When Ubaldo Jiménez was 16 in his native Dominican Republic, he wanted to accept the Mets’ signing bonus offer of $20,000 and immediately begin his journey to the major leagues. His mother, however, said no. She wanted him to finish high school, which many boys on the baseball-mad Caribbean island forsake to chase their dreams and earn life-changing money for their families. Jiménez yearned to do the same.
But after securing his high school degree a year later, Jiménez was met with another condition from his mother. Before she allowed him to sign with the Colorado Rockies, she asked for a promise that one day, when the time was right, he would return to his studies so he could eventually become a professional in a field beyond baseball.
“I never forgot it,” he said in Spanish by phone this week. “And she didn’t let me forget it.”
All these years later — after 12 major league seasons, a World Series appearance, a no-hitter and more than $65 million in career earnings — Jiménez, 37, kept his word and accomplished something rare among professional baseball players: He received a college degree. On Saturday, he graduated — virtually, of course — magna cum laude from the Florida Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management.
“What a great story,” Dan O’Dowd said when told of Jiménez’s accomplishment. O’Dowd was the general manager of the Rockies for all of Jiménez’s tenure there, from when they signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 through parts of six seasons with the major league club.
“The percentage of American kids that go back and finish their college degrees is minuscule,” O’Dowd continued. “Honestly, the percent of D.R. kids that even get their G.E.D. is incredibly small. But that’s not surprising with Ubaldo. He is a man for all seasons.”
If players in the United States or Canada are talented enough, M.L.B. teams can draft them once they complete high school. If they decide to go to a four-year college, the best prospects often leave as soon as rules permit, after their junior year. A Fox Sports survey from 2012 found that only 39 players who appeared in the major leagues that season, or 4.3 percent, had graduated from a four-year university.
Players from outside the United States and Canada can be as young as 16 when they sign. Many children in the Dominican Republic are recruited by buscones — who are part trainer and part agent — years before that age to begin focusing on baseball. Jiménez said some are even pulled out of school and sent to private baseball academies.
“They put a big dollar sign on the kid,” Jiménez said.
In Jiménez’s case, his parents emphasized education even though they didn’t finish high school. His mother, who became a nurse, put school aside as a teenager when she was hit by car. His father, who grew up working on a farm, left his studies to join the Dominican army. And as he was growing up in San Cristóbal, Jiménez said, his family didn’t have enough money to buy a home, so they always rented.
“All I wanted to do was get a bonus and do what I love, but also to help my family,” he said.
While Jiménez’s father was thrilled to see his son play baseball, his mother focused on school. A reason she let him sign with the Rockies, for $50,000, was because they promised to allow him to skip training so he could take the national tests for high school seniors.
Against his wishes, Jiménez said, his parents also sent him, by bus an hour away, to Santo Domingo every Saturday after baseball practice for two years so he could study English. His English was good enough at 17 that he read his first professional contract on his own, and again in 2009 when the Rockies signed him to a $10 million deal.
“When you get older, you thank your parents,” he said.
As Jiménez progressed through his career, he said, his promise to his mother was always on his mind. So midway through the 2017 season with the Baltimore Orioles, Jiménez’s most recent season in the major leagues, he enrolled at Florida Tech, a private university in Melbourne, Fla., that didn’t require an SAT score for online classes.
After games or on flights, Jiménez did his class work. He often asked an Orioles strength coach to check his grammar before turning in homework, but he mostly kept it to himself that he was playing and studying at the same time.
Although he said taking classes online sounds easy, he found it challenging, particularly with three daughters, ages 1, 2 and 4. But he was grateful to his wife, Marivi, for keeping them busy while he studied. His favorite class was international business, while the hardest was strategic management. And like so many other students, he sometimes stayed up until 3 a.m. or pulled all-nighters to finish group projects.
Jiménez said he was seldom recognized by classmates because classes were online and students came from all over. At the beginning of most semesters, students were asked for a brief introduction about themselves. “I put that I played baseball,” he said.
Bob Swick, who taught Jiménez in a microeconomics class, was the only professor to connect the dots.
“We emailed several times over the course of the semester,” Swick said in a phone interview, “and I came right out and asked him, ‘Are you the same guy who threw a no-hitter in April 2010 for the Rockies?’”
During class, Swick said, Jiménez was active, articulate and prepared. Swick commended anyone who returned to school for a better life, be it for a career change or better pay. But to Swick, Jiménez stood out because he hadn’t fallen into the potential traps of professional sports.
“I was, in a way, kind of surprised, because he was a former ballplayer, and unfortunately a lot of former ballplayers lack a lot of educational skills,” Swick said. “But he seemed to be really on the ball with everything in class.”
He added: “I also got kind of excited, too, being a baseball fan. I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow, I’m teaching one of the few players in baseball history that actually threw a no-hitter.’”
When asked after his graduation whether he was the former player, Jiménez laughed and pointed out that he was not technically retired. But despite a fastball that once reached 100 miles per hour and moments of brilliance, he was ultimately undone by command problems. In 2017, he posted a 6.81 earned run average and surrendered 33 home runs and 58 walks over nearly 143 innings with the Orioles.
Every so often, Jiménez said, he tests his arm. He pitched in the Dominican winter league two years ago, and the Rockies offered him a comeback attempt last year by signing him to a minor league deal. He was cut loose in July, and the 2020 minor league season was canceled because of the pandemic.
“I still have a lot of love for baseball, so we’ll see what happens,” Jiménez said.
That future, though, might include using what he learned in college to start or run a business. He isn’t sure what type yet, but he said he wanted to take care of the hard-earned money from his playing days. “And who better than me since I know how hard it was to get?” he said.
One goal, he said, would be to serve as a good example of the value of an education to Dominican players, of which only a small percentage will reach the major leagues. When he signed with the Rockies, Jiménez said, teams cared little about education. Now, according to M.L.B., all but one of its 30 clubs have high school diploma programs at their Dominican academies, and classes continued during the pandemic.
“In the Dominican, you live and breathe baseball,” he said. “But not everything is baseball. There’s a life before and after.”
Jiménez said that while parents ultimately bear the responsibility for educating their children, he understands that many baseball-playing children face the pressure of providing for their families. Which is why, he said, the Dominican government should put more emphasis on making sure baseball players finish their schooling, perhaps even before they leave the island.
O’Dowd, now an analyst for MLB Network, took that a step further, saying it should be a requirement that every international player signed by an M.L.B. team receive a G.E.D. before coming to the United States. Not only would it help them become better players but, if baseball didn’t work out, O’Dowd said, “It’d be incredibly incumbent upon us to be able to put players back into the individual areas that they come from, like in the D.R., at least with a high school education, hopefully more.”
Jiménez received his latest diploma in the mail. From his home in Miami, he watched the virtual graduation ceremony. To celebrate, he posed for photos in his cap and gown and took part in a Champagne toast. When Jiménez’s older sister graduated from medical school, his mother took part in a toast for her, even though she doesn’t drink alcohol. She was so happy on Saturday that she again made an exception.
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