian, who hails from the agricultural town of Nagua, was first struck by the size of the U.S. The 19-year-old described the arrival as impressive and said he is content and thankful. He is No. 7 of 10 children from a humble, Christian home, and it is “a childhood dream to be able to help my family,” he said.
The team’s manager, Tony Diaz, has a personal understanding of the challenges these young players face and helps them bridge communication and cultural gaps.
“I encourage them to embrace each other and each others’ heritage and culture,” said Diaz, who is proud of his roots, saying he is Dominican American.
The Dominican Republic occupies a key role in the world of baseball. Locally, about 30 percent of the team is from Latin America. In the national trend, they make up more than 40 percent of major and minor league players, with the Dominican leading that representation, according to the Entrena consulting group.
So, on an island where about 42 percent of the country’s 10 million residents face poverty, baseball can be seen as an out.
Diaz said about 90 percent of the players signed are from very poor backgrounds. He also is not surprised that Dominicans make up such a large percentage of baseball players. It is an athletic country, and Major League Baseball is invested in baseball academies there, he continued.
“This is truly the land of opportunity,” he said, adding that locally supportive surroundings have helped the players with adjustment. “The community has really opened its arms to us in a way that is remarkable.”
Pitcher Jayson Aquino, 19, stepped in a little late to the game, arriving to the team at the beginning of August after being sent home from extended spring training in Arizona and promoted. He went home sad to adjust his mechanics, but he was determined to compete and fulfill his dream.
Aquino said life here is “tremendously different.” Some of the words he used to describe it included clean and more comfortable.
All of these players praised their host families and said one of the most fun aspects has been the enthusiasm they see from the fans.
Wilfredo Rodriguez, 18, of Puerto Rico, has been particularly impressed with them. They are always supportive and attentive, he said, adding that is not something he usually sees at home, with other sports being more popular.
“It’s not an easy road … but people have been readily available to help,” he said.
Peña’s path has not been an easy one, either. Having played ball since he could hold a bat, his goal was to be signed at age 16. But he had to put in two more years of dedication before that happened.
Recently, the journey threw him another curveball in its welcome to Grand Junction. Upon stepping off the plane he was greeted with climate change and a 104-degree fever that left him ill for a week and down 10 pounds.
“Never become disenchanted,” Peña said. “Never put your head down.”