Play ball: Richie Bonino, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at St. Cecilia in Fox Chase, was one of 100 American boys across six age groups out of 5,000 hopefuls chosen for the Latin American Baseball Classic from Aug. 6–12 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. SOURCE: FRAN BONINO
Like a young Ray Kinsella in the classic sports movie Field of Dreams, Richie Bonino began his baseball career as most do — playing catch with his dad.
And while Bonino may not grow up to build a baseball field on top of farmland, odds are he’ll still have some pretty neat baseball stories to tell in the future thanks to a chance opportunity to play in a prestigious international tournament next month.
Bonino, who recently turned 11 and will begin sixth grade at St. Cecilia’s in the fall, has been selected to participate in the Latin American Baseball Classic from Aug. 6–12 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Over 5,000 kids came out to 30 national tryouts across six age groups (10U, 12U, 13U, 14U, 16U and 18U), with 100 total making the final cut. Bonino is one of 14 players on the 10U team, and one of two from the Philadelphia area. Players on the roster are broken down into five regions — Northeast, South, Southwest, West Coast and Pacific Northwest — and hail from as far west as California and as far south as Florida and Texas.
The Latin American Baseball Classic (LABC) is “the largest international youth baseball event in Latin America,” according to the tournament’s official website. It has been in existence for over 30 years, with the United States participating since 2007; other countries and territories that will take part in the LABC include the host Dominican Republic, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, Panama, Puerto Rico, Aruba, St. Croix, St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands. According to Richie’s father, Rich, notable alumni from the LABC are Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
“I’m excited and nervous,” Richie admitted. “It’s cool that I’m going to meet other kids from different places, both from our country and many others. I’m excited for the experience, especially to see how people from other countries live and play baseball.”
Richie is the only child of Rich, an auto mechanic, and Fran, a registered nurse. The family lives in Fox Chase, where Richie plays shortstop and pitches for Fox Rok A.A. He also plays for the Tri-State Elite Falcons, a highly-competitive travel team based out of Sluggersville Philly.
Richie and his father have long bonded over the game, and the Dominican trip of a lifetime has served as a big thrill for the family, which admits that it’s all baseball all day for Richie, whether he’s playing for one of his two teams, watching the Phillies or other professional teams on television or viewing baseball-related videos on YouTube. When baseball is on in the house, Richie stands in front of the television and emulates and simulates the motions of the batter and pitcher, only to turn around and try to incorporate what he learned into his own practices and games.
“When I pretend to be the person batting or pitching, it makes me feel like I’m actually on the field playing with Major League Baseball players,” he said. “Playing pro baseball is what I would love to do. I watch videos of professional players all the time. I like the intensity, so hopefully I can become one someday.”
Richie’s favorite pro players include the Phillies’ Maikel Franco, the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Orioles’ Manny Machado, who are only about a decade older than he is. He even went as far as saying the next great MLB player would be at the LABC, whether it’s himself or somebody else.
When Richie tried out for the event, he and his parents didn’t expect much, although Richie did admit he sat in class at school thinking about the tryout, wondering if he did enough to get chosen and fantasizing about the possibilities if he ultimately was picked. When Fran picked him up at St. Cecilia one day, she handed Richie a folded piece of paper, got her video camera rolling and told him to read. It was his acceptance letter.
“It made me feel really good,” he said. “That day in school I was thinking about the tryout all day, so I was really excited. All I was thinking about was if I would make it or not, so I was very surprised and happy.”
Of course, Richie’s folks are over the moon for their son’s opportunity, and they’ll both accompany him on the trip. The itinerary includes two days of practice, two days of round-robin games (two to three per day) and finally two days of medal round games.
“I look at him sometimes when he’s pitching, and I can’t believe he’s as good as he is,” Fran said. “He’s smaller than the other kids, and I’m obviously excited to watch him do this, even though every time he plays my insides get twisted around. As his mom, I just really hope he takes the whole experience in and grabs a hold of it, because it really is once-in-a-lifetime. I want him to play the games and have fun while learning a lot from everybody there.”
“Where it all started for him was us in the yard playing catch,” Rich added. “Realistically we just had him try out for this so he could be ready for serious competitive tryouts when he gets to high school. We didn’t expect him to actually make it in. In a short time he’s come a real long way, and I’m definitely very proud of him. He’s a hard worker, practicing and playing six or seven days a week, so he’s definitely earned it. It’s pretty much all baseball all day for him, playing and watching, watching and playing.”
Down in the Dominican, Richie will get to train at both indoor complexes operated by MLB franchises and ancient, hallowed fields that Rich referred to as “sacred ground.” He thinks the United States teams will do well, and even referenced Sunday’s U.S. women’s soccer World Cup victory over Japan as motivation.
He said he hoped to absorb as much as his 11-year-old brain will allow while making long-lasting friends he can stay in touch with on social media, from America and perhaps beyond. Richie wants to play at an elite level in high school — he singled out St. Joseph’s Prep as a school he’d love to attend one day — and thinks he has what it takes to become the next Mike Trout.
But for now, he’ll soak up and enjoy the moment, as he realizes he’s getting an opportunity that most kids his age don’t.
“All of us are going to have to get along, because we have to work together in order to win,” Richie said. “I want to meet the kids from other countries and learn about their different cultures. I think that we’ll practice hard, and USA will be the best. I would love to get a championship that says ‘Team USA’ on it. I’ve never won a championship before; I’ve made it there before and lost, so that’s what I’d really want to do.” ••