The Road to Major League Baseball begins at Player Development

By Raquel Julich | August 14, 2018 12:24 PM

Although there are only 25 to 40 players representing the Yankees on a big-league roster on any given day, the organization is actually comprised of hundreds of young players hoping they can someday step into the Bronx spotlight. For all those dreamers and aspiring stars, it takes much more than talent to make the leap. There's luck involved, there's timing, and there's the behind-the-scenes work from a staff devoted to seeing every prospect reach his ceiling.


It's a massive undertaking, but the staff at the New York Yankees Player Development & Scouting Complex in Tampa, Florida, is more than up to it. Kevin Reese, the Yankees' senior director of player development, currently runs the show at the complex, which was renovated in 2012 and currently has a staff of about 50 employees, providing skills training, language classes and helping the young prospects integrate into both professional baseball and adult life.



It also carries on the vision of George M. Steinbrenner III. "The Boss" was well known for his single-minded pursuit of excellence, but that drive extended beyond the field; he insisted that the organization should always be a pillar in the Tampa community, and his family has carried on that effort. The talented prospects at the Player Development & Scouting Complex do more than learn the finer points of the game; they also learn how to become model citizens who can contribute to the culture and community around them.


A key part of that initiative is the Yankees' Player Development Education Program, which provides language classes and other key skill training to the young players at the lowest levels of the organization. With Gulf Coast League players as young as 18 to 19 years old, the Yankees have long recognized the need to supplement the rigorous baseball training with more general education options. A large number of the players at the Player Development & Scouting Complex hail from Puerto Rico or other Latin American countries, and many were as young as 16 years old when they signed with the team.  




The Education Program was initiated in 2016 at the Yankees Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic. And even before the process of teaching English to the young signees could begin, some of them needed remedial Spanish education. In Tampa, the Yankees partnered with the Hillsborough County School District to teach the classes at historical Jefferson High School. Classes are offered at all of the Yankees' minor-league affiliates


Eric Schmidt, the Yankees director of player development, oversees the program, which is administered by education coordinator Joe Perez and Melissa Hernandez, the lead teacher and player development assistant. The education program also serves as an anchor in the Tampa community by assisting in providing in-house services to Gigi's Playhouse, Down Syndrome Achievement Centers, and Guardian ad Litem services for the 13th Judicial Circuit.  



Hernandez has a degree in Special Education from Faminghan University and is trained in Montessori teaching. After years spent teaching at the Yankees Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic, she transferred to the newly formed Yankees Player Development Education Program in Tampa.


One player Hernandez has taught is Hemmanuel Rosario Diaz of Juncos, Puerto Rico. The 17-year-old catcher has been playing baseball since he was 12, and signed with the Yankees in 2017. Despite his good command of the English language, Rosario has continued in the program. Why? He says that recognizes the value of the work. "Seek as much help as possible to improve, and move [on]," he says. It's a lesson that resonates with Argelis Herrera, a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher. Herrera stands 6-foot-6, and he's from way off the beaten path near Tenares in the Dominican Republic's Hermanas Mirabal province. As the young pitcher learns to speak English, he shrugs off his errors in grammar and diction. He doesn't care how he comes off at the moment; he's committed to studying hard and becoming a great pitcher.


The classrooms in the Yankees Baseball Academy in Dominican Republic and the Gulf Coast League are set up just as they would be in any public school, with small groups set based on ability. Alicia Rodriguez-Smith, one of the instructors, described the program's three units, from basic to intermediate to advanced. The courses are based on a curriculum developed specifically for the Yankees minor leaguers, The teaching manual, which was drafted by Perez and Hernandez, contains guidelines, as well as definite objectives tailored to the players in the program. Since its inception, the Education Program teaching guidelines have been edited occasionally, but the objective remains the same: "Believe, achieve, succeed."


The focus is on basic English, but there's also an emphasis on baseball terms. The players also are counseled on how to interact with the media and encouraged to act out interviews without using a translator. Additionally (and particularly important to the players from extraordinarily humble backgrounds), there is computer education, in which Greta Martinez guides the players through basic computer and smartphone skills.




Of course, the language is just the beginning for a young player assimilating into American society. Many of the young prospects have never had to consider things such as banks and savings accounts, but upon signing contracts - some totally several million dollars - they have to learn, and fast. At the beginning, students might be shown the different denominations of coins and bills, and how to recognize U.S. currency and convert it to the value of their home countries. As they advance, the program teaches banking vocabulary and math computations; players learn to write a check, wire money and balance a checking account. They also learn all about debit and credit cards.


Raymundo Moreno, a 20 years old outfielder from Venezuela, hopes to purchase a condo. He says that the classes have improved his understanding of baseball terminology, taught him better communication using the phone and even how to cook - which he never expected to enjoy as much as he does. As he works toward buying the condo, he's excited to learn more about managing investments over the long term.


That's an example of some of the exciting learning opportunities for young ballplayers with access to money for the first times in their lives. But there are other, less fun examples of the education prospects receive. Sandel Torres serves as one of the program's life coaches. He understands his players' early struggles with the English language, but tries to guide them through sensitive issues that are often complicated by cultural differences. He teaches the players about the Minor League Players Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. On the eager side, they are coached instructions and are tested, as they prepare for a driver's license.


Among other life skills the players are taught driver's education, as well cooking classes in which they learn about nutrition. The goal is to teach them about the local fruits and vegetables, so they can learn how to use the ingredients to simply prepare food.Chef Michael Scarpa sees how the players benefit from the lessons, opening their young minds to new foods, diet and weight management. The players even receive basic education in medical terminology, led by the organization's medical coordinator, Mark Littlefield. The lessons ensure that no player undergoes any type of medical procedure before fully understanding injury diagnosis, medical procedure and understands expectations in rehabilitation.


The organization's goal is to make life as easy as possible for the players under its supervision. But it's just as important that the prospects learn about all that the Steinbrenner family holds dear. All players in the player development system, from all backgrounds, are encouraged to participate in community-based programs and each must fulfill four hours of community service. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Deputy Marilyn Alvarez, from the office's community outreach division, provides the students an understanding of law enforcement and helps encourage them to be responsible and make wise decisions.





When signed, the young players hope and expect to have a successful career playing baseball, but obviously the odds are always low, even for players signed to professional contracts. Recognizing the low percentage of players who achieve their dream, the New York Yankees organization accepts responsibility for, at the very least, making sure to have helped the players spend the years learning valuable life lessons. The Yankees remain committed to assisting the players in their care as they develop professional skills and growth opportunities for a life after baseball.


With that in mind, the Yankees encourage players who signed before completing high school to pursue their diploma through the online program offered by El Buen Samaritano High School. Those who complete the program are required to return to the Dominican Republic to sit for National Evaluations. With the help of seven teachers from the Hillsborough County School System, the program ha seen 12 players and three team employees graduate with high school diplomas. Sixty more players are currently taking the classes.


When the Yankees succeed on the field, everyone notices. They cheer the home runs, the shutouts and the big wins. The work in the background, though, goes on, as scores of young hopefuls make their way up a near-impossible ladder to reach the major leagues. Through initiatives such as the education program at the Yankees Player Development & Scouting Complex, the perilous journey becomes at least a little bit easier. The players are guided and assisted in adjusting to a new life in a new profession, one with great opportunities but also endless potential pitfalls. That any of the players succeed is something of a miracle, but there's no doubting the impact that the Yankees' education program has had in improving the odds.




This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More