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
After four days of intense work restoring the Alberto Ortiz Aponte baseball complex, “More Than A Game” capped off its week in Coamo with a youth clinic and Home Run Derby at nearby Pedro Miguel Caratini Stadium.
The clinic was hosted by MTAG, a group predominantly made up of professional baseball players and former college players. The boys and girls who participated ranged anywhere from eight to 18 years old, including kids from Puerto Rico Baseball Academy High School (PRBAHS), Pro Baseball Academy, local Coamo youth teams, and more.
MTAG CFO Don Gieseke led the clinic and divided the kids into groups before sendings them to various drill stations around Caratini Stadium. Gieseke set up a station for every position on the diamond as well as a batting practice station in one of the batting cages and a base-running station in the outfield, with MTAG members at each spot.
The clinic’s instructors featured current Puerto Rican Major Leaguers Jesmuel Valentin and Victor Caratini thanks to the efforts of Angela Christino Marcantonini, who has worked with Puerto Rican baseball personnel through various organizations over the past decade.
Valentin, an infielder for the Philadelphia Phillies from Manati, and Caratini, a Chicago Cubs catcher and Coamo native, along with a few of Marcantonini’s other friends and colleagues, worked with the kids throughout the two-hour event.
“I feel a very special connection to the Puerto Rican baseball community. They welcomed me as part of their family when I began bringing baseball equipment to underserved communities around the island 10 years ago,” said Marcantonini, who worked with MTAG to plan the day’s event. “I’ve watched these guys grow up in the game and it makes me really proud to see them giving back to the kids who dream of following in their footsteps.”
The MTAG crew had the opportunity to practice with a local Coamo team the previous night, but the organized clinic with over 100 kids in action was bigger and more exciting than they could’ve imagined.
“It was fun just being around the kids and just being able to experience baseball, share that experience with them,” said MTAG’s Jared Oliva, a Pittsburgh Pirates minor-league outfielder.
Nick Ortiz, a manager in the New York Yankees minor league system and organizational scout in Puerto Rico, was impressed with the clinic’s turnout and MTAG’s work.
“It’s been great for the kids that were able to participate, it’s been great for the fans that are out here seeing their kids being out there with people who really want to help,” Ortiz said. “I hope activities like this happen more often for people in Puerto Rico.”
The Home Run Derby kicked off shortly after the clinic ended and featured two teams each with seven hitters. One team was made up of all MTAG members, and the other was a group of professional players and coaches from Puerto Rico. Gieseke, who found a second wind after leading the clinic, threw to the MTAG hitters, while a local Coamo coach threw to the Puerto Rico team.
Each hitter had two minutes to hit in the first round, with the two teams alternating hitting, and the top three from each team advanced to the next round.
Hitting time was cut down to one minute in the second round and the top hitter from each team advanced to finals. Boston Red Sox minor-league infielder Ryan Fitzgerald represented the MTAG team in the championship round while Philadelphia Phillies minor-league outfielder Danny Ortiz, who made his MLB debut with the Pirates in 2017, represented the Puerto Rico team.
Fitzgerald and Ortiz tied with one home run in the finals, leading to a swing-off between the two. Each hitter got 10 swings and Ortiz edged Fitzgerald, two home runs to one, to win it all.
There was no trophy for this derby, because it was all about putting on a show for the kids and delivering a fun event for the Puerto Rican community that lost so much in last September’s devastating hurricane.
Valentin, a PRBAHS graduate, was the derby’s headliner and soaked in every moment of the day with his family and friends watching from the stands. After participating in the clinic earlier in the day, the switch-hitter stepped up to the plate from the right side and immediately cranked a long ball to left field to get the crowd going.
“It’s amazing, not only to compete, just to have fun, be around kids, be around families who lost baseball, and just helping out,” said Valentin. “That’s one of my biggest goals and mentality, help as many kids as I can.”
Valentin prioritizes having a positive impact on the younger generation and making a difference in his community.
“I don’t care how much popularity I can get, how much money I can get, all I care is that people remember my name as a really good human being, a really humble person that always is around helping kids, helping families. That’s all that really matters,” Valentin said.
The kids that stayed after the clinic to watch the derby saw some talented ball players swinging for the fences, and the hitters fed of the energy inside Caratini Stadium.
“It’s awesome to be out here, be immersed in the different culture. Being with all these guys out here, the MLB dudes, dudes from Puerto Rico, it’s cool to be out in their backyard and just kind of hang with them, have fun, be with the crowd. It’s a good time,” Oliva said after his two rounds of swings in the derby.
Nick Gruener, a Baltimore Orioles minor-league pitcher, made sure he took advantage of the opportunity to take some cuts, especially with a familiar arm in Gieseke throwing to the MTAG participants.
“It was just like we were back in high school. He was one of my coaches in high school before I moved (from California) to Miami, so it was fun to be out there with him again, it’s been a while,” Gruener said.
Former University of Arizona infielder Kyle Lewis was a fan of the veteran BP pitcher as well.
“I had Don, the man, throwing BP and it’s a lot of fun out there,” Lewis said on the sidelines following his two derby rounds.
Every participant had a story to tell about their experience, but Fitzgerald, who led the MTAG team in homers, had the best of the bunch.
Fitzgerald built a strong relationship with the kids of Coamo throughout the week, becoming a fan favorite on and off the field, and felt a personal connection with his new friends during the derby.
“I think the coolest part of it all was my catcher. I had met him the night before and we kind of got to know each other, and he caught my first two rounds. He was cheering me on, ‘C’mon, c’mon, you can do it, you can do it!’ because I kept hitting a home run on like my last swing to make it to the next round, and I didn’t have him for my third round so I was like, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, I gotta get my catcher out here,” so he came out and he was all excited to catch me again for my last round.
He was cheering for me because I hit my only home run of my last round on my last swing. He was loving it and there’s a picture of him giving me a big hug at the end of it. It was just really cool for him to experience that and for me to experience it, really. Having that kind of support is just really cool from people that I had just met. It was fun,” Fitzgerald said.
After the derby, the MTAG crew and the rest of the clinic instructors and derby participants spent time talking with the kids, taking pictures, signing autographs and making the most of the day.
Baseball brings people together, connecting them through generations and all aspects of life. You never know when an instant bond between two strangers can lead to a chance reunion years down the road and a life-long friendship.
The kids at Caratini Stadium that day witnessed it first-hand, and they’ll carry that experience wherever the game takes them.
“It’s definitely motivation for these kids,” Nick Ortiz said. “They see how much these guys are having fun and they ask about who’s out here, and you tell them, ‘This player is in the big leagues and he started just like you are right now.’ It’s great motivation for them.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini
It was last Thursday night in Coamo, Puerto Rico, and some members of the “More Than A Game” group were practicing with a local team at the Alberto Ortiz Aponte youth baseball complex.
David Lopez, Kyle Lewis and John Jones were working with the infielders on ground balls and footwork, when they decided it was time to switch to another drill.
“Let’s do slow rollers next. How do you say ‘slow rollers’ in Spanish?” Lopez asked Lewis.
They didn’t know a direct translation for a baseball term like that.
“Mas despacio,” Lewis said around the infield--meaning ‘slower’ or ‘more slowly’ in English--while making a forward underhand motion with his right hand to get the point of the slow rollers across.
The team featured some bilingual coaches and players that could translate to the players who only spoke Spanish, so the situation wasn’t a problem for the MTAG guys.
But that minor inconvenience in switching the drill highlighted an inevitable encounter with the language barrier.
A significant amount of Puerto Rico natives speak at least a little bit of English and many are fluent given that the island is a United States territory, but Spanish is still the predominant language, proving that the flow of communication wouldn’t always be easy.
If you ask the MTAG crew what the biggest non-physical challenge of the week was, the most common answer would be trying to speak Spanish.
“I never really used the language,” said Lopez, who is of Mexican descent but from Tucson, Arizona. “I’ve heard it at my grandparents’ house and family visits and things like that, but I’ve never really had to use it. It almost felt like public speaking again, you know, when you’re in middle school and high school.”
It was Lopez’ first time on a service trip like this, and he wasn’t alone. Jared Oliva was making his first MTAG trip as well and was another member of the group who had to dip into his limited Spanish vocabulary.
“(There was) definitely the culture shock, being around a language that I’m not really comfortable with and trying to be able to communicate with kids, people at a restaurant, whoever it might be. That’s been the biggest thing,” Oliva said.
Both Lopez and Oliva found ways around the Spanish-English barrier, even if it meant making an extra effort to work through an interaction.
“That’s definitely (getting out of) the comfort zone, having to try to communicate in my second language,” Lopez said. “But it was good, it’s been fun.”
Just being with the kids, being able to talk to them, the parts of Spanish that I do know, it’s kind of cool to see what they do and kind of pick their brains a little bit, and they do the same with me, just talking baseball, so it’s fun,” Oliva added.
Xavier Borde felt the effects of the language barrier during the MTAG youth baseball clinic at the Pedro Miguel Caratini stadium at the end of the week. But like the rest of the MTAG team, he powered through the setback.
“I was instructing the group on some outfield things and I don’t speak much Spanish, but one of the kids was doing the drill very well and another kid wasn’t, so it was getting hard for me to explain how to do it properly. So the kid that was doing it well, I had him instruct the kid that didn’t really understand, and I let them work on it together,” Borde said following the clinic.
For one MTAG member, language wasn’t a barrier; it was a path to a unique relationship with the kids in Coamo.
Rio Gomez, who is Cuban and Colombian, is a native English speaker but grew up learning Spanish as well. He was the only member of the MTAG group who could rely on his second language more than his first during the week.
“My Spanish isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough for me to get by on and to communicate and understand them, and have them understand me,” Gomez said. “It’s nice having that special connection with them through language.”
As the week went by, one thing held true for the MTAG group, even the ones who didn’t speak any Spanish at all: They were there to make a difference through baseball, and a difference in language wasn’t going to prevent that.
Baseball is baseball, everyone kind of rallies around it,” said Oliva. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, you know, if baseball is in common you can kind of relate.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of 2017, the entire island felt the devastating impact. Families were torn apart, homes were destroyed, there was no power or clean water, and hope became a struggle to find.
Natural disasters bring on unthinkable physical, mental and emotional effects. When they occur, people turn to something that can help them momentarily forget about all the negatives: a short-term relief from reality.
For many, that outlet is sports, and for many Puerto Ricans, that sport is baseball.
But what do you do when that outlet from the real world is also taken away from you?
You see, baseball isn’t just baseball in Puerto Rico… It’s life.
For the city of Coamo in the southern part of the island, baseball was lost. It was taken away by the hurricane that ripped through the Alberto Ortiz Aponte youth complex, a contingent of three fields that were regularly used for huge local and international tournaments before the hurricane.
Safety was the biggest concern; baseball was an afterthought.
Non-profit organization “More Than A Game” was ready to lend a helping hand to revitalize the complex and get those fields back up and running. With help from Coamo youth baseball leaders Jerry Santiago and Jose Martell, funding from New Balance, Turface Athletics and other outlets, and support from the Coamo community, the MTAG crew got to work.
The positive impact that followed was unthinkable almost 13 months ago when the hurricane ran its course.
But it didn’t come easy.
The MTAG crew arrived in Coamo around 10 a.m. on Monday, October 15th, and witnessed the hurricane’s sobering effects. The storm left the infields blanketed with a layer of weeds, fences down, nets torn apart, a damaged roof, and unplayable conditions.
“Those fields were a mess before we got here,” said Baltimore Orioles minor league pitcher Nick Gruener.
“Day 1 I was like, ‘man, I don’t know if I can do this for another four days, this is hard work,'” said Ryan Fitzgerald, an infielder in the Boston Red Sox minor league system.
No one expected it to be easy. After seeing the challenge in front of them, the MTAG guys got to work.
For a project of this magnitude, thinking outside the box was a necessity.
That meant digging up what seemed like an endless amount of weeds, using a rental van to pull a homemade nail drag across the infield, bringing in a backhoe to move countless bags of turface, and finding a working power-washer to clean the stands in the complex, which MTAG member Clayton Brown did wonders with.
You name it, they did it, and they did it efficiently.
“The challenge is stop looking around and going, ‘I need someone to tell me what to do,’ instead just making your own decisions and I think the guys picked up on that quick,” said MTAG Director of Marketing, Sawyer Gieseke.
Breakthroughs often occur when a group comes together, when an entire unit works as one, when the team comes before the individual.
Despite most of the group being unfamiliar with each other before the trip, everyone became a leader, and that’s why things got done.
“I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know what I was getting into," Fitzgerald said. “The people I met were just unbelievable. The people that I worked with, I don’t even know how to describe it, they’re just such high-character people and good people overall, every single one of them.”
Gieseke, who led the trip to Coamo along with MTAG Founder and CEO, Marshall Murray, knew he was bringing some dependable people on the trip, but he also knew he had some wild cards.
He wasn’t sure how the entire group would mesh, but that potential concern vanished pretty early in the week.
“I was really impressed with the group of guys, Gieseke said. “I had so much pride in this group and every guy is really special to me, and to see them just put their head down and work hard for a week, I mean 15 guys putting 10 hours in a day can get a lot done, and we saw what we were able to accomplish.”
In just four days, the MTAG team got the entire Alberto Ortiz Aponte complex up and running and all three fields in safe playing condition. The progress made in such a short amount of time was inspiring.
Not only did the MTAG team get to see their progress from Day 1 through Day 4, they witnessed all of their hard work actually making a difference.
Just after 6 p.m. on Thursday, October 18th, the fourth and final day of work, two youth teams from Coamo--the Mets and Orioles--suited up for the first baseball game at the complex in just over a year.
It was a real game, but it almost didn’t feel real. The game’s first pitch was one of those magical moments that doesn’t sink in right away.
Kids on the field. Fans in the stands. Lights on.
“It’s literally like the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie, that’s what it felt like this week. All the first three days no one was here, a couple people coming to practice and today it got completed, and all of a sudden families, parents, all these teams, all these kids out here, it’s crazy, such a good feeling. I love it,” said David Lopez, former University of Arizona infielder and national champion, during the action that unfolded Thursday night in Coamo.
While the first game at the complex since the hurricane took place on one of the three fields, a local 13-to-14-year-old team--the Astros--practiced on another field with MTAG members.
Rio Gomez, a minor league pitcher in the Red Sox organization and University of Arizona graduate, worked with the team’s pitchers during the practice.
“It was a long week. Very long week, but very rewarding at the very end. It was a lot of work Monday through Thursday logging in the hours transforming a field from nothing into something. It all paid off being able to watch all the kids be able to play and practice, the smiles and watching them enjoy themselves on a baseball field,” Gomez said.
Jared Oliva, one of Gomez’ teammates at Arizona and current Pittsburgh Pirates minor league outfielder, felt the impact right away from practicing with the kids.
“When we first came up here obviously there was a lot of work to be done. Now that we’re here, four days of work being put into it, the field looks really nice,” Oliva said during the practice. “It’s cool to see all the kids out here playing on it, so you can tell they definitely appreciate what we’ve done, so that’s a cool part.”
Koa Marzo, who previously worked with Gieseke and Murray on an MTAG trip in his native Hawaii, was the group’s biggest leader in Puerto Rico according to Gieseke. He got straight to the point when asked about his favorite part of the week.
“Really getting my hands dirty, putting in the work to get the complex back to where the kids can have practices, games, just get the families back out there and give them hope,” Marzo said.
Seeing a smile on a kid’s face is special. Being the reason for that smile is overwhelmingly special.
All the dirty shoes, sweat-soaked shirts, paint-splattered shorts, sweat-drenched faces, calloused hands and tiring days served a purpose.
It all became worth it when the fields were filled with kids and not weeds, the stands filled with proud families and not hurricane debris, and the parking lot filled with cars and not construction equipment.
Faith was never lost, and hope was restored.
Baseball is back in Coamo, and it’s there to stay.
“I just hope the fields get used and they get maintained. It’s nice to have somewhere as a kid to spend time and to play and to hang out and have a place like that,” said Gomez. “Before, that field was in no condition to be that kind of place, and now, I feel like we’ve given this town of Coamo that place.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini