Illinois baseball complete successful trip to Dominican Republic

A tiny, penury country, the Dominican Republic, has been a factory for professional baseball players. Of the 856 players on 30 big league rosters, the disabled list and restricted list, the Dominican produced 89 of them. This isn’t including High/Low A, Double A, Triple A and any of the levels in-between. 

Why is baseball so big in this poverty-stricken country? Well, the answer is the same reason why soccer is so big in Hispanic and European countries, and why cricket is so big in India and Sri Lanka. Not only because the sport is fun to play, but also because, for the players, it is a chance to escape, a chance to be like the Sammy Sosa’s of the past and the Robinson Cano’s of the present.

Baseball isn’t just a game, but a way of life in the Dominican Republic; the Illinois baseball team decided to use its Thanksgiving break to travel there.

This was the baseball program’s first trip outside of the country. Sports teams are allowed to take trips like this once every four years, and the baseball coaching staff is confident the team benefitted from the trip.

“So many great things come out of it: 10 extra practice days, as many games as you want. And chemistry, all the camaraderie that comes in a season we get taken care of before,” said Andrew Dickinson, assistant coach. “So many things come from it on a baseball side, but also on the humanitarian side.” 

On the baseball side of things, the Illini finished 5-2-1 in eight games on the week while hitting .219 and posting a 2.65 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 68 innings. Rob McDonnell turned in the best pitching performance of the trip for the Illini, tossing six strikeouts and giving up one run in just four innings of work against the Chicago White Sox Academy. Outfielder Pat McInerney hit the Illini’s only two home runs of the trip and collected six RBIs.

“Pitching-wise, pitchers threw strikes and were around the zone,” assistant coach Spencer Allen said. “Position player-wise, guys were pretty resilient at the plate, and we won some close games late. Defensively, we played very well.”

The competition on the trip was a tough test for the Orange and Blue. Every team except for the Dominican Air Force was filled with professional players, or an affiliate of a major league team.

Actual baseball was just one part of the trip for the Illini. The team also took the chance to do some humanitarian work. The entire team visited an orphanage, bringing equipment for the kids to use, in addition to being 36 role models and playmates for the kids to meet, even if only for a day.

“We go to the orphanage and the kids grab your hand and lead you away to go play on a teeter-totter, or the monkey bars, or basketball, volleyball,” Dickinson said. “We got off our bus one day and all these Dominican women started chanting IL-LI-NOIS like they were our biggest fans.”

When asked about the orphanage visit, Allen said, “This was a good life lesson for our guys.”

Both coaches said that the team benefitted from seeing the situation that the less-fortunate live in.

When asked if the team would consider going again, Dickinson said, “I definitely think it will be a thing where we go four years now.”

Drake can be reached at [email protected]