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Wander Franco controversy resonates with youths, local Dominicans

Young players and adults grapple with their admiration for the All-Star athlete and the potentially career-ending allegations he faces.
 
Manuel Pimentel, 42, left, plays catch with son Manny Jr., 12, of Lutz, at Calusa Trace Park on Friday. Manny Jr. is a fan of Wander Franco, and his dad hasn't kept him in the dark about the current allegations against the Rays shortstop.
Manuel Pimentel, 42, left, plays catch with son Manny Jr., 12, of Lutz, at Calusa Trace Park on Friday. Manny Jr. is a fan of Wander Franco, and his dad hasn't kept him in the dark about the current allegations against the Rays shortstop. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Aug. 19, 2023|Updated Aug. 19, 2023

Manuel Pimentel came to Tampa 14 years ago from the Dominican Republic, bringing along his most treasured passion: baseball.

“I love it,” said Pimentel, 42, who lives in Lutz and works as a residential energy analyst.

Pimentel has been playing baseball for many years, making good friends and understanding the value of being a strong competitor. He has a broad perspective on baseball, but understands the importance of keeping the sport far away from any type of controversy.

That’s why he decided to talk about the allegations against Wander Franco with his 12-year-old son, Manny.

“My son doesn’t know all the details of what’s happening; he’s just a child, you know?” said Pimentel. “But he has heard that Franco is being questioned for something that isn’t right.”

No one knows the exact scope and impact of the investigation into the Rays’ All-Star shortstop, who faces probes from Major League Baseball and Dominican Republic authorities about possible relationships with minors. But Dominican families (including parents and their children), local coaches and students around the Tampa Bay area are taking the matter seriously.

“Wander Franco has a huge influence on kids like me because he is one of my favorite players,” said Manny, a seventh-grader at Martinez Middle School. “I hope everything goes well for him, since I want to see him play again with the Rays.”

Manuel Pimentel, right, with son Manny Jr. have had some tough conversations about Wander Franco recently.
Manuel Pimentel, right, with son Manny Jr. have had some tough conversations about Wander Franco recently. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Over the last decade, the Rays have launched several initiatives to engage the Hispanic community. These include Spanish radio broadcasts of the games, bilingual social media accounts and a bilingual Rays website. Many Dominicans are also part of this movement, such as Marcos Guerrero, 18, of Carrollwood.

Guerrero has carried a picture of Franco in his wallet since 2022. He admires the player who achieved a historic, multi-million-dollar contract, but now he is critical of Franco for being in the middle of a storm.

“A lot of us would like to have the chance to play for a big-league team, but none of us would like to be in that drama,” Guerrero said. “You have to think about things before doing them inside and outside the baseball field.”

Dominicans are not only huge fans of baseball but also a growing population in Florida and in the United States.

Between 2010 and 2021, the Dominican community increased by 60% nationwide, making up the fourth-largest group of Latinos and accounting for 4% of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Nationwide, there are about 2.4 million Dominicans, most of them concentrated in New York (39%), New Jersey (15%), Florida (12%), Massachusetts (8%) and Pennsylvania (8%).

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Rays shortstop Wander Franco shares a moment with fans before at game at Tropicana Field earlier this season.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco shares a moment with fans before at game at Tropicana Field earlier this season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

One of those Dominicans living in Florida is Victor Rosario, 57, a coach for the South Tampa Knights and a former infielder who played for the Atlanta Braves in 1990. Rosario said baseball allowed him to have everything he wanted and to pay for his five sisters’ college education.

Rosario now oversees five baseball teams for kids ages 11 to 17. He likes to share the best of his experience with his students, but one of his priorities is training those young ball players to be ready for the challenges of real life.

As a father of seven children with five grandchildren, including a 15-year-old boy who could sign this year to start a career in baseball, Rosario said Franco’s case is painful but can be an opportunity to learn more about honesty and the value of hard work. Rosario always likes to remember the discipline and commitment of his father, who used to wake up at 3 a.m. during the Dominican Republic summers to gather sugar cane leaves to feed the cows.

“The example of my father left a mark on me to focus, work hard, and respect family,” he said. “That’s why I think it would be a shame if Franco is guilty and in the end everything turns out to be true.”

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