Andrew Engelking can’t say for certain who the monster teenager from the Dominican Republic was. He said he “definitely” does remember playing a Dominican team that featured a 6-foot slugger who clubbed a mammoth home run.
“I’m not exaggerating; it might have been 400 feet,” the 2017 Crystal Lake South graduate said. “This team was probably one of the best travel teams I ever played in my life.”
It’s nearly impossible to remember one specific travel ball game some nine years ago. Engelking, 20, isn’t sure what year it was. He remembers the opposing pitcher better than the slugger, but the slugger was notable for one reason.
“When you see a 6-[foot]-4 man-child, that’s not really a common thing,” Engelking said.
One thing is for certain: Eloy Jiménez played in the McHenry County Youth Sports Association USSSA tournament – as it was known then – in Crystal Lake.
For the White Sox’s 22-year-old power hitter, those trips to the U.S. were some of the most memorable of his young life. A native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Jiménez told the Northwest Herald this week that he made trips to Crystal Lake in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
His team went simply by “Dominican Republic.” He and his teammates stayed in a hotel, not with local homestay families.
Those trips were influential in Jiménez’s decision to sign with a team in Chicago. He signed with the Cubs as an international prospect in 2013. The Cubs later traded him to the Sox in a 2017 deal that sent Jose Quintana to the North Side. Jiménez made his MLB debut on opening day this season.
These days, the MCYSA plans an outing to a major league ballpark every year. Jiménez said he didn’t go to an MLB game, but he does remember making a trip to downtown Chicago.
“When I got here to Chicago, I said, ‘Wow, this city is beautiful,’ ” Jiménez said. “When I started to like it, it was because a lot of Dominican players played for the Cubs. Dominican players in Chicago – that’s me. Maybe one day I can play here. I think that’s why I’m in love with Chicago.”
Jiménez is a little too young to remember the days of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, both Dominican players, very well. He did mention Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez as Dominican players he looked up to. Another former Cub he mentioned, Welington Castillo, is his teammate now on the Sox.
For his parents – father Luis Jiménez and mother Adelaida Solano, a teacher and bioanalyst, respectively – these weren’t inexpensive trips to send their son on.
“My mom and my dad, they are the best because they sacrificed almost everything they’ve got to send me over here,” Jiménez said. “I think that’s why I’m here today. They didn’t have the money to come with me. I appreciate that. I feel blessed with the parents I have.”
Jiménez remembers telling his parents upon his return that one day he wanted to play in Chicago. They encouraged him to follow that dream.
His interactions with the American players were limited because he and his teammates didn’t speak English. He does remember trying to communicate through hand gestures and Google Translate.
Jiménez wasn’t the only player on those Dominican teams to sign with a big-league club. Sergio Alcantara is in the Detroit Tigers’ minor league system. Oliver Ortiz and Christopher Luciano both played in the minors.
Jiménez referenced his MCYSA experience in a Players’ Tribune article he wrote last year. Included in the article was a picture of Jiménez in a red, white and blue uniform that said “Dominicana” across the front.
That photo sparked Engelking’s memory.
“That was the exact jersey,” said Engelking, who threw a complete game in South’s 2017 state championship game victory. “I remember 110 percent.”
Mike Walsh, 20, another Crystal Lake South grad, also played for the Crystal Lake Cardinals and remembered facing that Dominican team.
“I don’t care how well we played, I don’t think we would have ever beat them,” Walsh said.
Walsh’s family twice hosted players from Puerto Rico through the homestay program.
“They’re in a completely foreign place,” Walsh said. “We had mostly kids who spoke English, so we could communicate fairly easily. I’ve never left the country, so I couldn’t even imagine.”
For the Sox’s rookie slugger with 17 home runs this season, the MCYSA tournament was an unforgettable experience.
“[I’m] grateful because you have the experience to play in the United States, and you have the experience to compete,” Jiménez said. “My dream was playing here, and now I’m here.”