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Academy opens, with a curriculum of hope

EL TORO, Dominican Republic -- The complex rises on the horizon from swaths of cane fields and corrugated tin shanties on mud-caked roads in a country largely overrun by poverty. It's so valuable, in human terms, that the new Red Sox academy in the Dominican Republic is ringed with barbed wire and guarded by a sentry toting a shotgun. This is where dreams will be made, if only a few among the others that return to dust.

The Sox yesterday became the fourth major league team to own and operate a year-round training academy in this hotbed of baseball talent, joining the Dodgers, Angels, and A's. But none of the facilities gleamed brighter than Boston's as the nation's stars of politics and sports turned out to inaugurate the $3 million complex.

President Hipolito Mejia led the government delegation, while Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz represented the baseball community, and Luis Soto, an 18-year old switch-hitting Dominican shortstop who signed with the Sox for $500,000, embodied the facility's hope for the nation's youth.

"This is a grand and gratifying achievement," said Sox owner John W. Henry, who bought the land for the academy when he owned the Florida Marlins. "To nurture an idea for so long through so many twists and turns and see it through to completion is so rewarding. Perhaps no two regions in the world love baseball more than New England and the Dominican Republic." Henry's vision was made a reality under the guidance of international scouting director Louie Eljaua and director of Dominican operations Jesus Alou, with help from assistant scouting director Tom Moore.

More than 40 teenagers hoping to make the big leagues live at the complex this winter. In stark contrast to home life for many of them, they receive three hot meals a day, sleep in clean, comfortable quarters, enjoy recreational facilities that include pool tables and televisions (with satellite connections so they can watch Sox games in season), and use a carpeted locker room as spacious as the home clubhouse at Fenway Park. They also receive lessons in Spanish (some never finished grade school) and English as well as counseling to prepare them for life beyond baseball.

"Compared to some of the other places they could be," Moore said, "this is like the Ritz-Carlton."

Only about one of four youngsters who sign professional contracts in the Dominican Republic reach the minor leagues in the United States. And only about 7 percent of minor leaguers reach the majors. But many of the players who sprang from poverty to make it, such as Martinez and Ortiz, enrich their communities through inspiration and philanthropy.

"With Pedro, Manny, and David, we are one of the most popular major league teams on the island," Eljaua said. "This effort benefits us in two ways. It helps us develop Latin American talent, and it's an attraction to Latin American players. Players know that we will develop them, house them, and educate them."

Kindred spirit

Martinez had no trouble putting himself in Nomar Garciaparra's shoes yesterday. The two have spent the last six years as the most public faces of the Red Sox and both now face the uncertainty of entering the final year of their contracts in Boston -- if Garciaparra is not traded first.

Martinez has not followed every twist of the saga involving Garciaparra as the Sox explore options for replacing him, including Alex Rodriguez of the Rangers. And though the Sox have no plans to deal Martinez before next season, the ace feels for his longtime shortstop.

"Nobody's future is certain in Boston," Martinez said. "This coming year is my last year. I don't know what's going to happen with me. I don't know what's going to happen with Nomar. I don't know what's going to happen with anybody, so I'm pretty much waiting for them to do what they have to do.

"I don't know about Nomar. I don't know about me. It's not like I can do anything, either. It's business, and Nomar understands this, and all of us understand it."

Still, Martinez suggested he would be as miffed as Garciaparra has been about the swirl of reports involving the shortstop's possible departure.

"I'd be upset if I didn't know what was going to happen," Martinez said. "I'd be the same way. I'd like to know, just like Nomar."

Caravan cranks up

The Sox will stage the first leg of their annual winter caravan tomorrow and Friday, as new manager Terry Francona is accompanied by pitchers Mike Timlin and Bronson Arroyo, infielder Lou Merloni and hitting coach Ron Jackson. Tomorrow, they will visit Jimmy Fund patients at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and serve a meal at the Women's Lunch Place for homeless and needy women and their children. They also will help host a holiday party at Fenway Park for children involved with Action for Boston Community Development. The caravan will continue Friday with a visit to the Angel Fund at the Cecil B. Day Laboratory for Neuromuscular Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Timlin pledged $500 per appearance last season to The Angel Fund, a nonprofit organization supporting research for ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). He donated $40,000 in memory of his mother Sharon, who died from ALS. The Red Sox Foundation also made a donation in Timlin's honor. The caravan also will visit Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and attend a luncheon with the inaugural class of Red Sox Scholars at Fenway. Francona and his crew will visit several other charities and donate turkeys for Christmas dinners.

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