Free agent pitcher Miguel Batista arrived home in the Dominican Republic last week after the type of whirlwind off-season tour he’s become increasingly known for in South America. Batista and his literary agent, Elizabeth Martinez, spent two weeks in Venezuela and Colombia, doing their best to distribute bagloads of baseball equipment and Mariners gear to young baseball players in some of the most remote, impoverished areas of those countries. Batista has made previous such trips to Panama and Ecuador, where he also speaks with young ballplayers of all ages and tries to encourage them to pursue their baseball dreams. He was the team’s 2009 recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, honoring his humanitarian work, which also included a 2008 visit to storm-ravaged regions in his Dominican homeland.
At a time when some major league baseball teams are considering a withdrawl of players from the region because of the threat of war with Colombia by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Batista went head-on into both countries — known for their kidnappings of wealthy foreigners — without so much as a security detail.
This time, he spoke to several groups of players in the towns of Tinaco and San Carlos about what it takes to make it to the big leagues. He also spoke to their coaches, and to students at an academy for sports trainers and coaches, about the mental aspect of professional baseball and how important it is for teams in determining which players will make it and which will not. The photos accompanying this blog were taken by Martinez and others present when he spoke in Venezuela.
As is usually the case, the trip was not without its difficulties. Batista had to cancel the Colombian portion of his speaking engagements when customs officers in Bogota seized the equipment and merchandise he had brought in for the children. He had to get the Dominican ambassador to Colombia involved and eventually, the goods were released — with a catch.
“About half the stuff was missing when we got it back,” he said.
The customs officers had apparently claimed Batista owed tax money on it, even though the goods had been donated for charity. As to the missing goods, he has no idea what happened but is trying to recover it.
Among the missing goods were some of roughly 250 Ken Griffey Jr. backpacks, with images of the Mariners star on them, donated by the player himself. There was also other missing equipment the Mariners and the equipment manager of the Cleveland Indians had donated to Batista.
“We were supposed to go to some towns in Colombia, but I had to tell them we couldn’t do it because we only had half the stuff,” he said. “I told them we had other places we had to go in Venezuela after that and we needed all the stuff that was left.”
Batista was already scheduled, for business reasons, to be in Colombia to attend lectures on farming — specifically the artificial insemination of bulls — being held by a veterinary expert, and the charity portion of that trip had been added on to his schedule. But the Venezuelan portion of the trip had been the major part of his charity stop and the main reason he was going to South America.
So, that part of the tour had to remain as scheduled and he did his best with the remaining merchandise.
He arrived there only a couple of days after Venezuelan president Chavez had begun threatening war with neighboring Colombia, causing vast instability in the entire region and spooking MLB teams with prospects there. But Batista said he wasn’t overly concerned by all the sabre-rattling.
“They always talk a lot of crap down there,” he said. “Chavez is always saying stuff.”
Batista said he found it humorous that Chavez was threatening war at the same time that his government-run television station was running an advertising campaign promoting friendliness with Colombian viewers who could pick up the feed from across the border. Ignoring all the fears and potential safety risks for athletes worth millions of dollars, he and his agent headed to San Carlos, a town of about 85,000 in the northwestern part of the country.
San Carlos is actually the biggest municipality in the region and the capital of the state of Cojedes.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Batista said.
He also visited the nearby town of Tinaco, a farming community of 25,000. Many of the children Batista met there had parents who worked on farms and lived in the countryside and were poorer than those he’d met on other trips.
“They were very humble people,” he said. “They barely had anything. They always say that people in these countries are poor, but this time they were as poor as it gets.”
Batista says the main reason he makes these trips is so that children who idolize professional athletes and often fantasize about making it big can actually meet a major leaguer and see that they are human just like them. He spoke to them about the mentality it takes to train to be a pro athlete.
He wanted both children and their coaches to hear this.
“You don’t talk to them about being baseball players,” he said. “You talk to them about one day becoming professional baseball players.”
Batista grew up in the Dominican and never thought he could be a big leaguer. He was signed to his first pro contract when he accompanied a teenage pal to a tryout in his neighborhood and wound up being the one the scout became most interested in. Batista told this story and others to the young ballplayers to try to show them how living out their dreams was not impossible.
“You want them to meet you, to see that you are real and that it can happen for them,” he said.
Batista knows his days with the Mariners are done. He says he has a few teams interested in him for next season and that all of them are contenders and could give him a final shot at another World Series ring.
He knew early on last season that he no longer factored in the M’s plans.
“I told them they should just release me and let me go somewhere else because they were paying me too much money just to sit and not pitch,” he said. “But they kept telling me they wanted me around for insurance.”
Batista said he pitches best when used often and that the days of inactivity he’d go through hurt his performance on the mound at times. But he says he enjoyed being a part of this year’s bullpen and that some of the methods used by coach John Wetteland made it a fun place to be.
“He did things to relax the guys,” Batista said of some of the bullpen’s pre-game rituals. “There were a couple of guys there who were too tight early on and he tried to keep everyone loose.”
Batista participated in his first big-league spring training with the Montreal Expos as a minor leaguer back when Wetteland was that team’s closer. Television cameras aimed towards the Mariners bullpen this past season often caught Batista not participating in pre-game rituals with the younger relievers.
But he insists it had nothing to do with bitterness over being bumped from a late-inning bullpen role or any feuds with Wetteland.
“There was stuff they did that didn’t make sense to me,” he said, laughing. “Some of the things, I was laughing my butt off. I was like ‘I’m too old for some of this stuff.’ But they liked it and it kept them loose.”
Batista says he understands the team was going younger and that guys like him and Roy Corcoran didn’t really fit in to the bullpen’s future plans by mid-season. He says he harbors no ill-will towards the team and feels a couple of young arms, specifically Mark Lowe and Shawn Kelley, are just a couple of adjustments away from “really abusing hitters out there.”
He feels both have the stuff to be closers down the road. Batista notes that David Aardsma had struggled with his command in prior years and early this spring, but quickly turned things around and became a top closer.
“Sometimes, one or two things is all it takes,” Batista said.
For now, he’s spent the past week recovering from his trip and listening to details of a handful of calls his agent has had from teams.
“The last week was slow because of Thanksgiving,” he said. “I expect everything to start picking up the way it normally does by Monday.”
Batista will turn 39 when spring training begins next February.
And just as the threat of war didn’t keep him from his charity trip. he insists his encroaching age won’t bring a halt to his career anytime soon.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m going to keep going.”