Friars to open new Dominican academy
Club feels state-of-the-art facility will improve local presence
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Carrie Weise's agenda for a few days during the second week of January was simple. The Padres season-ticket holder planned to head down to the island most famous for baseball, sightsee a little, and check out a few of the baseball academies across the country.For the lifelong San Diego fan, it was going to be a case of reality meeting fantasy. It was, and then some. John Moores was one step ahead of her. Having already visited many of the facilities in the Dominican Republic years ago, the Padres owner used the same few days to build upon what he had seen in the past. Moores' mission this time around was to turn his own baseball fantasy into reality with a groundbreaking ceremony at the club's new state-of-the-art baseball academy in Najayo, San Cristobal. "When I first came to this beautiful country three years ago, I was very disappointed our facility was as modest as it was," Moores said. "I was even more disappointed that, in a country with so many baseball players, that remarkably few, if none, had ended up with the San Diego Padres. We think this is a smart way to spend money." Weise was there to see it all. After all, making friends with the owner and his entourage in a fortuitous meeting in a local hotel lobby has its perks. Her lucky Padres hat just got luckier. "This is unbelievable," she said. "It's like a dream come true." Nobody said it better than Weise. There were several admirable attempts. "I have traveled to Santo Domingo many times over the last 20 years or so, but there is no more significant trip than I am on now," Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson said. "When I joined the Padres almost two years ago, it was clear we needed to reestablish our presence in the Dominican Republic. I am convinced that, in order to be in Major League Baseball and be successful in the postseason, we need contributions from players from all over the word -- particularly the Dominican Republic." The Padres' new international baseball academy, located in the southern Dominican province of San Cristobal, is a good start. Scheduled to open in 2008, the academy will eventually house more than 60 players and will feature two regulation-size fields, a half-field, batting cages, a clubhouse, a weight room, a training room and a dining hall. The facility will also feature on-site classrooms. The Padres' initial investment into the academy is more than $5 million, and the club expects to invest more as needed. "This organization has always been a scout-driven, player-development-driven organization, and we realize for us to be competitive we have to get talent from all over the world -- specifically Latin America, where we have been behind the curve," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "For us to be successful here on this island, we have to treat the island the same as we do as any of our Minor League affiliates, even though it's 3,000 miles away. We will have a strong front-office presence from ownership on down as we move forward." The Padres have been operating in the Dominican Republic for more than 20 years, the last nine of which at a modest camp in San Cristobal. While the new facility is being built, the Padres currently share a complex with Detroit and Washington at Loma del Sueno only a few miles away from the new site. The Padres need all the help they can get. Veteran utility infielder Manny Alexander is the only player from the Dominican Republic on the club's current 40-man roster. "This academy gives us some stature that San Diego has not had before in the country," said Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson. "As far as the signing process, the academy itself is not going to make us sign better players, but it is certainly going to give us a greater resource in the attraction to the Padres. The big players will still go for the bigger money, but for everybody else -- which is the majority -- this is an attractive place to play and stay." The Padres are also committed to the community that will house the academy. The club partnered with the government of the Dominican Republic, the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve the quality of basic public education in the Dominican Republic, specifically, Basica La Playa Elementary School and the surrounding schools. The partnership encourages the private and public sectors to join forces and invest resources in the Dominican Republic schools. "It is just the right thing to do," Moores said. "Most clubs try to be as active as they can in their communities, but I don't think there has been nearly as much involvement in the Dominican communities as there should have been. This is a poor country with a lot of needs, and it would be silly to think we can solve the big problems, but we maybe we can solve some small problems." Problems were few during the Padres' recent trip to the Dominican Republic. A day after meeting with local media in a Santo Domingo hotel, the groundbreaking ceremony, featuring speeches from Dominican dignitaries and government officials, was held on one of the playing fields. The Padres' large traveling party, which featured Moores, Alderson, Towers, Fuson, assistant general manager Fred Uhlman, chief financial officer Fred Gerson, associate counsel Jeremy Horowitz, director of corporate communications Tim Katzman and two media representatives, did not go unnoticed. In fact, it was heralded locally as yet another sign of commitment by the club. "What the Padres are doing represents the consolidation of the industry in the Dominican Republic but also it opens a new era because the facilities are going to be state-of-the-art," said Ronaldo Peralta, the manager of Major League Baseball's international office in Santo Domingo. "We used to aspire to achieve the same facilities in the country as in the United States, and I think the Padres have gone beyond that. This demonstrates a real commitment and says that, in the future, we could have better facilities internationally than in the United States."
Developing baseball players and community involvement are the top priorities at the new facility, but the club also wants to eventually offer fantasy-camp packages at the Najayo academy for fans just like Weise. Just don't count on a return trip back to California on the owner's private jet like she received.Then again, with Moores and the Padres, who knows for sure? "This is a good start, but it's not a lot to celebrate yet, other than the symbolic turning over of a little dirt," Moores said. "We will see how the buildings shake out. We have a lot of work to do here. We have yet to define what our role will be with the primary school in the neighborhood, and I'm really looking forward to that." After two glorious days in the Dominican Republic, he is not alone.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.