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WRITTEN BY FLORANGELA DAVILA
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DEAN RUTZ
Anywhere, but especially here, Valle stands out 6 foot 2, cinder-block solid, the Brawny paper-towel guy come to life.
"Policía?" wonders a tiny girl from a doorway, peeking up at the former catcher for the Seattle Mariners. When you know he's a baseball player, it all makes sense: The hands, hefty. The walk, slightly pitched forward, as athletic bodies tend to do. The gum, chewed all the time, whether he's in a suit or in jeans, in a presidential palace or out here, in the middle of nowhere.
Valle has come calling to the people of the bateyes, the tiny communities that have sprouted in the cane fields throughout the countryside of the Dominican Republic. Once the sugarcane industry was powerful here, but now the mills are mostly dormant, and in a nation of the poor, the bateyes are home to the poorest.
But Valle strolls along. Women wave hello from their homes; he smiles and waves back. When the youngsters eye the toffee-haired white man in ball cap and sunglasses, they scamper toward him. He shrinks to their size and scoops them up in his burly embrace.
In certain circles back home, namely the baseball crowd, Dave Valle is fielding his 16th minute of fame, sitting in the Mariners' broadcast booth, calling color for the game he used to play.
Three thousand miles away in the Dominican Republic, where only merengue and bachata music seem to outscore beisbol as the country's preferred activity, he also enjoys some fame, even if locals don't always recognize his face.
Eight years ago, with some $50,000 in seed money, Valle founded Esperanza International, an organization that grants small loans to Dominicans who want to start up or expand a business. Known in philanthropic jargon as a microcredit organization, Esperanza hope, in Spanish targets the poor in a country of 8.6 million, where roughly one-quarter live below the nation's poverty level, approximately $100 a month for a family of five. For every 1,000 babies born, 39 die an infant-mortality rate that surpassed the average for the region in the World Bank's most recent count.
In order to help the children, Esperanza focuses on their parents, mostly the mothers, who group together, form "banks" and create basic business plans: sell juice; make dresses; run a colmado or corner store. Esperanza loans each woman between $125 and $150. Borrowers then have four months to repay the loans, with interest or the bank is responsible. Once the loans are repaid, though, the bank can apply for larger amounts.
As of December 2001, Esperanza had extended $3 million in loans creating or sustaining 10,000 jobs and 98 percent had been repaid.
"The woman takes the loan like a baton," Valle says, "and it changes her life."
Valle isn't Dominican or even Latino; he has no family in the country, no real connection save the one rather unremarkable season he played winter ball there. And yet, this 42-year-old Irish-Italian New Yorker has found fulfillment, his life's true work, in this obscure place. How it happened, he says, is no accident. In fact, he's sure it was a divine plan all anchored in baseball.
VALLE GREW UP in Bayside, Queens, the seventh of eight children. Mom, Marilyn, raised the family. Dad, John, sold pharmaceuticals but arranged his schedule so he could preside over the nonstop stream of youngsters pouring through the house after school. With a basketball court, "Chicken Coop Stadium" for baseball and a closet full of sporting equipment, the Valle house was the neighborhood athletic club. Mr. Valle, a catcher for his college team, coached Little League and was a surrogate father to dozens. Mrs. Valle kept them all going on platters of spaghetti.
Then, the worst.
Dad had a heart attack and died. He was only 41; Dave was just 8.
It would be up to his mom to keep it all together, and she did, taking a full-time job as a nurse at a nearby hospital, working the graveyard shift to make time for the family during the day.
"She'd come home, wake us up, feed us, and we'd go to school," Valle says. "I have no idea how my mom was able to cope."
Valle coped, in part, with baseball, a passion he'd inherited from his dad.
Dave "must have been about 10, maybe a little younger," recalls sister Barbara Valle. "His one dilemma was never 'if' he played professional baseball. It was, 'What would I do if John is on the opposite team in the World Series?' "
His pursuit of baseball, without an adult mentor, was singular and determined.
"You figured he was going to be successful," says Omar Minaya, Valle's best friend since high school, a Dominican who also played ball. "He was totally talented and dedicated. He worked hard."
It paid off. Valle captured the attention of the Mariners, who drafted him in 1978 right after graduation and moved him to Bellingham to begin the long slog through the farm system. In Bellingham, Valle discovered a few things pineapple on pizza, for one, as well as some hard truths: The climb to baseball's big time would be as arduous as it was unglamorous.
For the next five years, Valle toiled in the system through Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Utah and Tennessee, playing on teams where "transportation" meant getting on a school bus. He found extra playing time by joining winter-league teams in Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. To make a living, he returned to Queens to hawk Christmas trees and deliver Chinese food.
But good things were happening, too. Minaya had introduced him to Vicky, the perfume-counter lady at Bloomingdale's. They dated, fell in love, and two years later they married.
In any case, it changed the way he'd approach everything from then on.
By 1985 Valle had become a father and was finally on the Mariners' roster for his first full season. His thrill at being behind home plate, though, ended abruptly when a player slammed into him, badly bruising his left thigh and forcing him onto the disabled list for three months.
So, as injured players tend to do, Valle once more sought to play winter-league ball. He phoned his childhood friend, Minaya, then a major-league scout, who had been bragging about his home country ever since they were 16. Now Minaya saw an opportunity: The San Cristobal Caimanes needed a catcher; Valle needed to play.
Dave and Vicky picked up stakes again and moved to a hotel in the Dominican. Vicky, born in Cuba and fluent in Spanish, got to know the cleaning staff as she paced the halls rocking baby Philip to sleep. The maids told her of their own children.
"They were terrible stories," Vicky remembers. "How one of them couldn't get medicine for their son, so he lost his hearing."
Then one night, after a game, Valle and the other Americans were standing outside the stadium, waiting for their bus back to the hotel, when a group of kids approached.
In a country that's produced more major-league players than anyplace but the United States, he figured he knew what they wanted. Autographs.
But the children were after something else. Food, they begged. Please.
The poverty had been all around him, but each day from then on, Valle studied it through the bus window, frame after frame.
Dave and Vicky vowed not to forget.
IT'S DECEMBER and the boys are playing baseball in San Pedro de Macorís, the Dominicans' self-christened "Shortstop Capital of the World" because of its legendary imports. Celebrated son Sammy Sosa has his own office plaza here, complete with statue, La Fuente del Limpiabotas. The fountain of those who shine shoes.
Valle, here for his annual visit to check in with Esperanza, has stopped to watch.
Que fuerza! he shouts in admiration of a player's strength. "Ponchado!" Strikeout.
Otra para la calle! he howls after the bottle cap has sailed over a wall and into the street.
More than a decade of traveling to the country has tidied up Valle's high-school Spanish. Gone are the days when, facing a restaurant menu, he routinely ordered spaghetti with butter. And bread, please.
In the four days he'll spend here on this visit, he'll check in with Esperanza's 34 employees, particularly country director Carlos Pimentel, and see Esperanza successes firsthand. In San Pedro de Macorís, he meets Maria Millan, a vocational-ed teacher, huddled over a sewing machine. In the town of Quisqueya, he talks with Juana Jimenez Sabin and tours her beauty shop, with its black plastic chairs and shelves of Paul Mitchell hair products. In Batey Experimental, he visits Seneida Martinez and her tiny grocery with its painted orange walls. That evening, Esperanza throws an awards celebration in a stately building overlooking the Rio Iguamo. Hundreds of people have gathered, mostly ladies with their hair pinned up and their skirts smoothed down. Pimentel guides Valle up one aisle of chairs, down the next, to shake hands.
The annual event unfurls with a prayer, a speech by Valle and Spanish translation by Pimentel, award certificates, snapshots, gifts of tableware. It's a three-hour affair, and while Valle looks tuckered at times, he never looks glassy-eyed bored. He is the father seated in a football stadium during an endless high-school graduation ceremony, but every name called out is family.
"It's pretty awesome," he says in a voice that, no matter where he is, always struts back to Queens.
The celebration ends and guests begin filing out, climbing onto motorbikes. Some youngsters, who've watched the ceremony all these hours from the street, amble in. A small boy sees Valle, tugs at his sleeve and shows him his foot, scrubbed terribly raw.
Seventeen years ago, when Valle stood outside that baseball stadium and the youngsters asked for food, he walked up to a woman selling chicken, gave her money and told her to cook everything she had.
This time, Valle looks at the boy and his foot and asks him if he knows where a nearby church is. Go there in the morning, Valle says, directing him to the Esperanza medical clinic there.
SOME 400 FOUNDATIONS nationwide are affiliated with professional or Olympic athletes, according to MVPhilanthropy, a Boston-based nonprofit group specializing in sports philanthropy. A majority of the foundations, usually named after the athletes themselves, focus on helping young people through sports or education.
Valle played major-league ball for a decade, a solid but unspectacular career that earned him $2.3 million at its apex. When he's remembered, it's most often as the guy whose batting average was so low that a local bar used it to set the price of a mug of beer. Or the one who led the American League in the dubious category of hit-by-pitch in 1993.
Still, those who saw him up close viewed him as steady and committed, someone who always looked out for the rookies as well as the veterans, a leader.
"There are guys who are very individualistic, who all they really care about are their stats," says Brian Holman, a former M's pitcher now on the board of Esperanza. "Dave really wasn't that way. He could go 0 for 4 and still understand he had a job to do behind the plate. He was very good at turning this thing off here and going on to the next thing to make it work."
"Setbacks are opportunities for comebacks," Valle says in the same understated way he can bring up God without sounding phony or preachy.
Perhaps that's why, after being passed around to other clubs and then failing to make the Oakland Athletics' roster, Valle retired from baseball in 1997. The following year, at the McCormick Woods Golf Course in Port Orchard, he held his first celebrity golf classic to benefit Esperanza.
VALLE LIVES ON the Eastside, in a house newly remodeled to better accommodate Vicky and their three children, two boxers, his mother-in-law and a basketball court. He coaches Philip in baseball, Alina in soccer and encourages Natalia, an aspiring actress. A perfect day is when they're all together, like on a Sunday when they go to church, come home, he fixes lunch and they all play basketball.
"He had that rare combination of gifts," says Todd Green, the school's current executive director and a teacher at the time. "He could be strong. He could take charge of things. But he conducted himself with grace and patience. He's extremely perceptive about people's moods and what's going on in their lives. People just gravitated toward him."
If he hadn't been a ballplayer, Valle could easily have been a preacher, says Rick Rizzs, the M's broadcaster who's known him for years. If he had been only a ballplayer, though, Valle would have disappointed himself, knowing his purpose in life was something more.
"Baseball was the tool God used to shape me as a man," Valle says. "It was my job. But ultimately, there's Esperanza. And ultimately, my work was about having an impact on the lives of the poor."
He recognizes there are needs in this country, in Mexico and Africa, too. "It's just that that's not where we were called to do something."
Broadcasting some 55 games a year allows him the chance not only to remain part of the game he loves but also to hang onto a piece of celebrity "I'm probably more recognizable now because I am on TV than when I played." That's valuable when you want to raise a lot of money.
Valle runs the charity from a Bellevue office donated by a local software company. He is the foundation's one-man, unpaid fund-raising machine, finding donors at local Rotary meetings, pitching his cause in Minneapolis and D.C., organizing his golf classic and getting signed memorabilia from Edgar, Jay and even Alex for his annual auction. Valle also keeps on the lookout for new Latino players who might appreciate a friendly face and be willing to give back one day with a contribution to a good cause.
Oye, he might say. Listen, did you know I've spent time in the Dominican, and now I'm doing some work in San Pedro de Macorís?
DOMINICANS HAVE a saying: Qu·ndo tu pones un huevo debes cacarearlo. If you lay an egg, you should cackle to announce it.
Valle's chance to cackle arrived as an invitation to the republic's presidential palace on his visit last winter. The country's most powerful sports fan, President Hipolito Mejia, had decided to pay tribute to Major League Baseball with an awards ceremony and dinner. The honorees included the obvious Dominican baseball superstars, some significant Americans, and Valle.
Against a purple evening sky, the palace twinkles under a thousand tiny white Christmas lights. Valle arrives wearing a dark suit and a pair of bought-at-the-last-minute black socks. Baseball honchos, including M's general manager Pat Gillick, gather 'round to exchange hellos and hugs. But for a good part of the evening, as a video plays and the president begins handing out awards, Valle sits at a table hemmed in by a Dominican press corps that has no idea he's an honoree.
Valle's friend Minaya, the first Latino general manager of a major-league team, steps forward to receive his award. So do Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo ColŪn. The media, followed by autograph seekers, scurry after them.
When it's Valle's turn, he stands up and gets his certificate, a handshake from the president and applause from the ballroom. When it's over, Valle, unencumbered by swarms of interview-seekers or autograph-hunters, works the room.
Florangela Davila is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Dean Rutz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Northwest Living||Now & Then||Sunday Punch||Letters|