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Love for baseball spans oceans

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Connor Markham, left, and Christopher Yu from the Peachtree Ridge U13 AA Lions and Evaryn Samuel Garcia and Onaxis Tavarez from the Dominican Republic pray with their teammates before the start of their game at Bunten Road Park on Saturday.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Connor Markham, left, and Christopher Yu from the Peachtree Ridge U13 AA Lions and Evaryn Samuel Garcia and Onaxis Tavarez from the Dominican Republic pray with their teammates before the start of their game at Bunten Road Park on Saturday.

DULUTH -- The Dominican Republic flag flew next to the U.S. one atop the scorer's stand, symbolizing the solidarity of new friends previously worlds apart.

The Dominican little leaguers who flew into New York on Friday afternoon, then drove 14 hours to Bunten Road Park for the first of three doubleheaders against Peachtree Ridge Youth Athletic Association teams Saturday, were glad to be close to their new U.S. friends.

"You don't get to play a team from another country every day," said Peachtree Ridge's Nick Cioffi, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Hull Middle. "I think they're thinking it's as cool as we do."

Saturday's doubleheader, before twinbills today at 1 p.m. and Tuesday at 6 p.m., was the brainchild of Peachtree Ridge parents Abel Leonardo and David Hentz, who'd learned of a Dominican team's wonderful experience playing in New York last summer.

Initially in November, they set out to organize a tournament with PRYAA teams, a Dominican squad and ones from Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico.

But that proved overwhelming, so instead, one Dominican team was invited to play Saturday's doubleheader against a Peachtree Ridge AA traveling team, then today's against a Pony division all-star squad and Tuesday's versus a AAA traveling club.

The Dominicans also are scheduled to play a Collins Hill all-star team at Collins Hill Park on Wednesday and the Georgia Sluggers at Rhodes Jordan on Thursday, before attending an Atlanta Braves game with donated tickets Friday.

Then comes another doubleheader at Lilburn's Lions Club Park on Saturday and sightseeing time at the World of Coke with donated tickets July 4. They wrap it all up with a nine-inning game against Brookwood's Pony Allstars at Bethesda Park on July 5 and bus back to New York for a tournament there on July 9, then fly home July 14.

Leonardo and Hentz enlisted sponsors to help defray already-discounted rent for Bunten's fields and umpires, as well as to fund the Dominican players' bus trip here.

A local car dealership, a sporting goods store and a tavern were among sponsors that contributed financially. Restaurants offered free meals to the Dominicans.

Fans brought not only their enthusiasm, but also filled large boxes with used baseball equipment to send back to the Dominican Republic, where the sandlot sport often isn't as privileged.

Heart-melting, however, was the flood of Dominican families that insisted players from Leonardo's native country live with them for the 10 days.

"When they pulled up, I was shocked," said Peachtree Ridge second baseman Connor Markham, 13, a rising seventh-grader at Greater Atlanta Christian. "It was cool to know they were finally here."

Finally was right, considering the Dominicans reportedly landed in New York about 5:30 p.m. Friday, then after hours of delay, finally made the 14-hour bus ride to Duluth with Leonardo's brother and friend alternately driving through the night. They arrived in Gwinnett just before noon Saturday, and after gobbling down lunch, began Saturday's doubleheader nearly an hour late.

"Stressful," was how 12-year-old Dominican player Steven Lantigua described it through an interpreter. "I'm very happy we're here, though, and sharing this sports moment."

Flattered by the enthusiastic turnout of about 60 fans at Bunten, Dominican player Wilmer Castillo, 14, felt not far from home. He considered Bunten's facilities only slightly nicer than his in Moca, a northern city in the Dominican Republic.

"It's pretty much the same here," he said through an interpreter. "It's just not quite as hot."

Amid temperatures in the 90s, the Dominicans proved no worse for wear, as they swept Peachtree Ridge 9-6 and 12-2. The Caribbean guests broke open a 4-4 tie in the second inning of the first game, then dominated the nightcap.

Hentz said his and Leonardo's months of preparation to host international guests were seemingly all-consuming. Leonardo said if they do anything like this again next year, they'll take more than eight months to plan it.

"We've been talking on the phone every day it seems for the last 45 days -- scheduling the field, getting umpires, sponsors, etc.," Hentz said.

Leonardo said Dominicans were gracious guests, considering their love for baseball.

"Baseball is more than a game for us," he said. "It's a lifestyle, a passion."