Tuesday February 10th, 2015

The story of Jose Bautista, late-bloomer, is well-chronicled. Came up as a third baseman. Bounced from team to team for five years before finally finding a home in Toronto in 2008, and a full-time spot in rightfield at the age of 29. Never hit more than 16 home runs in a season before 2010, when he crushed 54, at which point he established himself as one of baseball’s greatest, most consistent home run hitters.

It was an unusual path to be sure, one that Bautista has talked about often in the last several years. However, there’s another piece to Bautista’s story that’s not been talked about as frequently, but is every bit as unusual. The 34-year old, five-time All-Star is a rarity among ballplayers born in the Dominican Republic in that he went to college in the United States. In 1999 and 2000, Bautista attended Chipola College, a junior college in Marianna, Fla., where he played two seasons, and earned an associate’s degree before signing with the Pirates after he was drafted in the 20th round in June 2000.

Proving that his trip to Chipola was about more than just getting increased baseball exposure, Bautista went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in business last year. He didn't stop there. Through his not-for-profit foundation, the Bautista Family Education Fund (BautistaFund.org), Bautista is trying to help more young players from outside the U.S. understand that college in the States can be a viable alternative to signing a professional contract at 16 or 17, and that the value of an education can be immense.

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Bautista’s mother, Sandra, was the chief financial officer for a conglomerate of companies back home, an accountant by degree, and his dad, Americo, was a poultry farmer who got his masters degree in agricultural engineering in Hungary.

“But like most kids in the Dominican, I wanted to be a ballplayer,” Bautista recalled on the phone one afternoon last month. “But when I started getting offers, I never got anything substantial and my family had always preached education. My parents were against me signing any deal that did not outweigh the value of an education.”

In 1999, while still looking to convince a club to pay him a decent bonus, Bautista began to take business classes at a college in his hometown of Santo Domingo. When nothing significant materialized, he was given advice by one of his youth baseball coaches, Oscar Perez, whose son Rafael had attended college in the U.S. with the help of a foundation known as the Latin Athletes Education Fund. It was a program founded by a California businessman named Don Odermann.

“In the Dominican, I’d pretty much come to the end of the line,” Bautista said. “I could keep playing ball as a hobby, but my prospects of becoming a professional baseball player were coming to an end. I was getting a little too old for the local market and I needed to focus on school. Don Odermann worked in the Peace Corps, where he came into contact with the Hispanic countries and saw the need for someone to advocate for education. And since baseball was the most popular sport, that could springboard some of those kids who were good enough to play at the collegiate level, if not professionally.”

When Odermann fell ill around the time around the time Bautista’s career took off in Toronto, it was looking like the foundation might expire.

“He was the owner, the operator and the founder,” Bautista explains. “And I felt like it was my duty to do for other kids what he did for me. I was at a point in my career where I was looking toward creating my own charitable endeavors, and when I found out his foundation wasn’t going to continue, initially I considered just taking it over. But I got legal recommendations suggesting I not do that, but just start fresh. That’s when I decided to start my own foundation. But we mimicked what he did for me. We are focused on bringing kids another set of opportunities to continue to play ball, but as a student-athlete. Not as a professional. Right now we have about 28 kids at different schools all over the U.S. and in Canada. We put out an application. Kids apply. Sadly, most of the kids don’t qualify to get admitted into the process. It’s just too challenging.”

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Every person on the Bautista fund’s board received the same help from the Latin American Fund that Jose got. They can all reach out to kids, talk about the process, understand it and be a liaison. They not only give advice, but offer guidance for how to deal with some of the challenges of going to school in the States, with English being a second language, how to deal with teachers and the social adaptations of coming to the U.S.

“We try to set them up for success,” Bautista says. “We try to find a place where there’s a need. We try to make sure the coach is somebody we can trust and believe in. That they have a good educational backbone. We don’t just send them some place based on sports. We want to make sure, for example, if their desire is to be a doctor, we try to find a school that can lead them in that direction. Our experience has led us to believe that some coaches just might want to keep them eligible to play. We steer away from them. This year, five students achieved a 4.0 grade point average. Our average GPA is 3.4”

Bautista and his staff do an in-depth interview with each candidate, anywhere from four to 10 meetings, to make sure each candidate is equipped for the rigors of college. There are 27 kids currently in the program, among them Yan Carlo Rivera, a freshman infielder at LaSalle who is from Puerto Rico; and Franklin Van Gurp, a catcher at Chipola who is from Santo Domingo, Bautista's hometown.

The program costs about $4,000 per semester. In addition to donating his own money, Bautista, who is entering the final year of a five-year, $65 million contract with the Blue Jays, relies on public donations and hosts two fund-raising events a year. He says 100 percent of the money "goes straight to the kids."

“The mission is simple,” Bautista says. “To bring the kids another set of opportunities, so they don’t feel they’re so tied in to becoming a professional. [Latin America doesn't] have the structure of college sports that’s offered in the U.S.. I have kids from all over South America, Puerto Rico, the Dominican, Venezuela, who are now student-athletes in the U.S. We are also helping some American and Canadian student-athletes. We are doing well. I believe we’ve done a good job of finding quality kids and we have sterling results. This is our fourth year and we had our first graduate in December. And we haven’t had anybody drop out.”

The Bautista Family Education Fund has its own set of academic standards its student-athletes must achieve in order to remain a part of the program.

“We require a higher GPA than the NCAA requires to keep eligibility,” Bautista says. “We hold our kids to a higher standard because we want this project to continue to grow and that will only happen with kids who are focused on education. We think by raising the bar, we discourage kids who think this is just a way to spring a baseball career.”

In fact, Bautista's group doesn't have a perfect batting average.

"We've had one kid who failed due to discipline and another who failed in the classroom," he says. "Unfortunately, for some kids, they can't meet acceptance requirements. I hope some day we can grow where we can have a support system to help push some kids along -- maybe help a kid who just doesn't speak English well enough to pass his tests -- but right now, it's not feasible. We can only help the kids who can get admitted and meet the academic standards we've set. We don't just want to take kids out of their homes and put them in a bad experience."

Stressing academics to kids who think baseball comes first isn't always easy.

"Once kids come to us, they've kind of clued in that professional baseball might not be the thing for them," he says. "They find us. The kid who comes to us want to go to college. We're not forcing it. Still, roughly 90 percent of the kids who come to us can't get admitted. Some haven't graduated high school. Some of them could never pass the English test."

It’s different path, for sure, but Bautista has proven that a different path can still lead to success. 

For more from the Inspirations series of uplifting stories, click here.

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