By Kim Howard
The baseball team from the Dominican Republic was ahead 5-0 at the bottom of the fourth inning last Thursday night.
In the preceding six days, the team had already played nine baseball games, winning seven. Their opponents Thursday, players from Williston Little League, had played only twice during that time.
“This is their passion,” Williston Little League Vice President Greg Bolger said of the visiting Dominican Republic team. “They’re all amazing athletes. Some of the plays…they’re like acrobats.”
While baseball may have been the medium, it wasn’t the end goal for Bolger or many of those gathered at Williston Community Park last Thursday night. The sixth day of the Vermont-Dominican Republic Baseball Cultural Exchange program, Williston was stop 10 for the team playing throughout Chittenden County in their one-week visit.
“I’m happy our kids are getting a chance to interact with kids of another nationality,” Bolger said.
The exchange program is a product of the Vermont Institute on the Caribbean that aims to connect communities and cultures between the two areas.
“We believe in the power of small groups of people making change,” VIC Executive Director Marisha Kazeniac said. Kazeniac said she feels there’s been an increasing level of fear of foreigners among Americans since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“I really think friendship disarms that fear,” she said. Friendship “lets them feel safe in another part of the world.”
During April vacation this year, 16 boys and 10 adults from Burlington American Little League traveled to the Dominican Republic for the first half of the baseball cultural exchange. While the initial hours were a little tense, by the time the week was up, some of the kids were crying because they didn’t want to leave, according to Oscar Rodriguez, the coordinator of the program in the Dominican Republic.
Language barriers didn’t appear to stop friendships from developing. Though many Burlington kids spoke little or no Spanish, and most of the Dominican kids spoke little to no English, relationships flourished nonetheless. After the game in Williston, the kids from both teams ate and hung around together at a barbecue.
Abelmariano Mendoza Placencia, 12, said he’s made “too much friends” since arriving in Vermont, a place he said is “very good.”
The climate is interesting, Abelmariano said, adding he thought it was “very cold” Thursday night. Wind whipped across the field and the temperature had dropped rapidly late afternoon. During the team’s visit, local daytime high temperatures have ranged from the 60s through the 90s; in the Dominican Republic the tropical temperatures are steady year-round.
Despite Abelmariano being the best English speaker among the children visiting, this was his first trip to the U.S. and his first time in an airplane.
“I am so exciting,” he said. “When I was in the airplane, I see down, I see all the houses they look so small.”
Williston Little League helped support the Dominican team with a donation of $1,000.
Dominican parent Rafael Lantigua said the hospitality shown by the people of Vermont is something Dominican kids will “keep in their hearts forever.”
He’s been thrilled, too, that in each community they have played, many spectators have turned out.
“I think all the people were waiting for us,” Lantigua said.
Prompted by his father to try out his halting English, Rafael Lantigua, Jr., 9, said he thinks Vermont is “good” and “beautiful” and that he likes the mountains. His favorite part of the trip through Thursday was ice-skating at Leddy Park; it was his first time.
Williston players were enthused about their rivals.
“Not many people get to play teams from other countries unless you’re in the Little League World Series,” Tucker Kohlasch, 12, said. “It’s nice that little old Vermont can play people from the Dominican.”
Before racing off to bat, Kirk Fontana shared his thoughts.
“They’re a really good team and they’re really respectful,” he said.
As the teams headed into the fifth inning, with the score still 5-0, seven-year-old Greg Bolger told his father not to worry about the score because “it’s an expedition game.”
Yes, his father replied, it is an exhibition game. The final score was 9-4.