Second baseman Luis Salas grew up in extreme poverty in the Dominican Republic but is now living his dream at Darton State College, where he broke the program's single-season hits record this year and has become one of the best baseball players Cavs coach Scot Hemmings has ever had on a team. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
Darton State College second baseman Luis Salas was never going to make it as a baseball player.
He was too short, too old and too poor to chase his dream.
Or at least that’s what he was told.
But there he was on an early Tuesday morning last June, jammed into a makeshift taxi with a group of young Dominicans, each with dreams as big as his. The uneasy ride deep into Santo Domingo cost $3 — a substantial price for a kid from Mendoza, one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods on the island.
Clutching his glove — often the only ticket out of the violent, drug-filled streets where he grew up — Salas knew he was running out of time in his pursuit of a baseball career that had been dangled in front of thousands of kids just like him. What he didn’t know was that this was the ride that would change his life.
The humble and hard-working 19-year-old was spotted by Darton baseball coach Scot Hemmings and assistant coach Justin Huff at a tryout later that day, an opportunity that allowed Salas to escape from extreme poverty in the Dominican Republic and earn a scholarship with the Darton baseball team.
It’s been nearly a year since Salas caught the eyes of Hemmings and Huff at a tryout at Olympico Stadium, and in that span he has emerged as a star at Darton and the best five-tool player Hemmings has ever coached. Salas shattered the Cavs’ single-season hits record this year, smacked two walk-off home runs — including one to keep Darton’s season alive in the conference tournament — and led the team into the championship game of the district tournament.
And it all started with that stuffy, hour-long ride in a rundown public car through the narrow streets of Santo Domingo.
“It’s one of those recruiting stories that you just got lucky with and you love to tell,” Hemmings said. “There’s no doubt when you watch him play that he’s going to be a professional player one day. He does things you can’t teach.”
Salas sat down with The Herald earlier this week to talk about his journey to the U.S., and even though he needed a teammate and fellow Dominican to translate for him, his passion for baseball and his unwavering desire to make his family proud broke every language barrier.
Salas, along with seven other family members, lived in a house that he described as about half the size of the Darton locker room — basically a hut in the eastern sector of Santo Domingo Este.
But for Salas, it was where his love for baseball was born.
No one has followed his journey closer than his mother, Evelyn Salas, who he hasn’t seen in a year but talks to every day on the phone. She was his inspiration as a child and supported Luis, his two brothers, sister, grandmother and two uncles with a single job as a restaurant cook.
She pushed Luis to never walk away from his dream while others were telling him to give up.
She cried with him for an hour before he stepped on the plane to come to America and couldn’t stop screaming when she was able to watch a highlight of Salas hitting a game-winning home run on YouTube.
She has newspaper stories about her son translated for her and has told him his entire life that he is “the best baseball player in the world.”
When Salas talks about playing baseball, he talks about doing it all for his mom.
“I promised her that I would find success,” Salas said. “I have tried to work hard to make her proud. That’s what I want. I don’t care about any money or fame. I just want to make my mother proud.”
‘Special player’ in the making
Salas’ mother bought him his first glove when he was 5 years old, and he spent the next decade playing baseball during the day and attending school from 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
In Mendoza, you never stay out past 10.
“You can’t leave your house because you will see people killing each other,” Salas said. “You see people selling drugs on the corners. It was really tough. Nobody can go outside after 10 p.m. People will steal everything you have in your hands.”
Salas leaned on his mom and baseball during his upbringing, staying out of trouble and remaining focused. He played Little League for the Lions until he was 12 years old and then bounced around to different training academies where he was able to play in front of professional scouts and college coaches.
As the years ticked by, the opportunities to play baseball in the U.S. started to disappear. He finally joined the Dominican Air Force team three years ago — which could have easily been his last hurrah as a baseball player if not for Darton — and received a meager 4,000 pesos per month, which translates to about $92.60 in the States.
But in a neighborhood where thievery is commonplace, nobody could steal his hope. Not even his friends and family who pleaded for him to abandon his dream after reaching an age where it became nearly impossible to get noticed by scouts.
“I had a lot of people telling me to quit playing baseball,” said Salas, who is 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds. “They said I was short and old. In the Dominican it’s a business, and when you pass 16 years old it’s really tough to sign. I was really upset because when you have your friends and your family telling you to quit baseball — the sport you love — it was tough.”
One person never stopped believing in Salas.
“A lot of times I thought about giving it up, but my mother always supported me and told me not to listen to anybody and just to keep playing,” Salas said. “She said God would have something for me.”
Evelyn sacrificed much for Salas, just like on that hot, summer afternoon last June when she gave him enough money to make two trips into town for a tryout in front of the Darton coaches. He hopped in a public car with other hopeful kids and rode into town, waiting for that big break that he believed would eventually come.
As it turns out, Hemmings was waiting for him.
“This was a special trip for a special player,” said Hemmings, who flew to the Dominican specifically to try out Salas. “We never sign a player without seeing him. We get videos all the time from everywhere around the world. Japan, Taiwan, the Dominican, Puerto Rico. We got a video on this particular kid and saw some things we hadn’t seen before. Justin asked what we should do, and I said, ‘We are going to fly down there and see this guy play.’
“We watched him play two games, and I turned to Justin and said, ‘Here is our three-hole hitter.’ ”
But it wasn’t just Salas’ talent. It was his passion.
“As a college coach, you have to be careful when you go down there not to just find a baseball player,” Hemmings said. “You need to find a good person and find somebody who wants to be successful in the classroom. Because we aren’t just signing them and using them for their baseball skills alone. We want them to get an education and go back to their country and offer something with their baseball and educational background.”
Hemmings and Huff returned home with Salas to meet his family, and the trip into Mendoza sealed the deal.
“Our philosophy is to meet the family and see how the kid talks to his family and carries himself,” Hemmings said. “We went to his house, and he was proud to show us his family and was very humble and very respectful. He showed a great love for his family, and you could just tell he was a great kid. He is a phenomenal human being, and that’s what we want in this program.”
Darton infielder Christian Cabral, who is from a wealthier part of Santo Domingo and helped Salas adjust to life in the U.S., had similar compliments for his teammate.
“He is a very, very humble person,” Cabral said. “To be honest, I don’t know how he came out of his situation to get here. He never quit, never gave up. For those reasons, he will have a lot of success. He doesn’t talk. He just listens and works.”
Life in America
As Huff describes it, Salas was “less flash and more get-the-job-done.”
He was different than the nearly 100 other Dominicans who tried out in front of the Darton coaches last summer. But there was still a learning curve when he stepped on American soil for the first time — with both the culture and baseball.
Cabral remembers a situation last year when Salas was still trying to grasp the English language.
“Coach Hemmings asked him to get the lineup card off the board, and Salas brought him a bucket,” Cabral said. “Coach Hemmings said, ‘Hey, no. I need the paper off the board.’ So Salas left and came back with the game bats. Then he came back with the helmets. He made four trips before he got the paper.”
Many Latin American players are equally lost on the baseball field when they come to the U.S. — not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of game knowledge.
“Here you play to win,” Cabral explained. “In the Dominican you play to just get off the island. You throw hard and hit the ball 400 feet. That’s what you train for. Here you play within a system with rules.”
Salas’ raw ability made the transition a little easier, and he had a remarkable fall season in a Darton uniform. But when the lights came on in the spring and the games started to matter, his Dominican habits flared back up.
“In the Dominican, you play for only yourself so you can get signed,” Salas said. “But here, we are a team all together and I want to make the play for the team, not for me.
“When the season started, all I was thinking about was getting drafted. I thought, ‘Let me hit the ball hard or throw the ball hard.’ Anything for myself. That was the problem when I started spring.”
Hemmings never stopped pushing his freshman infielder.
“He was trying to do entirely too much early in the season, and it took him a while to get through me putting so much pressure on him,” Hemmings said. “One day he told me all I was saying was ‘Salas this’ and ‘Salas that.’ I told him, ‘Exactly. Salas is supposed to be our best player, and I expect the most out of Salas.’ ”
Eventually, Hemmings got it.
Salas caught fire midseason and ended up with 88 hits to break the team record of 78 set by Cody Wofford last year. He was instrumental in the Cavs winning a school-record 17 straight games and finishing the year ranked 15th in the nation. He hit .379 with 51 RBIs and five home runs, but his biggest swings came on April 26 and May 9 when he hit a pair of crucial walk-off home runs over the left field wall.
His first game winner came against Georgia Perimeter ace Dustin Beggs, who watched Salas turn on one of his sliders in the bottom of the seventh for a victory Darton needed to keep pace in the Region XVII standings. Then on May 9, Salas kept the Cavs’ season alive with a 10th-inning, walk-off homer in a region tournament elimination game against Gordon College.
“We were working very hard for this, and I was focused at the plate and looking for that pitch, looking for that fastball down the middle,” Salas said at the time.
Moments before the biggest hit of his career, Salas made a highlight reel catch at second base in the top of the 10th inning — a play he said inspired him when he stepped to the plate.
“With that catch, I knew I was going to do something special for the team,” he said back in May. “I was playing with heart.”
Largely thanks to Salas’ heroics, the Cavs advanced out of the region tournament and were two wins away from a Junior College World Series appearance before falling to Columbia State in the district championship game. But as he reflected on his remarkable freshman season, Salas deflected the praise to others.
“I give thanks to God and was focused on helping the team win,” he said. “I was focused on working on my weaknesses, like hitting the ball to the opposite field. I played hard and listened to what coach Hemmings had to say.
“I believe in God and pray a lot. I give all the thanks to God. I tried to take the positives from everything. I stayed with it and worked hard and didn’t make any excuses.”
Because of his never-give-up attitude, he became one of the most likeable players in the locker room.
“The guys love him,” Hemmings said. “If you asked everybody on the team who their favorite player is, it would be Salas because of his energy and passion.”
Salas didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in the U.S. but is staying on campus this summer and spending two hours a day learning the language. On a scale of 1-10, Hemmings said Salas’ English is currently at a five but should be at either six or seven by the end of the summer. He has been an A-B student in his ESL classes and will start taking regular classes in January.
“It speaks volumes that he chose to stay here to work on his English,” Hemmings said.
Hemmings said the interest level for Salas among professional scouts is still unknown but that he is confident Salas has the pedigree of a professional baseball player.
“One of the things he will have to do next season is hit for a little higher average and establish a little more home run and doubles power, but I think he is going to do that,” Hemmings said. “If he does the things he did this year, I am confident he will be a professional player.”
It’s a confidence that was born back on that Santo Domingo field and on that wary trip to Salas’ home in Mendoza.
“That was a very humbling experience for me and Justin,” Hemmings said. “We got to see a whole new world. When I got back from the Dominican, I woke my wife up at 2 a.m. and said, ‘You have to listen to this story.’ ”