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