FORT MYERS- Hailing from the hometown of the 26-time World Champion New York Yankees, most prominently nicknamed the “Bronx Bombers”, the young Bronx Bombers travel ball team brings with them a roster stacked with matured Dominican-American teenagers constantly staring adversity in the eyes when playing “America’s Pastime".
Eric Semler and his coaching staff brought 16 ballplayers with them to Perfect Game’s inaugural WWBA Freshman World Championship, 14 of which are of Dominican heritage. But at the Perfect Game event in Fort Myers, Fla. this weekend, their primarily Spanish-speaking ballclub is hardly unique when paired with many of the other organizations in the tournament.
“It’s nice to come down to Florida and see more multi-ethnic teams,” Semler said, mentioning the lack of Spanish-speaking teams in the New York/New Jersey area. “We’re thrilled to be here and the competition’s great.”
His players are not used to playing in such a prestigious event on finely manicured fields that offer home to those they idolize during the spring.
“It’s like seeing the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building for the first time for a lot of these kids. You see their eyes pop open and they rise to the challenge,” Semler said. “They really wanna succeed down here. They feel extremely lucky to be in this environment and see this kind of ‘field of dreams’ for them.”
“It’s very different because it’s a different atmosphere and different competition than we expect,” said Freddy Rojas, a catalyst on the Bronx Bombers team, a team full of familiar faces he’s played with for years.
Semler decided, after watching his kids grow up playing Little League in the Bronx area with many of the kids currently on the Bronx Bombers roster, that they needed an organization to play with once they outgrew Little League. They needed an organization where they could continue playing as a unit, while also taking advantage of the opportunities there are to showcase their skills against higher-level competition.
“We took the kids who played Little League together and that was kind of our nucleus and what we did was formed a charitable organization called Bronx Baseball Dreams,” Semler explained. “We found donors and a lot of really generous people to help sponsor our travel costs and our equipment costs. We are looking for a corporate sponsor now that allows these kids to travel and play these tournaments without paying.”
Baseball is what all of these kids would like to do for a living, but Semler realizes the importance of having a college education and just wants to see his players succeed well past their baseball days.
“We do a lot of stuff for the kids. We provide SAT tutoring and we help them academically,” Semler explained. “Our dream is for all of them to go to high-quality universities and get a degree. We think the best thing for them to fall back on is a college education.”
While that would be a storybook ending for everyone, these players are just as serious about realizing their dreams of becoming Major League Baseball players. In fact, they take the game so seriously that many of them travel an hour or longer on a regular basis just to practice together on some rundown field in the urban city.
“The Bronx is a very large area. It’s not very easy to find direct transportation and it’s also very difficult to find public fields that we can play on, so we scramble to find fields,” said Semler. “They aren’t the greatest fields, but that’s how you become a better baseball player is practicing on bad fields.”
Frankly, these kids could care less where they play, as long as they’re playing.
“The Dominican culture I found to be this incredibly spirited, fun group of people that baseball is the single most important thing to them. If it’s a holiday, they wanna play a triple-header,” explained Semler. “They love baseball. They live, breathe, and eat it everyday.”
The Bronx Bombers represent some of the better competition in the greater Bronx area. In order to play competitive baseball they often travel to tournaments, mostly in the Northeast.
Unfortunately, the team is often faced with opposing teams and parents who aren’t so respectful and tolerant of the diverse Bombers team.
“It’s a constant frustration that we face,” said Semler. “It’s hard on the kids. It’s hard to watch these kids’ faces when we encounter that. You hear a lot of bad stuff growing up in New York, so they can handle it, but you still don’t wanna hear it.”
Semler recalled a particularly tough situation to swallow back when his team played a New Jersey team that severely lacked sportsmanship, mustering up a ‘U-S-A!, U-S-A!’ chant as if the Bombers players were not American citizens.
With the competitive nature of travel baseball, parents often stir up complaints about whether or not the Bombers players are of legal age, which Semler will assure anyone that they are. In fact, the Bronx Bombers team playing in Fort Myers this weekend is really a 13u team, younger than most of the participating teams.
“The funny thing is the two biggest kids on our team were actually 12u, they played up,” Semler said. “It’s not just about age. A lot of it is about how we’re from the Bronx so we must cheat.”
For those of you who don’t know, that assumption is probably due to the historical connection between Dominican-born Danny Almonte and the biggest scandal in Little League history.
In 2001, Almonte, a Bronx native, electrified Little League baseball during the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Penn. by striking out 62 of the 72 batters faced. Eventually his team, nicknamed “the Baby Bombers” was eliminated from championship contention, but after making national headlines and essentially becoming a baseball superstar.
Later, in 2002, it was discovered that Almonte was actually two years older than the legal age of the players.
With the Dominican similarity and being from the Bronx, Semler said that scandal still follows around his Bronx Bombers constantly nagged by opponents about the possibility of a similar lie.
“We have nothing to do with that,” assured Semler. “I feel that following the rules is a critical way to run your life, so I make sure that all our kids are legal at all times.”
At this particular tournament however, the PG WWBA Freshman World Championship, Semler’s club is amongst the younger teams participating, and by no means do they have any of the tallest players in the tournament. That doesn’t matter to him or the players, who are just grateful to have the opportunity to play on better fields against tough competition.
“It’s amazing. Just to play as a team, even if we lose or win, we still have fun,” said Rojas, with a huge grin that clearly displays his youth.
The Bronx Bombers are here to be challenged and just enjoy the chance to escape the urban setting for a bit. No longer being the Goliath of a tournament, even the parents make light of the all-too-familiar accusations they’ve heard about their boys.
As two tall players, around 6-foot-4, walk by the Bronx cheering section, one mother jokingly remarks, “Isn’t this a Freshman tournament?”