When the bus pulled to a stop in the village near the south-central coast of the Dominican Republic, it was surrounded instantly by dozens of mostly shirtless and shoeless youngsters.
They banged on the sides and rocked the bus in joyful anticipation, though it unnerved the 15 college baseball players and their small traveling party inside.
After the driver had forcefully commanded the kids to move away so the doors could open, Adam McConnell warily stepped down into the waiting throng.
No sooner did McConnell's feet hit the ground when one youngster grabbed him by the hand and began pulling him through the noisy crowd, squeezing for dear life.
The youngster fell at one point, skinning his knees, but never let go and kept pulling.
McConnell's mind raced: Where is he taking me? What does he want? Was all of this a big mistake?
When the two finally cleared the crowd around the bus, the youngster turned to face McConnell, flashed a big grin and said, "Mi llamo Enrique." My name is Enrique. He then picked up a worn, coverless baseball and flipped it up to himself.
That was it. He asked for nothing. He expected nothing. He wanted only to connect with an American baseball player.
I am, McConnell thought, in a very different place.
McConnell was beginning to go a little stir-crazy this summer. The University of Richmond infielder and Tabb High grad spent months rehabilitating after surgery last winter to repair a torn labrum in his right hip.
He missed the Spiders' baseball season due to the surgery and subsequent recovery. It killed him not to play, but something else was bugging him — a gap, a void he couldn't quite put his finger on.
"I really felt like I wasn't doing enough," he said. "I was so idle."
McConnell had been fascinated by the Dominican Republic ever since a family vacation to the country when he was 10. As he grew older and came to love baseball, his attraction deepened as he learned more about the rich heritage of Dominican players in the major leagues, combined with the poverty he saw in the country as a youth.
"As time went on," he said, "I thought more about going back there and trying to do something."
McConnell was experiencing a spiritual journey and exploring his faith. Just last year he had become involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Richmond. The camaraderie and conversations helped focus his thoughts and point him toward the idea of service.
One day in late July, he acted upon his curiosity and Googled: Dominican Republic and baseball mission.
Up popped information on an organization called SCORE International. It's a U.S.-based outfit that conducts short-term missions into central and South America. There's a sports-related component in which baseball and basketball and soccer teams visit areas, play against local youth teams, and then discuss their faith afterward.
McConnell learned that there was a baseball mission planned for Aug. 8-13. He called SCORE baseball director Keith Madison out of the blue and said he'd like to go.
One catch: McConnell's passport had expired, and the group was leaving in two weeks.
"I said I'd love for you to go," Madison said, "but I don't think it'll happen. He said, 'Coach, don't give up on me. If I can get a passport, I'll be there.' "
Two days before the group was supposed to leave, McConnell and his mother, Debbie, drove to Washington D.C., sat in a quickie passport office for six hours, obtained the required documentation and drove home.
Thirty-six hours later, he was on a plane to Santo Domingo.
"Everything had to work out perfectly for me to go on this trip," McConnell said, "and it did."
The Dominican Republic is the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola. It's bordered by Haiti to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south.
The country takes up 18,704 square miles, roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, with a population of 9.65 million.
Average household income is approximately $8,200 annually, according to recent data. The country's primary exports are listed as textiles, nickel, sugar, cacao, coffee and tobacco, though a case can be made that the most visible export is baseball players.
You could fill a hallway at Cooperstown, or at least assemble an amazing All-Star team, with Dominicans. Start with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers — Felipe, Matty and Jesus.
Of more recent vintage, there's Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada and Vlad Guererro. The list of Dominican major leaguers past and present is remarkable.
"Baseball is such a huge part of the Dominican culture," Madison said. "It's almost like soccer in Argentina or Brazil. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most popular, baseball is a 10. Basketball is probably a 4 and everything else is 3 or below. Almost every boy in that country wants to play baseball."
The country is so rich with prospects that every Major League club has an academy on the island. It's not uncommon to drive through the city streets or the poorest villages and see kids playing some form of baseball with balls of yarn, broomsticks and rags.
"It's kind of a wake-up call for a college baseball player like me," McConnell said. "A lot of times college athletes see their sport as their job and that's the way they treat it. Dominicans come out and play baseball like it's their last game. Seeing how they treat the game puts the love for baseball back in your heart."
Fifteen college baseball players from all over the southeast made the trip to the Dominican Republic, led by Madison and John Zeller.
Madison was head coach at the University of Kentucky for 25 years before he retired in 2003 and later caught on with SCORE. Zeller is the executive director of SCORE International. He is a former college coach and served as chaplain for the New York Yankees.
Though they were the trip leaders, the stars of this particular mission might have been a Dominican named Giovanni, who served as translator, guide and middle man, and the local bus driver who steered the team to remote locales over paths that were roads in name only.
As McConnell wrote in the blog diary he kept, after one trip: "This morning Giovanni navigated our bus driver deep into the middle of nowhere through flooded dirt roads at 5 mph. We either hit every single pothole or drove with triangle tires because I almost got a concussion."
McConnell said that there was no daily itinerary or set schedule. Giovanni, he said, each morning phoned around to different villages. He spoke to local pastors or organizers to set up a game and some time afterward for the Americans to explain why they were there and to discuss their faith.
McConnell said that the bus would pull up to an area that wasn't much more than a clearing in a sugar cane field. Suddenly, kids and people would emerge from ramshackle houses and the fields, a little like the ghost ballplayers in "Field of Dreams."
Kids would line the fields with buckets of white sand. Madison has a photo of a Dominican player trimming the basepaths with a machete.
"Not something you see in America every day," he said.
The fields in the villages were full of rocks and divots. There were no dugouts or even benches.
"I will never complain about field conditions or equipment ever again," McConnell said.
McConnell saw enormous amounts of raw ability in players everywhere. Dominican kids adapted joyfully to conditions.
"They grow up hitting bottle caps and balls of yarn with broomsticks, so hitting a baseball with a round bat isn't too hard for them," McConnell said. "You put them on terrible fields and they still field ground balls. Put them on a nice field and it's even smoother."
Baseball might have taken the group to the Dominican Republic, but the game was merely a vehicle.
"We don't share the same language or the same culture," Madison said, "but we have this bond and it's baseball.
"If you go down there and you compete and you play hard, those kids respect you. So whenever we're finished playing, we ask them if we can talk to them for a few minutes and explain why we're here. We respect your passion for baseball, but we think there's something more important."
Madison and Zeller and the players talk about their religious faith, a topic that Madison said almost always engages the Dominican youngsters. The aim, he said, is to give the children and the people hope and to let them know that they aren't faceless or forgotten — no small feat in a country in which 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
McConnell saw houses with corrugated tin walls bound with string. He saw houses whose walls were chunks of broken rocks and concrete stacked on top of each other. He saw too many children whose only possessions were the clothes on their backs.
"The amazing thing is that they had nothing," he said, "but they were the happiest people I've ever seen."
McConnell said that he returned from the trip more grateful and humble than when he left. It reinforced that faith and people are more important than material goods.
"One thing this trip did for me was, being around kids like Adam," Madison said, "it encouraged me that if we have guys like Adam McConnell on every college campus, our country is in a little better shape than many of us think it is.
"He's just a great young man. Very mature, very humble. He's a very good athlete, but he's so humble and so willing to serve — as were all the rest of the guys."
On the last day of the trip, Madison and the organizers arranged for the players to have the afternoon off, so that they could relax or sightsee. The players said no, that they wanted to return to a girls' orphanage they had visited a few days earlier in the southeastern town of La Romana.
"The college guys were probably more excited than the kids," Madison said, "because these little girls remembered their names."
The players spent three or four hours at the orphanage, the young girls chatting away, showing them around and attempting to braid their hair. McConnell said that a couple of girls gave him a tour of the orphanage and one 8-year-old made it her duty to correct his Spanish the entire time he was there.
McConnell said his suitcase was 40 pounds lighter coming home than traveling to the Dominican Republic. He gave away T-shirts, cleats, equipment and clothing of all sorts. He even parted with the glove he used in high school and early college.
"One of the hardest things I've ever done," he said. "Any infielder knows the connection a player has with his glove. When you give it up, it's like saying goodbye to your girlfriend. But the kid I gave the glove to was happier than you can imagine to have it, so that made it easier."
Though his suitcase was emptier, his heart was fuller. He aims to do more whenever he is able.
"I feel like we made an impact," he said, "but I also feel like you need to develop relationships with people there that make an impact and not just for a few days."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times