A Promise With No Catches : Activism: A major leaguer and his wife are making good on a years-old pledge. Because of Dave and Vicky Valle, fewer kids in the Dominican Republic are going to bed hungry.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a struggling minor league baseball player, Dave Valle passed through the depressing parts of more small towns than Amtrak. Stockton, Calif.; Walla Walla, Wash.; Alexandria, Va.; Greenville, S.C.--places that made the Queens neighborhood where his widowed mother raised eight children look luxurious by comparison.

"Oh, my God," says Valle's wife, Vicky, shuddering at memories. "It was unbelievable."

But none of those places prepared the Valles for what they would experience in the Dominican Republic, where Valle went to play winter ball in 1985. While walking near the ballpark after Valle's first game in the capital, Santo Domingo, the couple was surrounded by eight or nine young boys, children who, at first, seemed no different than the young autograph-seekers who frequently surrounded them in the States.

Only these kids weren't after autographs.

"We'd see the kids after the games. I mean, it'd be midnight on a school night and there'd be tons of kids out there," Vicky recalls. "All they'd want was some food."

The Valles distributed the loose change they had, which wasn't much. Dave had made less than $9,000 the year before as a catcher in the Seattle Mariners' organization. But that night they also made a silent promise to the barefoot youngsters: If Valle ever made it in the major leagues, he'd be back.

In July, seven months after signing a million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers, Valle made good on that promise, opening the first of seven bancos de confianza, or trust banks, in the Dominican Republic. Working through Esperanza International, the nonprofit group the Valles founded, they hope to invest as much as $2.5 million in trust banks that will make loans to the desperately poor in the Caribbean country.

And, Vicky says, "This is just the beginning."

"Eventually we'd like to do more there as far as medical care and education. Long-term, we'd like to do more than just the Dominican."

"My dream," adds Vicky, who was born in Havana, "is to someday go to Cuba."

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Although neither Valle has been to the Dominican Republic for two years, the emotions inspired by its children are never far from the surface. Eyes tearing and voice cracking, Vicky alternates between Spanish and English to find the right words to express her feelings. Dave talks softly.

"They don't have plumbing. They don't have heating. They have dirt floors. No one should have to live like that," he says. "You look into their eyes . . . and if your eyes aren't kind of open to those things, it's easy to shut it off. As you look past their eyes, your heart just goes with them."

With the wounds of the players' strike still fresh, some baseball fans might find such concern surprising. But Dave Valle is not your average egocentric major leaguer. For him, sentiment is more predictable than a 3-0 fastball.

Yet even a heart as big as Valle's doesn't go far in the Dominican, where hunger is endemic and where the infant mortality rate is more than double that of El Salvador. It's also a place where ideas for quick solutions often fizzle.

But the Valles had the help of Fred Gregory, former president of the development agency World Concern and now Esperanza's executive director, in establishing a program that fit their goals.

"A lot of times people go down there with big dreams. 'I'll build this big facility. And we'll do this or that,' " Vicky says. "Is that what they really need? Or do they need food? Or do they need to learn how to grow crops to feed their children? Or do they need to learn about medicine? What are their needs?

"Don't put your American mentality there. You have to go there and have to really find out what it is they need. We really wanted to be careful that what we did was not what we wanted, but what the people needed."

And what the people needed, the Valles became convinced, was a bank. Although the trust banking concept is a relatively new one for international aid groups, CARE's project, for example, has enjoyed some success in Central America. Starting with a cash reserve of $2,000, the banks offer low-interest loans of $50 each to 25 to 30 members of the community, most of them single mothers. Borrowers must open an account and save up to 20% of the loan. The women are left with not only a small nest egg but with a sense of pride for being self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, the interest--generally about 3%--eventually allows the banks to become self-sufficient.

"I'm perfectly convinced that this program is much more effective to combat poverty and to help the people develop," says Arturo Mateo, who oversees Esperanza's banks in the Dominican Republic. "If you give food today to a person, it won't last. But if you teach them how to work, if you teach them how to run a business . . . you're giving them the opportunity to develop their community."

The results, says Brian Holman, a former teammate of Valle's and now a partner in Esperanza, were always intended to be more than economic.

"You would not believe the self-respect that these women have after they begin doing this," he says. "For so long they've been told that they're nothing, they're nobody. This builds their self-respect, their self-worth. I've seen this work. I've seen it with my own eyes."

Many of the women involved in the program sell homemade food or clothes, and the loans allow them to buy materials in greater quantity. For others, the money provides for expensive medicines or other essentials. The loans have proven so popular, in fact, that the waiting list contains "hundreds of names," Mateo says. And in the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, the source of the money is one reason for the loans' popularity.

"For us, this is a grand blessing," Mateo says. "These foreign players who come here to Santo Domingo to play . . . and they, as gratitude, want to give something back. For us, this is something of great importance."

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Both Holman, 30, and Valle, 34, know something about the struggles of single mothers. Growing up in Colorado and Kansas, Holman watched his mother try to feed four children with welfare checks and food stamps after his parents divorced. Valle's father died when Dave was 8, leaving his mother to raise eight children on her graveyard-shift nurse's salary at a New York City hospital.

Sports offered a diversion for the youngsters, and both boys embraced it, earning the attention of baseball talent scouts while still in high school. Holman, a pitcher, was signed by the Montreal Expos and played seven seasons in the majors before an arm injury forced him to retire in 1994. He pitched his most memorable game in 1990 with the Seattle Mariners, coming within an out of a perfect game against the Oakland Athletics.

His catcher that day was Valle, a highly touted high school All-American who was selected ahead of Cal Ripken Jr. in major league baseball's 1978 free-agent draft. But Valle never lived up to his early promise and knocked around the minor leagues--as well as the winter ball circuit in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic--for a decade before landing a starting job with the Mariners in 1987. He's never been an All-Star--in fact, he's never hit above .258 in the majors--but that didn't stop the Rangers in December from offering him $500,000 a year for two seasons.

But Holman and Valle share more than a common background. Devout Christians, they credit their religious faith with guiding them to Esperanza.

"This is something that God has put on my heart and my wife's heart to do," says Valle, whose New York accent is detectable even when he's practicing his Spanish. "I don't want my life to be valued by how much I have in a bank account or how many material possessions I have accumulated over the years. I want it to count for much more than that."

Adds Holman: "We're doing this . . . not because we're the greatest people or because we want recognition, but because God asked us to."

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That doesn't mean they aren't above exploiting some of their secular connections. Valle, who batted just 75 times during the regular season as a backup catcher and first baseman for Texas, confesses that much of his pregame warm-up was spent kibitzing with the opposition, trying to drum up support for Esperanza and increase its $250,000 budget. Among the supporters are Seattle's Randy Johnson, widely regarded as the best pitcher in the American League, and Mariner teammate Edgar Martinez, a two-time batting champion and a leading contender for the league's most valuable player award this season.

"Being a baseball player opens doors," Valle says. "It's one thing to walk up to someone and tell them about a nonprofit idea you might have. But there's another one when I'm on the field in uniform as a peer to tell somebody about it.

"And there are times when I feel that that might be why I'm still playing--because of that visibility."

What it all boils down to, he says, is changing lives. After all, the shine on a World Series ring will fade, but the luster of hope lasts forever. Valle understood that long before spending his first dime on Esperanza.

The family's most recent trip to the Dominican Republic began with son Philip, then 6, demanding another pair of high-priced basketball shoes. But as their two-month fact-finding tour took them from one orphanage to another, Philip changed. At one stop, his parents discovered him trying to stick a peso into a baby's diaper.

"It was like his whole attitude was different," Vicky says. "It's been the greatest thing for my son."

For a lot of other mothers' sons as well.

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