‘Pomp and circumstance’ replaces ‘Take me out to the ballgame’ as Reds prospects graduate

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — With a day game hours after a night game in the final week of spring training, Cincinnati Reds starter Frankie Montas didn’t have to be at the team’s complex until 9 a.m. on Friday, nor were any of his big-league teammates required to report early.

But slightly before 8 a.m., Montas was sitting in the second row of 200 white folding chairs set out in a spot where Reds players normally practice their bunting. Instead, the chairs were arrayed in front of a table holding five high school diplomas atop a black tablecloth. Seemingly the entire organization came out to celebrate five Reds minor leaguers who were graduating from high school.

“There are some of the guys that may be the only ones in their family to graduate,” Montas said afterward. “It opens up so many opportunities to have a high school diploma. It’s a special moment.”

A total of 11 players were honored for earning an American high school diploma within the past year. The Reds have offered the Dawere International High School and the High School Equivalency program since 2019. The program is completely online and conducted in Spanish. There were five graduates in camp, and three more will be honored in another, smaller ceremony at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic; another three who are no longer in the organization finished the coursework with the same resources offered to the players still with the team.

Since the start of the program, the Reds have had a total of 26 players earn their diplomas.

It was a huge day for Ariel Almonte, Reynardo Cruz, Juan Garcia, Brayan Rijo, and Carlos Sanchez, all Reds minor leaguers at the A-Ball level of below, standing in front of teammates, coaches and club officials in Goodyear. All of the rented chairs were filled, and there were still about another 100 people standing, watching and applauding.

The ceremony had everything a traditional American graduation would have: Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 playing as the five walked down an aisle wearing caps and gowns; each receiving a handshake and diploma from Kaitlyn Beltre, the Reds’ education coordinator; the graduates turning their tassels and then throwing their mortarboard into the air to applause from their friends and peers.

“When I signed with the Reds, I was already out of school for a year,” said Rijo, according to Beltre, who interpreted for him. “I never really thought I’d be able to finish.”

A year ago, the Reds held a similar ceremony, smaller in both participants and scale. A year ago, Almonte was one of the Reds minor leaguers watching Diego Omana, Malvin Valdez and Ilvin Fernández receiving their diplomas in their caps and gowns. Almonte, 20, had been enrolled in the program a year at that point, but seeing the ceremony helped push him forward to complete the coursework, knowing it was a tangible goal.

“I’m really excited because it’s an accomplishment that not everybody achieves or has achieved,” Almonte said, via Beltre. “I hope it can be an inspiration to my other teammates that maybe they will enroll and finish their high school, too.”

Garcia, a 20-year-old catcher from Columbia, signed with the Reds a little over a month after his 16th birthday in 2019. At 14, it was apparent that Garcia’s future was in baseball and he stopped going to school to focus on the sport. His parents, Garcia said, always put a priority on education, but the opportunity for baseball was too good to pass up.

It wasn’t until January 2022, before Garcia’s first spring training in the United States, that he enrolled in the team’s program.

The program isn’t mandatory like the English classes that are held following daily workouts, but are an extra opportunity afforded to all of the Reds’ signees from Latin America.

The students attend classes, either in person or online, at night. Beltre, who is in her second year full-time with the Reds, splits her time between Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

Beltre was a contractor for the Reds for four years before joining the organization full-time. Becky Schnakenberg, the organization’s manager of wellness and education, has been a full-time employee of the Reds for six years. Before that, she was a contractor working with several teams, including the Reds, who then recruited her to take over the entire program.

Neither Beltre nor Schnakenberg grew up speaking Spanish, but learned the language later in their lives and became fluent. Beltre wanted to go into sports journalism, but detoured to the other side. Now she’s an educator, a coach and a friend to so many of the team’s young players.

“I have to thank my teacher (Beltre) because there would be times we would finish a game and I would be really tired and not want to study,” Rijo said through Beltre. “But then I’d get a text through WhatsApp from (Beltre) telling me it was time to study, and I’d do it.”

Montas wasn’t the only big-leaguer who came out for the graduates; Jonathan India, Tyler Stephenson, Elly De La Cruz and others came out, joined by Reds president of baseball operations Nick Krall, general manager Brad Meador and manager David Bell. All of the team’s minor leaguers, coaches and support staff were there too, as well as most of the big-league players, coaches and staff. Spanish speakers and English speakers alike listened to speeches from Beltre, Krall and the graduates themselves in a mix of both languages.

The graduates took notice of all the faces in the crowd. At first Rijo was excited, but then as he prepared to walk down a path lined with flowers toward the front, he got nervous noticing the likes of India, Stephenson and De La Cruz.

“I never really thought I’d be able to be here graduating today,” Rijo said, according to Beltre.

The Reds’ Goodyear complex was festooned with small touches celebrating the graduates. (C. Trent Rosecrans photo)

Even though so many of the big league players were there, few could understand quite like Reds minor-league shortstop Jose Torres. Torres, 24, was born in the Dominican Republic, but his family moved to Maryland when he was younger. He still has family in the Dominican Republic and visits often. Torres straddles both the Dominican and American worlds, employing both languages like a native speaker. He graduated from high school in the United States before going to North Carolina State on a baseball scholarship. The Reds drafted him in the third round of the 2021 draft.

After the ceremony, all five of the graduates came over to pose with pictures with Torres, who has served as a mentor to many of the team’s Latin American players. Rijo said Torres is like a brother to him.

“To us, it may seem like little, but to them it’s a whole world they haven’t experienced,” Torres said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

While the five players knew about Friday’s ceremony in advance, what they didn’t know was that Beltre and Schnakenberg had collected videos from family members congratulating them.

“I never thought I’d be able to see them at my graduation,” said Cruz, a 22-year old pitcher from the Dominican Republic, through Beltre.

Cruz was able to hold in his emotions until the very end, when he witnessed video of his 4-year-old niece saying, “I love you, uncle.”

That’s when he started to cry.

He wasn’t alone in shedding tears.

Everyone laughed when Rijo’s father came on the screen because the two look almost identical — aside from the younger Rijo’s braids — but it was the sight of his younger sister that got to him. A year younger, his sister usually shies away from the camera and rarely video chats with her brother. But there she was, upbeat and excited to congratulate her sibling.

“The tears just came, I just couldn’t stop them,” Rijo said, according to Beltre. “It’s the first time I’ve ever cried like that. It just woke something up in me to continue to stay motivated.”

Garcia, the catcher from Colombia, didn’t speak a word of English when he signed at 16 and was sent to the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic. Friday, not only did he have a diploma, he spoke in English both in the ceremony and later in an interview with The Athletic even though both Beltre and Schneckenberg were there and available to serve as an interpreter.

Garcia said every year when he’d go home to Colombia, his mother would ask him when he was going to finish school.

“Today I called my mom,” Garcia said, “and I said, ‘Hey, I finished school.’”

(Top photo: C. Trent Rosecrans)

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