By Roberto Salvador Klapisch
The year was 1985, which Dave Valle remembers so vividly the images still come to him instantly. He had been playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic after suffering a severe injury the past season in a home plate collision.
Valle was a tough, strong catcher. Only 23 at the time, he figured it was worth the investment in his career to spend the off-season in the Dominican. Turns out, he was right.
He went on to enjoy a 13-year career in the majors, 10 of them with the Mariners. But the dividend was paid on more than just the back of his baseball card. Valle established a charity in the Dominican that exists to this day – an organization called Esperanza International that goes beyond the typical formula for helping the needy.
Instead of just handing out cash, Valle’s organization turns ordinary Dominicans into entrepreneurs, providing the means to start their own businesses. Nearly a million citizens, many of them single mothers, have benefited from Valle’s project.
It all started that one night nearly 35 years ago.
“I had just finished playing a (winter ball) game and was getting on the bus back (to Santo Domingo) with the 6-7 other Americans on the team,” Valle said recently. “My wife was with me, and I was holding our son, who was only 17 months at the time. And as we were about to leave, these kids came up to us – like kids at Yankee Stadium who approach ballplayers looking for autographs.
“But these kids were looking for food, not anyone’s signature. They were shoeless. My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do something.’ We decided at that moment if we could ever come back and do something, we would.”
Fast forward to 2019. It’s no stretch to say Valle has reached the sweet spot of his life. He does pre and post-game shows for the Mariners and is a regular contributor on the MLB Network. He is knowledgeable without sounding stuffy, an effective communicator who doesn’t need a gimmick to connect with viewers.
Valle could be you or me talking about the game he truly loves. You can’t fake that.
Perhaps that’s why Esperanza has flourished over the years, because Valle’s desire to help comes from the heart. That can’t be manufactured, either. So say the friends who’ve known Valle the longest from his childhood days in Queens, including Mets’ executive Omar Minaya and Yankees’ community relations specialist Ray Negron.
The three of them were part of the same sandlot baseball community in the 1970s. Valle and Minaya were actually direct competitors in high school. Minaya, out of Newtown High, was the New York City’s best public school’s catcher. Valle, from Holy Cross High, was the best parochial school backstop.
A bond evolved after the two ended up at many of the same pro tryouts. Now Minaya and Valle are spiritually inseparable – best men at each other’s weddings who stay in constant phone/text contact.
The tie to Negron, who is a few years older than Valle, was no less meaningful. He was already working for the Yankees when he brought Valle to his first big-time charity event in 1980 after a devastating earthquake in Italy.
“Dave was mingling with the New York superstars of that era – Phil Esposito, Gerry Cooney, all the Yankees,” Negron said. “Dave handled himself in a way that told you he belonged at an event like this.
“He was more than someone who was good enough to be a major leaguer. He was someone who would always help people. He had a big heart, which is why I’ve remained friends with him for so long.”
No one, not even Valle himself, could’ve predicted Esperanza’s reach and impact. The organization has loaned nearly $80 million to people who live on less than $2 a day. Of the 260,000 loans that have been generated, 98 percent of them have been repaid in full.
The concept of loans instead of one-time handouts is what drives Esperanza. Or as Valle says, “What kind of house would you live in if you couldn’t borrow money? What kind of car, what kind of education, what kind of business, if you didn’t have access to a loan?”
Minaya adds a second, salient thought to Esperanza’s mission statement.
“Ninety nine percent of the people Dave helps are women who would’ve never been able to get a loan,” said Minaya, the first Latino general manager in the majors. “An opportunity like this not only helps families materially but it gives them self-esteem. You’re not giving away something for free. It’s a holistic approach towards the wheel of opportunity.”
Valle is modest enough to say Esperanza has grown beyond his level of expertise and prompted him to bring in corporate professionals. There are 100 full-time staffers stationed at eight offices throughout the Dominican. What started as a dream has turned into a mid-sized company, and Valle gladly turned over the day-to-day responsibilities to, as he says, “someone smarter and sharper than me.”
He says so with a smile, which is what you’d expect from someone with a giant heart. Valle lives in a world of baseball, but his energy comes from a deeper and more profound place: charity.
That’s a limitless reservoir for a man who touches so many lives and has no plans to stop.
Featured Image: Dave Valle Twitter