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The following is a feature from the July issue of Vine Line.
Though the Cubs have made strides on the field in 2013 behind some outstanding starting pitching and veteran acquisitions like Nate Schierholtz, it seems like this season has been all about facilities, buildings and permits. No matter what is happening between the white lines, the majority of the recent press has gone to the restoration of Wrigley Field and the accompanying community development adjacent to the venerated ballpark.
In fact, the chorus surrounding the Friendly Confines’ rather unfriendly debate has nearly drowned out the other significant progress the organization has been making on the facilities front—namely, the impressive new Spring Training complex in Mesa, Ariz., which will be ready for the 2014 spring slate, and the multimillion-dollar training academy in the Dominican Republic that celebrated its grand opening on May 20.
The new Dominican complex is part of an effort to improve and professionalize all aspects of the Cubs system to ensure the team has the resources to compete at every level and bring a championship-caliber team to Chicago.
“Think about where we’ll be in a couple of years,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “The organization is going in the right direction; we’ll get [Wrigley Field] fixed; we’ll have the best Spring Training facility, the best Dominican facility. We’ll have the infrastructure to be one of those consistently great teams.”
With new collective bargaining restrictions limiting how teams can build through the draft, it’s becoming more important to make inroads into the international market. And a great deal of major league talent comes out of Latin America. Though the Dominican might be nearly 2,000 miles away from Wrigley Field’s doorstep, the new facility—located in La Gina, just outside of Santo Domingo—is a major component to building the kind of lasting success the Cubs brass has repeatedly talked about.
“We’re in such a competitive industry, and the great organizations throughout baseball history have built a strong foundation for sustained success starting with their minor leagues up through the majors,” said President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “To become the organization we aspire to be and win multiple World Series titles, we have to build a foundation that can last—a solid infrastructure that puts our ballclub in a competitive position year in and year out.”
The Dominican Republic has always been a hotbed of major league talent. Of the 856 players on the 30 big league rosters, the disabled list and the restricted list at the outset of the 2013 season, 89 came from the Dominican. That makes the Caribbean nation the best-represented country outside of the U.S., which claims 615 players. In 2013, the Dominican also became the first undefeated team to claim the World Baseball Classic title, behind major league stars such as Edinson Volquez, Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano and Wandy Rodriguez.
The Cubs currently have eight players on their 40-man active roster who hail from the Dominican, including Welington Castillo, Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Villanueva. This glut of Dominican talent is why every big league team is looking to improve its scouting and player development in the area.
“The competition for scouting talent in the Dominican Republic is high,” Ricketts said. “With the most major league players per capita here, it was no surprise all 30 baseball organizations run facilities in the country. We quickly realized that we had frontline talent here in the Dominican and needed a world-class facility to develop these players in order to achieve our goal of winning a World Series.”
The Cubs’ new Dominican complex spans 50 acres, making it the largest such academy in the country. It will be open year-round, complete with baseball fields, training facilities, and housing for minor league players during the season as well as major league players in the offseason. The goal is to serve athletes from across Central and South America, including Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Aruba, Curaçao and Mexico, in addition to the Dominican Republic.
The new complex, which has a comfortable on-site dormitory that can house up to 80 players and eight staff members, strives to give young players every resource to succeed. It features three fields, including one with artificial turf, four covered batting cages, eight bullpens, a weight room, a cafeteria and kitchen, two locker rooms, two meeting rooms, a large classroom that can be converted into four smaller classrooms, a theater and a video room.
“If you’re going to search for the best of the best, you want to give them everything they need and create the right kind of atmosphere and environment,” Epstein said. “We know our players and staff are putting in an enormous amount of work, and providing quality facilities is just as important as teaching the fundamentals of baseball.”
But the academy is about more than just churning out quality baseball players; it’s also about nurturing quality people. The Cubs are putting an emphasis on education, health and nutrition throughout their organization. To that end, the facility will also serve as an educational center equipped with classrooms and staff to teach English and Spanish, and players will be able to earn their GED high school equivalency.
The opening ceremony for the new Dominican facility drew a pedigreed crowd, including the Ricketts family; President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and other members of the Cubs front office; Dominican President Danilo Medina; Hato Viejo Mayor Reynoso Hichez Telleria; and former Cubs players and Dominican natives Moises Alou, Amaury Telemaco, George Bell and Henry Rodriguez.
“I think the fans really do understand that what we’re trying to do is build an organization that has a strong foundation and is going to be consistently successful at some point,” Ricketts said. “Hopefully soon, but the point is not to take shortcuts, but to do things the right way.”