Roberto Clemente’s famous quote goes, “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on earth.”
Even after 3,000 hits, an MVP and a Hall-of-Fame career as a player, Clemente is better known as a world-class humanitarian for his work in his native Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, the United States and elsewhere.
Clemente dedicated his life to making a difference, using his role and voice as a baseball player to impact lives, and so many after him have done the same.
Puerto Rico has received significant help in rebuilding the island both physically and emotionally since Hurricane Maria hit in September of 2017. The latest group effort in restoring part of the island, specifically through baseball, came from “More Than A Game’s” recent trip to the city of Coamo.
The non-profit organization revitalized a baseball complex and hosted a youth clinic and Home Run Derby during its five days in Coamo, doing everything in their power to make a difference.
It’s clear that MTAG made an impact in Puerto Rico, but the magnitude of that impact has only scratched the surface.
“The people that have come from MTAG down here, they’ve been great to the kids. Got some minor league players, got some players that played in college and high school, got broadcasters down here, so the whole combination of people who are down here in Puerto Rico have been outstanding for the better of the kids,” said Nick Ortiz, manager of the GCL’s Pulaski Yankees.
Ortiz was at Caratini Stadium in Coamo for MTAG’s end-of-week clinic and Home Run Derby. The former minor-leaguer spent time hitting ground balls to kids and hit for the Puerto Rico team in the derby, watching and hanging out with current pro players whom he watched grow up and move through the baseball ranks.
One of those players was Phillies infielder Jesmuel Valentin, who also worked with the kids during the clinic, hit in the derby, and got word of MTAG’s contributions to the Alberto Ortiz Aponte baseball complex.
“Having (an organization like MTAG) helping out and fixing fields, giving those young guys a little more hope to follow their dreams, that’s a really good thing for them,” Valentin said.
Angela Christino Marcantonini, who made the trip to Puerto Rico with MTAG, echoed that sentiment.
"Every little boy who steps foot on a baseball field in Puerto Rico has the dream to become the next Yadier Molina or Carlos Correa,” Marcantonini said. “Having the opportunity to interact with players like Victor [Caratini], Jesmuel [Valentin] and Danny [Ortiz], former players and coaches, the MTAG team, it helps them realize their dream really can come true. This is something they will remember for a very long time."
MTAG Director of Marketing and Puerto Rico trip co-leader Sawyer Gieseke has seen impacts like this on MTAG trips to other countries. He knows what happens after the trip is equally if not more important to the future impact.
“The main thing that we try to do as a non-profit is inspire people, show them that they can do these things,” Geiseke said. “Having someone from the United States [like MTAG] come to take care of their field for them, it shows they can do it themselves and it inspires them to keep doing that.”
MTAG wants to see the Alberto Ortiz Aponte complex get maintained. Considering that baseball is a lifestyle to most Puerto Ricans and the Coamo community has caring leaders, it’s safe to say the fields will stay in good condition.
"Baseball here involves the whole community, it’s multi-generational. Grandfathers, sons and grandsons on the same field; grandmothers, mothers, siblings in the stands. The people in Puerto Rico take pride in this game,” Marcantonini said. “The key to having the field kept up will be to have not just the community, but parks and rec and former players getting involved, helping to assure the resources are there to maintain the field in the condition MTAG left it in, or better.”
MTAG’s impact goes beyond just fixing some fields. Giving back to the younger generation, giving kids a good experience through baseball, and creating relationships were key goals for the team as well.
“Doing these clinics here working with these kids, I really feel like I’m able to make some sort of change and help these kids, just help further their baseball career and get them just a little bit better,” said Rio Gomez. “Even if it’s just a little bit better, then I feel like I did my job here.”
MTAG’s mindset was that this trip was about the kids, and that pushed the group just a little bit harder during their long days working in the hot sun.
“Some of my favorite moments of these trips are when guys work all day and then somehow they get a second boost of energy from the kids. The day that we had everyone paint, people had paint all over their clothes, and we had a practice that night, and people are running around coaching with paint all over them, I just love the look of that.
“I think for the kids, it means a lot when they see you putting that work into something and showing that you care about them, and you can definitely tell they made new best friends and they have new favorite players,” Gieseke said.
Kids pick their favorite players based on a number of factors: talent, popularity, what team they play for, what position they play, and so on. But most choose to admire someone who is a true role model, someone who makes a personal impact on them.
Ryan Fitzgerald became that guy after creating an infectious bond with a countless number of kids in Coamo, and above all else, he showed the kids that he’s no different than any of them.
“I know the trip was about service and baseball, but also just showing the kids that a professional athlete is just a regular person. I want them to know that professional athletes are good people. (Kids) sometimes get starstruck in front of them and someday if a couple of them are going to make it, I want them to be able to go back and share the same experiences that I did with them, and just show them that you can be a good person.
“I think that was really the main thing, and the energy that they bring and the love that they show is amazing. That’s what I really felt when I was there and trying to match that energy is what I always try to do, which is why I love kids. “They always bring energy and I love matching whatever they bring, so I think that was huge for me as well as them," Fitzgerald said.
It takes a special group of people to carry out a successful service trip, because making a personal connection with people from a different culture isn’t easy.
The MTAG Puerto Rico team was made up of 15 people from all different backgrounds. Their personalities meshed and so did their work ethic. They found common ground through the adversity they’ve fought, the ups and downs, and the extra effort they’ve put in to get where they are in their own lives.
“It was really a group of underdogs,” Gieseke said. “I think them sharing their story was really inspiring to the kids playing baseball and moving forward.”
Getting work done is one thing, but touching lives in the process is even more powerful.
That’s why “More Than A Game” left a lasting impact in Puerto Rico.
“To me it’s great what MTAG is doing here in Puerto Rico, it’s fantastic. It can’t be measured right now,” Ortiz said. “It’s such a big impact that it has in our society with what we’ve gone through the last year after Hurricane Maria. We need all the help we can get, and to see (MTAG) come out here and bring joy to these kids is outstanding.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini
Photo credits to Sawyer Gieseke