What a difference a baseball can make - not the game - a single baseball.
Petaluman Isaias Franco was visiting with his friend, former Major Leaguer Pedro Liriano on the patio of the ballplayer’s home in the Dominican Republic one night in June when a group of youngsters hesitantly approached the two men. They had heard that they were giving away baseball equipment, and they asked if they could have a baseball - one baseball.
The American had already distributed almost all the baseball equipment he had brought from the United States, but he still had one box of gear left.
“We were able to give each kid a hat, and we gave them one bat and a couple of gloves,” Franco related.
And yes, they got a baseball - three of them.
“They left with the biggest smiles on their faces,” Franco said.
The box of joy was part of a bounty of baseball paraphernalia Franco delivered to the small community of La Piedra. The equipment was donated by individuals, Little Leagues and other organizations in the North Bay.
In return for the equipment, the people of La Piedra gave Franco gratitude, hospitality, smiles and a glimpse of their culture.
“The biggest thing that struck me is that everyone is a brother,” Franco said. “They may not be related by blood, but they are all brothers and sisters. At the end of every day, they all get together, talk and have fun. It doesn’t matter if a man is the mayor or a field worker, everyone gets together.
“It is something we seem to have lost.”
While the people find peace in their common bonds, they are bonds forged by poverty.
“They live in one-room huts and shacks with dirt floors. Six or seven people of different generations live in the same hut,” Franco said. “Every day, people will go through the champ where they pile their trash and look for anything they can find.”
Still, the people and the kids manage to find happiness, and one of their greatest joys is baseball.
“They eat, breathe and love baseball,” Franco said. “They know as much about baseball as the American kids. They all have favorite Major League players and they can tell you all about them.”
When Franco distributed the gear, The whole town turned out for a communitywide celebration.
“Everyone provided food and drinks, and the kids played a baseball game in front of hundreds of spectators,” he recalled. “The ceremony was such a big deal that the local media came out to capture the moment. According to Franco, it was the first time a reporter had ever come to the village.
“The kids felt like superstars,” he said. “They really felt like someone cared about them and believed in them.”
Franco’s trip was made possible through his association with the Pedro Liriano and Ramon Ortiz Community Baseball Foundation, a baseball and cultural nonprofit established by the two former Major League players.
“They do much more than help kids play baseball,” Franco said. “The foundation is about jobs, education and helping people. It gives the people a feeling that change is coming. Their work is really making a difference.”
Just to get the gear to the Dominican Republic was an adventure.
Franco flew from San Francisco to Mexico City to Guatemala and finally Santo Domingo. At each stop, he had to navigate through custom checks with five duffel bags and a converted surf board bag stuffed with baseball paraphernalia - bats, uniforms, hats, balls, helmets, catcher’s gear and more.
In Santo Domingo, customs officials thought he was bringing the equipment into the country not to donate, but set up a sporting goods commercial business. Franco finally convinced them it was strictly charity by showing them newspaper clippings about his project.
Franco managed to clear all the logistical hurdles and bring not only baseball gear, but pride to a community where young baseball players previously had just a single one-size-fits-all helmet.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I can’t wait to go back.”
And, he is going back.
He is planning to sponsor what he said is the first Dominican Republic Fantasy Baseball Camp in December, taking a group of would-be baseball-hero adults on a trip that will not only allow them to play against professional baseball players, including the wealth of former Major Leaguers who call the Dominican Republic home, but also learn about the Dominican culture and its people.
Franco was able to lay the groundwork for the fantasy camp during his summer visit and made arrangements for several special events, including a gala party with many Dominican major-league stars, attendance at the immensely popular Dominican Winter League games and even a game for the fantasy players against some of the Winter League players at the showplace Juan Marichal Stadium.
“It is not only going to be a chance to play baseball with Major Leaguers, but it will be a cultural learning experience,” he said.
Franco also will bring with him more baseball gear to be distributed to other small villages and donate part of the proceeds from the camp to the Liriano and Ortiz’s Community Baseball Foundation.
Franco is a special education teacher at Tamalpais High School, and has long been involved in charity and volunteer work in Marin County.
He also is an avid baseball fan who is looking forward to participating in his own fantasy camp. For more information on the fantasy camp or Franco’s donations in the Dominican Republic, he can be reached at ifranco@GlobalBaseballAdventures.com.