Before last weekend, Doral native Eduardo Yepes, 13 in July, had never hit a home run in a baseball game. His teammates made jokes at his expense and nicknamed him “warning track power.” He was able to hit the fence, but he was never able to hit the ball out.
Last weekend he hit three, including a first inning lead-off homer to right-center field in the championship game to help send his team to a national tournament.
On June 11th, Papa John’s and the city of Hialeah came together to inaugurate the first Papa John’s Youth Baseball Invitational Tournament. Twelve teams from all over Miami-Dade County competed over the course of four days at Hialeah’s Babcock Park. The winning team received an all-expense paid trip to Dyersville, Iowa, to compete in the All-Star Ballpark Heaven Classic and the opportunity to participate in a skills challenge on the site of the Field of Dreams movie set.
On the night of the opening ceremony, Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter, known as “Papa,” threw out the first pitch. Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez was not in attendance, but his office was heavily involved in the coordination of the event. His chief of staff, Arnie Alonso, presented Schnatter with a proclamation declaring June 11 “Papa John’s Youth Baseball Day.”
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Tournament organizers plan to make the tournament a yearly event and eventually expand to include multiple age groups.
After the pomp and circumstance, players from the Doral team ran up to Schnatter and took selfies, fighting over each other and jumping up and down to get in the picture with him.
Then it was time to play ball.
“For us, it’s all about the kids,” Hialeah Parks and Recreation Director Joe Dziedzic said. “Papa John’s is looking to reach out to the Hispanic community and this provided a wonderful opportunity to kids who may not be these kinds of opportunities ever again.”
Parents and coaches alike raved about the level of care and organization involved in the tournament.
“Fields were maintained perfectly, you knew exactly where you were going, in some tournaments that we go to, and you don’t know where you’re going to be until 10 minutes before the game starts. They were on point with everything,” said Carlos Rey, coach of the Miami Springs team that played Doral in the championship game.
Miami Springs fought to make it to the final even though they were ranked as a lower seed once the tournament reached bracket play. They defeated North Miami Beach in the semi-finals to make it to the championship game. Over the course of the last two days of the tournament, they played five games in just two days.
Rey, who has been coaching youth baseball as a volunteer for the past three years, did not allow a loss in the final to shake the admiration for his team.
“Our performance was excellent. We were gutsy and we played until the end,” said Rey. “If I can make a good impact on a kid, at the end of the day, that’s what I want. That’s more important than winning a game.”
Doral’s coach, Rene Bello, played baseball in Cuba and has been coaching the game for more than 20 years – including 15 years at a baseball academy in Panama. He works as a professional youth coach for Doral Little League.
Rodolfo Diaz, 45, is an assistant coach for the Doral team and father of the team’s center fielder, Alejandro Diaz. To him, the most rewarding thing about being a part of the team is being able to witness his own child’s development.
“It helps with his self-esteem and his confidence. He works alongside with his friends and they support each other,” Diaz said. “The time I put into this is more valuable than any time I could put into being in an office or traveling for work.”
Though many of the eyes were on Eduardo Yepes’ breakout performance in the last two days of the tournament, which included going 3 for 3 at the plate with a home run and 2 RBIs, he received plenty of help from his teammates.
“We won as a team and I get to play with my brothers that I call family,” Eduardo said. “We see each other four days a week because we practice almost every day.”
Pitcher Michael Cabrera, 13, shut out Miami Springs for four innings and allowed just one hit.
Shortstop Alex Ulloa, 12, contributed with some impressive defensive stops that kept Miami Springs off of the base paths.
Many of the children that participated in the tournament confessed to never having seen the movie Field of Dreams – the film was released in 1989. However, they still felt excitement at the prospect of the trip, evidenced by Doral players and coaches huddling together and chanting “Iowa” and they rejoiced at the conclusion of the final game.
“Some of these kids are going to be playing high school and college baseball, but some of them may never do this again, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us,” said Jose Santiago, director of Doral Little League. “When they get older, they’ll look back at this as a great time in their childhood.”