FAIRFAX — He scooped up short-hop grounders, got his cuts at the plate, threw a baseball around.
This, for Eliezer De los Santos on his 17th birthday at Dugout Sports last Wednesday, was a workout that wasn’t work. This was a break from the uncertainty of what lies ahead for someone from the Dominican Republic trying to carve a better future for himself and one day be a good influence back home.
As De los Santos’ junior season of high school — his first at Regina in Iowa City — winds up, he has been working out with would-be teammates in Fairfax, in the green space at Penn Meadows Park in North Liberty, and on an Iowa City driveway. He’s doing what can be done to sharpen baseball skills for a high school baseball season he wasn’t sure would happen until after this particular practice session was over.
Within an hour after the Regals’ players were done at Dugout, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state was giving its approval to resume state activities on June 1. The Iowa High School Athletic Association then voted to approve its 2020 baseball season.
“Baseball” is perhaps the word most synonymous with the Dominican Republic. Like perhaps nearly every other boy from that Caribbean nation, De los Santos hopes to play professional baseball. He wants to hook on with a junior college program after his senior season at Regina, and parlay that into a major-college offer and a pro contract.
But there is a bigger picture.
“I want to go back to my country and be a teacher,” he said. “I want to teach my friends school is the more-important thing. Baseball in the Dominican is everything. Here, school is.”
“I’ve never had to push him,” said Regina baseball coach Todd Becker. “Education is his way out of the poverty level in the Dominican, and he knows and understands that.”
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Becker brought De los Santos to Regina, and he lives with Becker and his family. The coach has a son who is in De los Santos’ class and a baseball teammate.
Several years ago, Becker was part of a group that took baseball equipment to the Domicican Republic. He got to know Sam LeBeau, the president of Baseball Without Borders. That organization gets needed baseball equipment to Dominican teams, and tries to help line up scholarships for Dominican players to attend college in the U.S.
“Regina is big on foreign-exchange students,” Becker said. “I had a contact in Sam, and called him to see if he had appropriate kids. Eliezer checked all the boxes for us.”
The young man came to Iowa City without needing to be convinced to take academics seriously. He has a 3.38 grade-point average. A few weeks ago he was named Regina’s Student of the Week.
“I was not surprised,” De los Santos said. “I was working toward that.”
“Dominicans think MLB (Major League Baseball) is the way out. Not education. It’s MLB,” Becker said. “But Eliezer’s mom is a teacher’s aide. She has told him it can’t just be baseball.”
Besides being a teen who was foreigner in an unfamiliar land, De los Santos barely had a grasp of English when he arrived at Regina last year. Now he’s doing pretty well with it and getting better all the time.
His heart is heavy, though. He worries about his family back home. His parents are out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools in the Dominican Republic are no longer in session, so his mother can’t do her job. His father had worked as a guide on catamarans, taking tourists out for scuba diving and snorkeling. There are few tourists right now.
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“In the Dominican, you work a day and then buy food,” De los Santos said. “Here, you buy food for a month.”
He had planned on going home for spring break, but had to cancel that trip at the last minute because of fears he might not be able to return back to the U.S. had he gone.
Still, he can cling to things. His Regina classmates, teachers, tutors and host family have been there for him. And there is baseball. June 1 is next Monday, and it can’t come soon enough.
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