This choice is one that many young baseball players in the Dominican Republic face when they approach the age of 16 years old. It is one not unlike what Toronto Blue Jays stars Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes once weighed. Decision making in the Dominican Republic is left in the hands of young people who are often uneducated on the numerous potential outcomes they might be left with after making the choice, and they are even less familiar with other possibilities.
For Bautista, the biggest missed opportunity for young Dominican players is the added option of pursuing post-secondary education. As a young adult, his life changed when he was given assistance from the Latin Athletes Education Fund, run by Don Odermann. Bautista was allowed his first opportunity to pursue further education while playing baseball at the same time.
"I only got to this point in my life and my career because somebody opened some doors for me, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do for other people," Bautista said. "Now that I've gotten here, and I'm enjoying some success and I have the ability to help others, I feel like it's something that I'm supposed to do."
The Blue Jays outfielder started the Bautista Family Education Fund to continue work similar to that of Odermann, who cannot further his own fund because of health issues. Bautista is trying to implement change in his home country and beyond, and he took a huge step forward on Thursday afternoon with the inaugural Jose Bautista Celebrity Golf Classic, supporting BFEF and the Jays Care Foundation.
"Helping all these kids and opening doors for them and hopefully seeing where they end up in the future is something that's very important, and something that I'm looking forward to," Bautista said. "Allowing these kids to continue their education and at the same time keep playing baseball, which is what they love doing, is going to be great."
Odermann's fund allowed Bautista to further his education at Chipola Junior College, where he was later drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and began the journey that led him to the stage he finds himself on today.
"We would all like to be superstars like Jose," BFEF executive director Fernando Isa said. "But that's why the money and assistance is so necessary. There are many young baseball players who are very talented and are forced to sign a contract to play professionally or just stop playing baseball. But if they can get an education out of baseball, they will be better for it."
Isa knows firsthand that not every talented baseball player will end up with a Major League contract. He, along with four other of the Fund's board members, was also a recipient of assistance from Odermann. Isa attended Chipola before finishing his degree in pharmaceutical sales at the University of Louisville, and he was proud to share the successes of the other board members as well.
Luis Bautista, brother of Jose, attended Chipola before finishing his degree at Florida International University. Rafael Perez went to Chipola and finished his degree in accounting at the University of South Alabama. He is now the director of baseball operations for Major League Baseball in the Dominican Republic. Juan Peralta, now the director of the baseball academy for the Cincinnati Reds in the Dominican Republic, attended Aquinas College before completing his education at Troy State University in business administration and social work. Moises Feliz, who also went to Chipola, graduated from Cumberland University and is now working in the financial industry.
Having six young baseball players place an emphasis on education is a rarity in the Dominican, and Bautista is aiming for that to change.
"The fund has one purpose," Bautista said. "It's trying to allow kids the opportunity to continue their education at the college level while still being student-athletes. We don't give the money to them. We try to match them with colleges and their needs, and [we hope to help] create a good opportunity for them to finish their college education at the same time while they're playing. And whatever the college or university can't afford to help them with, that's where we step in."
Added Isa: "Even if they get a full-ride scholarship to play baseball and to pay for schooling, there are other costs like food and living and calling home that are often forgotten. We try to supplement what the school cannot provide, in order to make it easier for young players to be able to go and play and get an education at the same time, with everything taken care of."
The Fund has already assisted 14 players, and Thursday's golf tournament should be a big stepping stone in increasing that number. Bautista was joined at the event by fellow Blue Jays Reyes, Encarnacion, Moises Sierra, Munenori Kawasaki, Rajai Davis and J.P. Arencibia. While the All-Star slugger was unable to participate in the golfing aspect of his big day because of injury, he couldn't hide his enthusiasm.
"Today is a huge event," Bautista said. "We get to create more awareness for people who might be interested in helping us with our cause. And at the same time, hopefully we raise enough funds to help our more kids. My estimation is that it's going to be a successful event, and it's going to allow us to financially help a large number of kids moving forward."