An 8-year-old boy walks home alone at sunset on a dusty road in the Dominican heat, where the humidity is merciless. The boy wipes beads of sweat from his face after a day of playing baseball on a makeshift field, carrying a bat he made from a discarded broomstick and a sock wrapped around a wadded plastic bag he calls a ball. He is wondering if there will be food on the table tonight, perhaps white rice on a plate. He hopes there is fresh water. But no matter, thinks Jose Daniel Ortiz Santos, today was a good day – I got to play baseball. Tengo que jugar béisbol.
Ortiz was the fourth of eight children, and he adored his three older brothers, following them like a puppy wherever they went; up a tree to pick fruit, under the tree for some shade to escape the heat, to the market for platanos. His first glove was a hand-me-down from his older brothers (his father could not afford gloves for each of them), but it was a prized possession which he neatly tucked under his pillow every night before bed. His father is very loving, his mother strong and strict but the difficulty the family faced was that they were poor. They lived in a sector in the capital Santo Domingo called Capotillo – a place where 90,000 people live in a space of less than 1.5 square kilometers and has the highest per capita murder rate in the country.
For many boys growing up in the Dominican Republic (DR), the baseball field is a sanctuary, an oasis in a country where four million of its 10 million residents live in poverty. But this beautiful island east of Haiti in the Caribbean has been a hotbed of Major League talent since the 1950s. In 2017, there were 749 players on MLB opening day rosters, 92 from the DR. If you follow baseball you know the names: Vlad, Big Papi, Pedro, Pujols, Sosa, Manny, Tejeda, Marichal. Jose Ortiz knows them all. After Vladimir Guerrero was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in January, Ortiz called and congratulated him.
Baseball is also where many worlds converge for Dominican kids. The involvement of family and community. The dream of a better life. The expressive pride of being Dominican. The deep joy of playing the greatest game. Consider this observation by five-time All-Star and DR National Team manager Tony Peña, speaking to the The Kansas City Star: “People in the Dominican are so happy. That’s what I love about my country. People are so poor. They have no money. They live in these little houses. Everybody thinks they must be very sad. But they are not. They are so happy … Our culture is very simple; we love baseball, it’s the only sport we want to play, we are always smiling, when we are angry stay away from us but we are a happy people.”
Jose Daniel Ortiz Santos was also good – really good – and the feisty boy who would fight anyone in the street quickly turned into Jose Ortiz the man. He was signed by the Oakland A’s at age 17 in 1994 for $2,500, a dynamo of a hitter despite his 5-foot-9 frame, and a slick fielding shortstop. Ortiz arrived in the United States with only the shirt on his back. Literally. His luggage flew off the top of the concho that took him to the airport for the first time, leaving him with no glove, no cleats, no clothes. When he finally arrived in Arizona, the A’s minor league director gave him $200 for a new wardrobe and a replacement glove.
Good luck, kid. Buena suerte, chico.
With this inauspicious beginning to his pro career in the rearview mirror, Ortiz was a fast riser in the A’s organization. In his fifth year of pro ball for the Sacramento River Cats in 2000, he was named the Pacific Coast League MVP, hitting .351 with 107 runs, 34 doubles, 24 home runs, 108 RBI and 22 stolen bases. In a nutshell, he was hot stuff, the latest in a long line of brilliant A’s rookies like Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
Ortiz made his major league debut for the A’s on Sept. 15, 2000 and managed two hits in 11 at bats. Then next season he won the second base job next to fellow Dominican Miguel Tejeda only to hurt his calf in just his second game, a prevalent theme throughout his career. After only 46 at-bats he was sent down to AAA and was later traded to the Colorado Rockies for Jermaine Dye. The fresh start helped and he made quite an impression, mashing 13 home runs in only 203 at bats. Colorado seemed the perfect place for Ortiz to land, a launching pad for a stadium, the thin air perfectly suited for his powerful right-handed swing. His life and career were lining up perfectly, and another Dominican success story seemed inevitable. Again, Ortiz won the second base job out of spring training.
A knee injury would derail his development and Ortiz managed just one home run in 65 games. On Sept. 25, 2002 at the age of 25, and after just 449 Major League at-bats, Ortiz played his last game in the majors.
But if a Major League career ending after only two years sounds sad to you, you don’t know Jose Ortiz.
A savvy pitcher can throw a nasty curveball. So can life, and Ortiz was not sure what to do now. The best hitters can hit a nasty curveball, so Ortiz kept swinging. But not even he could have predicted that after his release, he would spend 19 nomadic years across 26 stops, taking him from the majors, to Japan, to the Mexican League, to the Independent League, back to Japan, back to the Dominican Republic, and now to Clovis, the latest stop in his great adventure.
“Whenever God closes one door, he opens another,” Ortiz says. Sure, but 26? What allows him to remain so hopeful?
With him every step of the way is his family – mi familia – an infectiously entertaining, blended, globe-trotting troupe who have experienced a fascinating and sensational life together. Ortiz points to a life-altering decision in 2006, that not only shaped his own life but the lives of future generations. It was then that he discovered what matters most, and that nothing in life happens by mistake.
I had heard the rumors, the whispers that the Buchanan High School baseball program was getting three new transfers for the 2017 season. The Bears, fresh off their 30-1 national No. 1 ranking season and back-to-back Central Section titles, were about to get even better. Great, opponents surely thought, the rich get richer, just what Buchanan needs – more talent. And get this; all three were sons of a former Major League ball player, one Jose Ortiz. I remembered the name right away, I was a baseball card collector in my youth and invested in a few Jose Ortiz rookie cards, hoping my investment would turn a profit. Surely these boys had that short compact swing like their father and would make an immediate impact on the team. Then I heard the names: Alex, a junior, J.D. and Miguel, both sophomores. Wow, a junior and sophomore twins! we all thought. I had to check them out. I attended a practice at an indoor batting cage in February of 2017 with pouring rain outside. I could hear the Thwak of the bat striking the ball – it was one of the Ortiz brothers.
This is gonna be fun to watch, I thought.
But, there was a little problem – they had very little experience playing in high-level baseball games. When they were in Japan for six months out of the year there was little time to play in baseball leagues. Sure, they could run, throw and hit but could they do those crucial things in a game situation? Buchanan head coach Tom Donald said the boys struggled with basic in-game concepts like situational baserunning and hitting the cutoff man. However, they’ve become quick studies. In fact, Miguel was offered a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton and verbally committed last summer to play there after impressive performances at showcases. J.D., an outfielder like Miguel, is a full time starter, and Alex has earned regular playing time at second base in his senior season.
Ortiz gave up his scouting job on the East Coast to move to Clovis, and recently the Oakland A’s called and offered Ortiz a job in the minor leagues, “I would love to,” he replied, “but I need to be with my boys before they go to college.”
In person, the three Ortiz boys are altogether polite, fun-loving yet impeccably mannered, well-spoken, and have excellent grades. They are handsome, athletic, full of colorful stories, are game-changers on the baseball field and off, and sometimes act more like triplets. “There is still an innocence about them, but not to the extent of the average kid their age,” says their mother Annie. Miguel is harmlessly eccentric (he likes jelly on his hamburgers and teriyaki sauce on his burritos), J.D. is witty and great at impersonations, and Alex is astute, the family spokesman who had to grow up fast. They have lived lives reminiscent of military brats – who else can boast living in Florida, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Clovis by age 17? During spring break I’m invited over for a home-cooked lunch (rice, meat, platanos!) and listen to and laugh at wonderful and outlandish stories for almost three hours about the family’s world travels. The table was beautifully decorated by their 14-year old daughter Anniesa, a talented artist and an aspiring writer. Not once did the Ortiz children check their phones during the conversation.
And what do you know, the three boys are so bold in their faith they lead team prayers before games. Who could have ever imagined three Dominicans leading a spiritual charge in a community where racial tensions have known to be elevated?
The family spent six months out of the year in Japan where Jose played for 10 years. When they lived in Fukuoka, Japan’s fifth largest city, Jose and Annie once found 8-year old J.D. on his hands and knees behind the video games in the arcade, searching for dropped coins to plop into the machines. There was that time in Chiba when the food vendors at the stadium gave the boys free food because they were so adorable. Annie once got a call from school wondering why Miguel wasn’t in class – they found him sitting in the cafeteria wondering where all his friends were; he had stayed for three periods of lunch. The boys were as popular as their famous father and when Jose hit a home run, the TV cameras seemed to find the kids wearing jerseys with “Ortiz” on the back.
After every game in Japan a “Hero of the Game” is honored on the field, and whenever Jose was chosen the boys would cruise past security and join their father on stage. They had become local celebrities in their own right. “They were in the newspaper just as much as me,” Jose said. The boys would be walking around in Fukuoka and people would come up to them and ask “Are you Jose Ortiz’s sons?” and beg for their autographs.
Family was certainly a priority and in 2010 Jose was awarded the Father of the Year by a local Japanese newspaper, beating out celebrities and athletes and other famous people. On his days off he would practice baseball with the boys and spend family time together at the aquarium or the beach. They were recognized at restaurants, in the park, at the bank. The family was actually seven with Katterine, the daughter of Jose’s younger brother who Jose adopted as his own and came to live with Annie in 2002 when she was eight. She is considered a daughter and a sister, and to this day is an integral part of their family, cherished as one of their own. The Ortiz family was happy. But it almost didn’t happen.
In 1999, Jose was rising through the minor leagues at breakneck speed and through mutual friends he met Annie Acosta, a junior at Fresno State, born and raised in Kerman. They bonded right away – life on the road for a ball player can certainly get lonely – and a friendship began which turned into a relationship. They would call each other as often as their schedules allowed and Annie even brought Jose to meet her family back in Kerman. Jose fit in well, and her family took a quick liking to the ball player, especially Annie’s brother Chito. Their feelings for each other were mutual and their relationship was about to get serious. His story of survival and overcoming obstacles was one that resonated with Annie. However, back in the Dominican Republic and unbeknownst to Annie, there was another woman, Jose’s wife, and they had a son together. His name was Alex, born Oct. 22, 1999.
On May 4, 2000, Annie drove to Sacramento to watch Jose play and after the game a teammate came up to her and asked her in Spanish if she knew. Tu sabes. Knew what? She confronted Jose and was told the truth; he had a wife and son back in the DR.
That was the first time they cried together, but certainly not the last.
Annie refused Jose’s phone calls for months. But one day she answered and they picked up their friendship which turned into a rekindled relationship. Annie soon became pregnant.
Meanwhile, Ortiz’s wife, Miriam, gave birth to Miguel, affectionately called “Miggy” on Feb. 8, 2001. Annie gave birth to J.D. four months later on June 13. Annie then gave birth to their second child together, Anniesa in 2003. Ortiz divorced Miriam in 2004. When you do the math, yes, it’s quite complicated.
O, what a tangled web we weave.
But the Ortiz family knows how to handle curveballs. What came from a family tree that could have been twisted and gnarled, dripping with anger and jealousy instead has yielded fruit and blessings tenfold, the sweet aroma of blossoms floating with grace, joy and peace. Nothing happens by mistake.
When Annie Ortiz looks in the mirror, what does she see? Sure, they’ve heard the whispers, the words spoken behind their backs. For years she was riddled with guilt, that age-old tool of the devil that pierces with self-condemnation and shame. She was the other woman. But after she and Jose rededicated their lives to Christ she was washed white as snow, a new creation in the eyes of God. That’s what she sees in the mirror.
But what about Miriam?
She did what loving mothers do in Latin countries; the parent who can give their children a better life will sacrifice custody, and Miriam knew the boys would have a better life in the U.S.A. While in Florida they lived together in close proximity, however, today, Miriam lives in the DR where a mama’s love for her sons is separated by 3,256 miles. In the eyes of the Ortiz family she is beloved. Annie and Miriam’s hearts started to change when they attended a Bible study together in Florida, Annie translating the Bible message from english to spanish for Miriam. “She forgave me, and even in all my sin and my shame God still has grace,” Annie says, and in humility she washed Miriam’s feet.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
The year was 2005 and Jose felt like he had a lot of baseball left in the tank, holding tight to the dream of getting back to the Major Leagues and reclaiming the once-lofty expectations that now weighed on him like an albatross. He was playing in the Independent League for the Lancaster Barnstormers, hitting .343 with four homers and 25 RBI in only 99 at bats when the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians sent big league scouts to check him out. Aaron Boone, the starting third baseman for Cleveland, was struggling and they wanted an upgrade – Jose Ortiz was an option. However, he would tear his bicep in the very game the scouts were in attendance, and the dream was over. After surgery, his season was over as well.
By now, Ortiz was at a breaking point in both his career and spiritual life – something had to give. He wasn’t at peace. In the Dominican Republic, 96 percent consider themselves Catholic or Protestant; the prevailing thought is that God is certainly real. Ortiz believed, and the nudges from God in his childhood ranged from gentle tugs to smack-across-the-face real quick. “I met the Lord when I was little,” he says. “And I knew the only way I could get out of my country is because the Lord allowed it. Deep down I knew he loved me.” Ortiz began to get real. “What are we doing? What are we waiting for? God, I don’t know why this is happening to me but let’s make my wrongs right with you.”
He called Annie and cried on the phone and they decided together to follow a higher calling; they prayed and married three months later. “God is good all the time, he restored everything,” Jose said.
In 2007, they packed up their bags and returned to Chiba, Japan, this time with a renewed spirit.
After the 1992 film Mr. Baseball, starring Tom Selleck as an aging MLB player seeking career redemption, playing baseball as a foreigner in Japan has steadily gained steam. Minor leaguers can make more money there than in the states and veterans know it can revive a lagging career. Foreign baseball players find Japan an excellent alternative for to the doldrums of the minor leagues, a chance to revive their career and make a good salary. There have been more Dominican players in Japan than one might think – 109 total – compared to over 600 American players in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
Ortiz had an excellent 10-year career (2003-2013) in Japan, homering in his first at-bat on his way to 57 home runs in his first two years for the Orix Blue Waves, the same team Ichiro Suzuki played for. He returned to the U.S. and played Independent ball in 2005-06 and then tore the cover off the ball in the Mexican League in 2007, hitting .400 with 17 home runs in only 57 games for Saraperos de Saltillo. He returned to Japan and played for the Chiba Lotte Marines (under Bobby Valentine), the Fukuoka Hawks and the Seibu Lions. In all, Ortiz hit 135 HR, had 488 RBIs and hit .271 before hanging up the cleats for good at age 36. He won a Japan Series title in 2011 with Fukuoka, hitting a walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to win a game. Ortiz is so well respected in Japan that the Seibu Lions and Fukuoka Hawks offered him scouting jobs after he retired.
Like Dominicans, Japanese baseball fans are passionate, standing and cheering and chanting throughout each game. During spring training they could be heard practicing their cheers and chants with trumpets and noisemakers outside the stadium. Led by cheer captains in the outfield, every player had their own chant, known as an ouendan. Ortiz’s, translated, went: “Wow, wow, wow, Jose Ortiz. Wow, wow, wow, Jose Ortiz. Fly to the sky of the Dominican Republic Jose Ortiz! Fly away Ortiz. Go! Go! Let’s go Ortiz!” After each home run, the bat boy (or girl) would wait at home plate with a giant stuffed animal as the prize. Ortiz would often throw them into the crowd or collect them in his locker. TV reporters asked people on the street to name their favorite player. “Ortiz” they would say. The Dominican star was popular, 8,206 miles from his homeland.
While Ortiz certainly had a prosperous and lengthy 19-year professional baseball career, he struggled to stay healthy, reaching 500 at bats only once (during his 2000 MVP season in Sacramento). He had two knee surgeries, surgery to repair the ruptured bicep, endured bad hamstrings, a strained oblique and lingering aches and pains. “Some of my friends have asked me ‘what if?’” There’s no ‘what if?’ God gave me a great career,” he says.
“I was a foreign player in America and I was a foreign player in Japan,” Jose explains. His family understands this well. Think of it, Alex and Miguel are darker complected and full Dominican, whereas J.D. and Anniesa are half Dominican, half Mexican and lighter skinned. How many teenagers can claim being called “Gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan, “Dominican” in the U.S., and “gringos” in the Dominican? The Ortiz kids can, and they embrace it; they have both stuck out and blended in at the same time. “He came out darker because he’s four months older,” J.D. likes to quip when asked about Miggy.
The family had a nice system starting in 2009 – six months in a gated community in Florida, then six months in Japan, save for a two month stint in Mexico in 2012. However, In 2014, after Jose officially retired from baseball, the Ortiz clan felt the ultimate calling and moved home to the DR, trading a life of comfort in Florida for the DR and leaving Katterine behind who now had a son of her own. For Jose Ortiz, it was time to give back. He had already bought his mom, sister, and one of his eight brothers a house. Now they entered into a business venture – the banana business – platanos.
The Ortiz family set up residence in Santiago, and set up a non-profit called “Creations of Love,” which organized toy and backpack drives, Bible studies, and hosted activities for the local orphanage. They established an open-door policy in their home, Mi casa es su casa, and the kids came in droves. “Being spiritual parents to so many has been the biggest blessing in our lives,” says Annie. “We are able to see the beauty and uniqueness in each child.”
And of course, they organized baseball leagues. Jose would serve food to 6-7 people at a time and give kids rides to the field after feeding them before practice. At one point they housed seven boys, treating them like their own sons and making sure they went to school.
The return trip to the DR was special for the Ortiz children as well. Like their father before them, Alex, J.D. and Miguel got the chance to play baseball on those same fields with dirt infields, chain link backstops on top of broken cinder blocks, bases that resembled pillows, metal shacks with broken windows in the background. The boys would send moon-shots into the outfield that disappeared into the hanging branches of weeping willow trees. When they reached home plate they would raise their arms to the heavens, like their father did when he reached home plate after a homer. They do it today for Buchanan after getting a hit.
“When we lived in the DR the boys got to see poverty and hospitality on a different scale,” Annie says. “And in Japan they got to see obedience and reverence and kindness. They’ve got to see so many different cultures and their beauty.”
Alex adds, “We’ve been raised so quick and so well. At this age right now we have a ton more experience than most kids. We’ve been all over the world and have seen terrible and awful things but good things too.
Jose does something he hasn’t done once during our almost three hour conversation at his house – he checks his phone. It’s 4:01 and he has a hitting lesson to go to. He’s the founder of OBF, the Ortiz Baseball Factory, giving hitting lessons and managing several travel baseball teams. He gets up from the table and disappears into the hallway, emerging 30 seconds later with a baseball hat on. He still looks like he could mash home runs. He tells me “Thank you my friend,” and heads to the door. Jose Ortiz stops and remembers he has one more thing to do. Five actually. He goes up to each of his family members and kisses them one by one.