Jackson State baseball full of diversity – Jackson Clarion Ledger

Three years ago, Miguel Yrigoyen sat in a classroom at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. He was on his own in a different country, without knowledge of local customs and did not speak or know English.

“My first class was a health class, and my teacher started talking and I was like, ‘Woah boy, this is going to be tough,’” said Yrigoyen, who was 2,550 miles from his native Venezuela at the time. “I thought she was speaking in Chinese, Mandarin or some other language.”

Fast forward three years and Yrigoyen’s grasp of the language has improved immensely, but his transition to America continues at Jackson State where international players have found a home on the Tigers’ roster under the tutelage of coach Omar Johnson.

Yrigoyen is one of 15 players on JSU’s 38-man roster who hail from outside of America’s borders.

Those players represent six different countries, which span from Mexico to South Africa, and four different languages — English, Spanish, Afrikaans and Papiamento.

Those players born outside of the United States have made their impact on the program. One was named the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year, four have spots in Jackson State’s starting rotation, one has been the team’s best closer this season and another has turned into one of the best hitters in the conference.

Jackson State baseball players offer a look into the world of international athletes far from home.
Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger

The roots

Johnson grew up in Miami where Spanish is common and the city is a 229-mile flight away from Havana, the capital city of Cuba. He attended Miami High where the school’s baseball team was made up primarily of Hispanics.

“(Diversity) is normal for me,” Johnson said. “It’s good for the Mississippi guys because they don’t see that much diversity … it’s a good situation for these guys to get to know something about different cultures. (There’s) a lot of different ones. Every Hispanic culture is not the same. They may all speak Spanish, but the traditions are different.”

In 2004, Johnson’s awareness of the larger baseball universe expanded when he participated in Major League Baseball’s Envoy program, which sent him to Germany. He spent seven weeks there teaching club teams everything they wanted to know in terms of baseball operations.

Four years after that, Johnson was selected to join the German national team as an assistant coach and remained on staff through 2010.

Coaching international baseball gave him the chance to see more international players, which started turning the wheels in his mind.

“I was in the World Baseball Challenge in British Columbia and I saw the Bahamian national team, and all their kids were teenagers playing at the highest level of international baseball,” Johnson said. “I end up going to their national games, see a couple of kids and end up getting three of them to come.”

The opportunities

The motivations for each player coming to America vary, but they all stem from an essential root: opportunity.

For some, like Yrigoyen and fellow pitcher Vincent Anthonia, a native of Curacao, it was about education, which Johnson says is usually the biggest factor.

“They’re good enough baseball players to have desires and aspirations to be professional, but realistically it’s the education,” Johnson said. “Once they get that education, it opens so many doors for them.”

In the Bahamas, some sports, such as cricket and track and field, take precedent over baseball.

So for other players, like reliever Jashanno Sweeting, who attended a junior college in Maryland before he attended JSU, playing in America was an opportunity to take a step up the competitive ladder.

“The opportunity in the Bahamas is real limited in terms of playing baseball,” Sweeting said. “Once you reach a certain peak, you have to elevate your game past the Bahamas and that’s why I’m here.”

The process

A few years ago, Johnson and his staff tried to identify which players they wanted before they came to the country.

That approach has changed a bit now. Johnson usually finds out about them through recommendations from other coaches he’s built relationships with or junior colleges. Some of the Tigers’ players made junior college stops in Texas, Maryland, Michigan and Iowa.

JSU welcomes players from all over the world, but some areas are harder to recruit from than others.

“Definitely, the kids from the Caribbean have issues getting through the (NCAA) Clearinghouse,” Johnson said. “So they’ll come to the United States, go to school here and then it’s easier for them to clear the Clearinghouse to be eligible right away.”

When looking for players, there is a focus on academics because of the difficulty international players face with getting loans in America, Johnson said. Some players may qualify for academic scholarships.

That’s one of many factors for the Tigers’ recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Chris Crenshaw, whose job is to identify these players.

“You don’t see what he does a lot of the time, but he’s on the phone all the time, he’s on the internet, he’s on the phone texting coaches back and forth,” Johnson said. “His year is just starting. When the summer starts, he’s going to be gone every weekend.”

There are layers to the identification process, just as there are to the transition for the players.

The transition

The most obvious part of the transition for some of these players is the language.

“At first, it was a bit difficult because it was the first time you live from your parents away from home,” said Anthonia, who arrived in Florida when he was 15. “Naturally, people speak English. You’re used to speaking one language, which you know, then you go to America and end up speaking another language, and you’re not used to that. “

In Curacao, Anthonia was used to speaking Papiamento, which is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. Yrigoyen said the biggest key for him has been not getting rattled when people didn’t understand his pronunciations.

The weather in Mississippi isn’t so bad for players like Yrigoyen and Sweeting, who both come from warm-weather countries. Their climate shock came at their respective junior colleges in Iowa and Maryland where they each saw snow for the first time.

Aside from language and sometimes weather, there’s also an adjustment to be made with the style of play.

International baseball can be a little more loose or relaxed at times. Anthonia said in Curacao, players would “do their own thing, just to make it look good.”

Johnson said the flare for the dramatics comes from a “soccer mentality.” He felt the the more straight-forward approach was one of the key things players had to adapt to.

“They have an opportunity to play in situations that (are) not always structured,” Johnson said. “They play a little more free, I guess.

“It’s different than how we play here in the United States. Here in the United States, there’s a win and a loss attached to everything. When they get an opportunity to play, it’s a pick-up game, so it’s kind of a different approach, and then they come over here and we take everything serious.”

Johnson has a lot of wins attached to his resume, which is highlighted by back-to-back SWAC championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2013 and 2014. The success is the biggest lure, Johnson says, and it could help smooth over some transition.

The Puerto Ricans

There’s a group of five players that Johnson doesn’t consider to be international, and, technically, he’s right. This group hails from Puerto Rico, which isn’t an American state, but it is a territory and the players from there are considered American citizens.

But Spanish is the dominant language, and Puerto Rico has its own set of customs, different from America, which creates a tight bond between the five players.

“It always feels good when you have people from the same place who understand you more, you can always go to them if you have problems,” said catcher Carlos Diaz. “They understand you. I never met any of the Puerto Ricans (before I came) here, but we’re really close and have gotten along.”

The Puerto Ricans spend a lot of time watching TV in the room of starting pitcher Rene Colon, who rooms with Anthonia and fellow Puerto Rican Jesus Santana, who was the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year.

Santana displayed his pride on opening day of the 2016 season, when he sported a batting sleeve with a Puerto Rican flag design.

Colon, who said it took him a semester to adjust to life in Jackson, and Santana learned a lot last year from second baseman Melvin Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who hit .421 at JSU in 2015, was drafted in the 18th round of the MLB draft by the Washington Nationals last June.

Rodriguez took his fellow natives to M-Braves games, they followed him around to the weight room, study hall, practice, you name it.

“Melvin was our guide,” Santana said. “We do whatever he said we should do. If he goes some place, we would go behind him. We didn’t know anyone, and he knew everybody. We were always with him.”

Being an American citizen, and therefore eligible for financial aid, makes it easier for SWAC programs to bring in players from Puerto Rico, Johnson said.

Other schools have also taken advantage. Alabama State sits atop the conference and has seven Puerto Rican players on its roster. The Hornets’ coach, Mervyl Melendez, is also Puerto Rican.

“We feel like every time we play Alabama State, it’s like playing back home,” Colon said.

The Puerto Rican players like to communicate with each other in Spanish during games because it’s more efficient and opponents may not understand it.

“(We can) make trick plays and all that without the other team knowing,” Santana said, which is fine … except against Alabama State. “When it’s against them and I know they’re Puerto Ricans, I barely talk.”

The result

Johnson sat at his desk and a smile came across his face when his mind raced back to a former player, Aneko Knowles, a Bahamas native who played for the Tigers from 2011-14.

“When he first got here he hated it, everything about it,” Johnson said. “He went home, he left and then called the next semester and said, ‘I think I made a bad mistake.’”

Knowles returned to JSU and found his footing as other international players have in the past couple of seasons.

As that has happened and the Tigers have continued to field a strong team, the tone has shifted.

“I love it,” said Santana, who was SWAC Freshman of the Year and first-team all-conference in 2015. “It’s my second year here and I have no regrets.”

It’s the success of Santana and his teammates that may help some international players find a home, far away from home, at Jackson State in the future.

Contact Antonio Morales at amorales2@jackson.gannett.com. Follow @AntonioCMorales on Twitter.

International impact (stats entering Friday)

Jesse Anderson, junior, Ontario, Canada: Anderson, who leads Jackson State with four saves, originally attended Indian Hills Community College in Centerville, Iowa.

Vincent Anthonia, senior, Willemstad, Curacao: Anthonia has a spot carved out for himself in the Tigers’ rotation. He’s made six starts and won three games.

Jonathan Aponte, junior, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico: Aponte originally attended Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. He’s made 13 appearances as a reliever and notched 26 strikeouts in 23.1 innings pitched.

Garth Cahill, sophomore, Durban, South Africa: Cahill appeared in 16 games and pitched 33 innings in 2015, but has yet to log an appearance this season.

Francisco Cervantes, junior, Tijuana, Mexico: Cervantes attended Midland and Western Texas College before arriving at JSU. The pitcher has yet to make an appearance.

Rene Colon, senior, Florida, Puerto Rico: Colon originally attended Ellsworth with Aponte. The starting pitcher has struck out 42 batters and is tied for the team lead in wins with five.

Carlos Diaz, junior, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico: Diaz, who is the starting catcher and is hitting .407 with 45 RBIs, originally attended Miami out of high school before transferring to Palm Beach State and landing at JSU.

Jevon Jacobs, senior, Ontario, Canada: Jacobs has started eight games and posted a 5.01 ERA with 33 strikeouts. He originally attended Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Michigan.

Sebron Mackey, junior, Freeport, Bahamas: Mackey has started one game this season and made five appearances out of the bullpen. He’s recorded 11 strikeouts in 16 innings.

Angeliny Maduro, sophomore, Willemstad, Curacao: Maduro is one of two players from Curacao on the Tigers’ roster. The outfielder has made the most of limited opportunities with seven hits in 16 plate appearances.

Jesus Santana, sophomore, Caguas, Puerto Rico: Santana, a third baseman, was the SWAC Freshman of the Year and first-team All-SWAC in 2015. He’s hit 13 home runs this season and driven in 46 runs.

Joshua Santiago, junior, Arecibo, Puerto Rico: Santiago sports a 3.86 ERA in 18 relief appearances. He’s struck out 25 batters in 23.1 innings. He originally attended Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa.

Sergio Santiago, freshman, St. Croix, Virgin Islands: The first-year Tigers pitcher has not made an appearance this season.

Jashanno Sweeting, junior, Nassau, Bahamas: Sweeting, who originally attended Garrett College in Maryland, has struck out five batters in five relief appearances this season.

Miguel Yrigoyen, junior, Valencia, Valenzuela: Yrigoyen has recorded five wins this season, which was tied for the team lead with Colon. The junior attended Southeastern College in Iowa and has 66 strikeouts this season.

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