Photos: Jason Gonzalez. Baseball gloves emblazoned with the Puerto Rican and Dominican flags at the Sluggers Academy.

With the commencement of spring training, the two words that baseball enthusiasts want to hear are “play ball.” And with the end of the global pandemic in sight, the other two words that they want to hear are “without restrictions.”

But for one baseball institution in the Bronx, there’s no such thing as an off-season, even during a health crisis. At the New York Sluggers Academy, located at 728 E. 136th Street, the staff there have been training hundreds of individuals every week, year-round.

Their trainees range from children to professionals, male and female, including those with physical or cognitive disabilities. And whether you speak English or Spanish, no one is denied. However, each individual is placed in a program deemed suitable for their physical capabilities.

Since the facility’s inception nine years ago, the premise of the academy has remained the same, and that’s to teach kids how to play the game properly.

The academy’s creator and operator, former major league baseball player Eladio Rodriguez, can attest to the positive impact the academy has had on Port Morris. But for the most part, the New York Sluggers Academy is still an obscure resource in the South Bronx.

“Not many people know about it,” Rodriguez said, something that he hopes to change. The New York Sluggers Academy is the only one of its kind in the area.

The academy contains five batting cages with weight bearing posts, as well as a pitching tunnel for prospective hurlers to perfect their technique. Each station and activity are overseen by former professional players, who have been giving back to the community post-retirement.

Kids and adults can train 1-on-1 or as a team, learning how to swing a bat, field a baseball, catch a baseball, hit a baseball and pitch.

Eladio Rodriguez

Rodriguez’s work schedule has been greatly affected since the start of the pandemic. Twelve-hour days are the new norm for him. The extra hours allow for the proper sanitizing and disinfecting of the cages and equipment.

“This is my full-time gig,” Rodriguez said. “As a result of the pandemic, I am here at the academy at 9 am, but for the most part I am working from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.”

Though Rodriguez’s schedule may be the same every day, no two days are identical. It’s a full work week in which the activities change in the late afternoon. Prior to the sun setting in the “Boogie-Down,” clients can be seen participating in the “winter workouts,” which consist of core training, like planks and other rotation exercises that involve tossing a medicine ball.

It is common to see professionals perfecting their craft amongst the other clientele. Most notably, St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Harrison Bader, who frequents the facility often to stay in shape. Bader is a local who attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale. But Bader isn’t the only graduate of the academy, there were other alums that made it to the big leagues as well.

“We have Hudson Haskin who is from right here in New York,” Rodriguez said. “He went to Tulane University in New Orleans and just last year he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the second-round.”

The other adults enrolled at the academy, typically play in a semi-pro league and look to stay in shape during the offseason.

The median income for a household in Port Morris is $38,834, which puts the academy’s $400-a-week tuition out of reach for many. Rodriguez has tried to fill the gap by raising funds for scholarships, but has found it tough going through the pandemic. 

“I have a nonprofit [organization], but because of the pandemic, things aren’t working out the way they should so that I can help my community,” Rodriguez said. “However, I do help a lot of children out. I’ll take a small group of kids that I can help [cover the cost].” Those who can afford it must pay a portion of the tuition.

For the most part, the funds used to subsidize the academy come from the proceeds Rodriguez earns from coaching.    

“We do not receive any funding from the city whatsoever. Nor have we received any donations either,” Rodriguez remarked.

And though Rodriguez will be reporting to spring training for both the Yankees and the Mets starting in mid-March, his chief allegiance is to the kids from the neighborhood. Regardless of what happens in his career, Rodriguez said, he will remain committed to the academy.

“I try to stress the importance of having a good education to all of my clients,” he said. “And afterwards if you want to play baseball, we will try to help you build on your talent. But for me, having an education is the most important thing. I make a connection with guys as they mature slowly. I teach them to respect who and what they want to be.”

Jorge Espinal is thrilled to be a member of the program. Adhering to Rodriguez’s philosophy has paid dividends academically and on the field, the freshman catcher at Nassau Community College said.  Learning the subtle nuances of the game from Rodriguez, he said, has translated into resolving matters in his personal life.

“The little tricks and tips that you won’t get from anyone else,” is what Espinal said he has absorbed most from Rodriguez and his training at the academy.

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