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'It's a beautiful thing': Tigers' Dominican Republic natives thrilled for rare home game

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Ivan Nova grew up in San Cristobal, about an hour south of Santo Domingo. He’s pitched at Juan Marichal Stadium before, but never as a big-leaguer.

Imagine his delight then when he learned, just a short time after signing a one-year deal to pitch in Detroit, that the Tigers would be playing a Grapefruit League game against the Twins in his home country, the Dominican Republic.

Tigers pitcher Ivan Nova

“I told Gardy that I wanted to pitch in that game,” Nova said Friday morning. “I didn’t know how the schedule would work, if it was going to be my day or if was going to be a bullpen day, but I knew I wanted to pitch.”

Nova will indeed be on the mound at Juan Marichal Stadium on Saturday as the Tigers and Twins will play in the first Major League Baseball game played in the Dominican since 2000.

It’s the first time the Tigers have played an international game outside of Canada since 1980, when they played in Puerto Rico.

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“It’s a beautiful thing,” Nova said. “I never thought I’d have a chance like this at this stage of my career. It’s always other teams that go to play internationally, like the Yankees and Red Sox — teams like that. But I sign here and I get a chance to go over and pitch in this game in front of my family and friends.

“This is really big for us.”

It’s huge for the baseball-loving fan base in the Dominican, too.

“I can’t even imagine,” Nova said. “They get so excited when they see you pitch on TV. Now that we’re going to be there, I don’t know.”

Nova will start, but he is in-between his normal starting days so he will just go one inning. Daniel Norris, who pitched in the Dominican in the winter of 2018, will pitch three innings on his regular start day.

“Yeah, I played like three games there in 2018,” Norris said, chuckling. “I’m sure there's still jerseys with my name on them. It’ll be fun.”

The Tigers travel roster is loaded with Dominican-born players, as well as coach Ramon Santiago.

Pitchers: Rony Garcia, Sandy Baez, Jose Cisnero, Gerson Moreno and Gregory Soto. Also traveling are Anthony Castro, Nolan Blackwood and John Schreiber.

Infielders: Sergio Alcantara, Jeimer Candelario, Dawel Lugo. Also traveling are Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Brandon Dixon, Isaac Paredes, Daniel Pinero and Frank Schwindel.

Outfielder: Jorge Bonifacio. Also traveling are Jose Azocar, Daz Cameron, Derek Hill, Victor Reyes and Danny Woodrow.

Catcher: Jhon Nunez. Also traveling Brady Policelli and Eric Haase.

The trip has a special meaning for Tigers vice president Al Avila, as well. Not only do the Tigers have a baseball academy there, but Avila’s father Ralph was instrumental in bringing baseball to the Dominican.

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“International growth — especially in Latin America — is a priority for many teams across the sport, and for me, personally, it means a great deal,” Avila said. “My father, Ralph, having started the first baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic — Campos Las Palmas — and with his efforts starting the Dominican Summer League.

“It’s truly a country that has passionate fans and a rich history with baseball.”

The trip does cause some logistics issues for the Tigers, who flew out of Tampa Friday afternoon. They were expected to fly back Saturday night and take a three-and-a-half hour bus trip to West Palm Beach for games Sunday and Monday.

It provoked some good comedy from manager Ron Gardenhire.

“Yeah, we’re going into a country and this (corona) virus has been all over the place,” he said. “They had an earthquake last night and now there’s a tsunami warning. That’s OK. We’ll fly right into it. I’m good with that.”

An earthquake did hit the Dominican Thursday, 4.6 on the Richter Scale. But he took a little comedic license on the tsunami warning.