FORT MYERS, FLA. – Miguel Sano has a group text with family and friends on his smartphone, and it has been bustling with chatter since the announcement was made just over a month ago.
“Every day,” the Twins first baseman said. “Every single minute, talking on the phone about the game.”
The game is an exhibition Saturday in Sano’s native Dominican Republic. The Twins play the Tigers at Juan Marichal Stadium in Santo Domingo as part of Major League Baseball’s ongoing efforts to expose the game internationally. It will be the first spring training game held there since 2000.
With a number of Dominican players expected on both rosters, the game will be one of the events of the year in the country.
“It’s huge,” said Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who was born a three-hour drive away in Las Matas de Santa Cruz. “The tickets sold out the very first day. Tells you they’re all into it. It’s going to be an enjoyable day and I know the fans will appreciate it.”
The Twins flew in Friday. After the final out of the late-morning game, they will immediately head back to Florida to continue their preparations for Opening Day.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the organization to go,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I’m really happy that we are taking part in it and that our players can take part in it.”
For some players, it will provide everlasting memories. Baseball is a passion in the Dominican, with fans packing stadiums for winter ball, Caribbean Series and World Baseball Classic games. This will be a rare opportunity for them to see their native players in their major league uniforms.
Cruz, for instance, has not appeared in a winter game there since 2013, when he played for Gigantes, although he did play for the Dominican Republic in games there during the 2017 WBC.
“Definitely it’s something special,” Cruz said. “It’s been 20 years since the last time we had a big-league team in the country. We’re all really excited. As a player, I’m glad. I’m lucky to be one of the guys who makes the trip and show [off a] country that lives and dies for baseball.”
Baldelli is sincere about the Twins being appreciative of being asked to participate. But scheduling for the event has been a headache for an organization that doesn’t want players overworked this spring. And the Twins’ last Caribbean trip, in April 2018, didn’t go well. They split two regular-season games against Cleveland in San Juan, Puerto Rico — but then lost their next eight games and 11 of their next 12.
Sano and Cruz will headline the Twins headed to Santo Domingo. Jorge Polanco is being held back because the shortstop had offseason right ankle surgery and the club has a detailed preseason plan for him. He has played in only two spring games as he continues therapy.
“It’s going to be tough,” Polanco said, “but things happen. I’ll have to deal with it.”
The Twins wrestled with the decision, but in the end they kept him in Fort Myers. The 2019 All-Star won’t even go as an ambassador.
“These circumstances don’t play out like this very often,” Baldelli said. “These situations don’t come up, and we know how important that is to our guys. But as far as playing in the game, I don’t think it’s necessarily good to send [Polanco] out there in unusual circumstances for him to go play in those games. Because everything will be a little bit different and a little bit unknown. I don’t think rushing him out there to do that is something that we’d want.”
Gilberto Celestino, who grew up down the street from the stadium, will start in center field Saturday. Righthanders Jorge Alcala and Jhoan Duran, two the Twins’ better pitching prospects, are on the trip.
Another Dominican who will not play is righthander Fernando Romero, who was turned away from U.S. customs officials when he attempted to enter the country for spring training last month. He has applied for another visa to join camp but has been working out in the Dominican Republic and was to meet with the Twins when they arrived in the country.
The rest of the Dominicans who will make the trip are expecting dozens upon dozens of family and friends to be in the stands for the game.
“I’m really excited because it will be the first time I will play a big league game in front my home and fans,” Sano said. “Big time. Big moment. And I’m really excited about it.
“I played [at Juan Marichal] a few times. I’ve hit a couple of bombas there. I want to hit one. Everyone in my family hasn’t been together to see me play in the big leagues. I’ll have a lot of friends down there.”