From Luis Aparicio to Jose Reyes, from Roberto Clemente to Vladimir Guerrero, from Juan Marichal to Johan Santana, Latin American players have had a huge influence on the game of baseball and its history. Players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela don’t just face long odds to get to the big leagues, they face challenges of having to learn English, coming from places of extreme poverty, poor nutrition, and sometimes with little or no educational foundation. It isn’t easy for American players to understand the hardships their teammates are enduring, the burden of financial responsibility they feel for their families, or the consequences and lack of opportunities that await them at home if they don’t make it to the big leagues.
I interviewed Derek Hankins, a minor league pitcher in the Pirates organization, because I wanted to know what he experienced when he played Winter Ball in Venezuela this off-season. I’ve known Derek for a while now, and if there was ever anyone I would expect to understand and appreciate every life lesson and experience his time in Venezuela offered him, it would be Derek. As you’ll read in this interview, the experience in baseball and in culture was not lost on Derek. He has played the last two seasons in AA Altoona and has played in the Arizona Fall League as well. Here’s hoping that Derek uses the lessons he learned this winter to have a great Spring Training and that his road to the big leagues continues. And here’s hoping that you learn something from Derek’s experience and that you keep your eye on the box scores so you can cheer him when he eventually makes his big league debut.
Geoff Miller: What was it like playing in another country where you were the foreigner?
Derek Hankins: I got to experience a true role reversal. A lot of us Americans don’t really understand the sacrifices that our Latin teammates make, what they go through, and where they are coming from. I was amazed by the poverty level in Venezuela and by the passion Venezuelan players have for the game. They play the game over there as adults like we used to play in Little League. I loved that.
I also got a great perspective going down there. Those guys come to America and leave their families behind and they have nothing else but playing the game when they are here. For a couple of months, I had to put everything else out of my mind and be there to play baseball and leave my family behind.
I also realized that nobody owes me anything and I’m getting so many opportunities. We as Americans sometimes don’t see it that way because there is so much entitlement. Those guys give it everything they have because this is their only shot at making it big. Americans think that because they were drafted in a certain round or they come from a certain program that they are going to get more chances even if they don’t play their best.
GM: What was it like having to understand another language to survive?
DH: I did pick up on a lot, but I wish I had taken Spanish instead of French in high school. I really tried to learn as much as I could while I was down there, but being around lots of great Venezuelan guys in the minors helped me learn some Spanish before I got there. I had to ask people to repeat things a few times and I understand it better than I speak it. Jamie Navarro was our pitching coach and he would take me out to dinner and make me order so I could learn enough basic living skills to survive.
I thought that the Venezuelan players welcomed me and the other American players better than we welcome Latin players in the US. That’s something I’m going to remember and try to do better this season.
GM: Compare your experiences between playing in the Arizona Fall League and in Venezuela.
DH: I would say that the Fall League is more about development and lots of individual achievement, and really feels like we are being scouted, a lot like it feels in college before being drafted. In Venezuela, it’s “game time.” It’s like a soccer match…23,000 people screaming at every game and they are all intensely involved. It’s like a big party from the first pitch to the last pitch and it really taught me how to control my emotions. I was down there to get the job done or I was going home. I wasn’t there to work on anything developmentally.
GM: Do you feel more confident now that you can get to the big leagues and compete?
DH: Absolutely. I had a chance to experience how much one mistake can make the difference between winning and losing. That was my first real opportunity to experience the way those big league hitters just waited for me to make that mistake and now I know how to avoid them and to locate all my pitches better. It also helped to have an ex-pitcher like Jamie Navarro tell me that I don’t need to throw harder to be a big leaguer.
GM: What would you tell a teammate who had never been to play Winter Ball?
DH: Make sure that you are prepared. The game down there moves at a quick pace, especially if you let the crowds and atmosphere swallow you up. Just go down there and throw every pitch like you know you can, don’t reinvent yourself. But the way that hitters and pitchers adjust down there is incredible. Those guys don’t seem to care if things don’t go right for them on one pitch or one AB, but they are ready for the next pitch. It is still baseball, but when you’re at the field, it is a big league environment. The way the players carry themselves and execute is just the same because most of the players there are big leaguers or have been big leaguers.
GM: What is the most important mental game lesson you have learned in your career?
DH: When I first got drafted, I really had to learn to control my emotions. There are times when your emotions are going to take over, but it seems like the guys that are most successful are the ones that don’t get too high or too low on the field. They don’t change in the way they carry themselves, when things get out of whack it doesn’t seem like a big deal. No matter what is happening, things shouldn’t change. And I think that’s where winners come from…people that know who they are as people and as players.
If you would like to receive new posts from The Winning Mind in Baseball by email, please CLICK HERE.
Geoff Miller’s book, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game — in Baseball and in Life, will be released in August, 2012. For more information and free sample chapters, please visit:
For more information, please contact Geoff Miller at email@example.com.