EUGENE. Ore. - As minor-league baseball cities go, a young man could do much worse than this small city at the southern end of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Eugene is bike-friendly, picturesque, it's a college town with good places to eat and there are plenty of green spaces. College sports rule here, home of the Oregon Ducks, but the Eugene Emeralds of the Northwest League get to play in the Ducks' still-new baseball stadium, PK Park, across the river from campus.
As nice as a warm summer night in the Pacific Northwest feels, Eugene, for all of its charm, is still a long way from home for the nine Emeralds from Latin America. They represent Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
"It's a little hard, because think about it, you have guys who have never left their countries, and then they leave for the first or second time and have to be away from their families for five, six, maybe eight months," pitcher Bryan Rodriguez, from the Dominican Republic, said. "That's uncomfortable, when you don't know anybody. It's an experience where you have to live it to see it."
Rodriguez pitched for the Padres rookie-league team in the Dominican in 2010 and made the summer league's midseason All-Star team. Last season, he could not pitch due to a sprained right elbow.
Pitcher Alexis Lara, who was one of the two Latin American players to appear on Opening Night for the Ems on Friday, allowed three earned runs in 1/3 of an inning, though his team picked him up with an extra-inning win. Lara, 25, has made his way though every minor-league level of the San Diego Padres organization - the parent club of the Emeralds - and was on a rehab assignment with Eugene.
Lara has played ball in the States for a while, but his younger teammates who haven't must learn to adjust despite a language and cultural barrier.
Some of the other Latino Emeralds have played rookie ball in the U.S., others are in the country for the first time. They're all just trying to stick with an organization and at the very least, hang on for another season in pro baseball and avoid having to make it in "the real world" for at least few months longer.
The majors are a longshot for most minor-leaguers.
Many of the Latino players have the added pressure of having to provide for their families back home, and that puts additional pressure on them to make it to the majors and get the big money.
"Yeah, we feel that sometimes," Rodriguez said. "You're trying to help your family, you've never left home or maybe only once before. You can't just have a normal life, so you're giving it 100 percent all the time."
Catcher Jairo Gomez, also from the Dominican Republic, said that's the biggest difference between players from his country and North Americans - Dominicans, he said, dream of the big leagues, where they play for their families and to help the island.
That said, he's grateful for even the smallest of services the Padres organization provides.
"This is a great opportunity for us. The team pays for everything," Gomez said. "The team offers us help. They offer us English classes."
Rodriguez said instituting the first-year player draft in the Dominican and Venezuela and other countries, where players are signed as free agents and not drafted the way Puerto Ricans and North Americans are, is a good idea, but lots of his countrymen don't stay in school because they want to pursue their baseball dreams.
Gomez helped make his point.
"You either have to pay for your studies, or do something else, and a lot of families can't afford to help," he said.
By Jose M. Romero / @RomeroJoseM