When they each received the phone call from the Giants informing them of the news, they heard two familiar voices on the other end of the line: director of player development Kyle Haines and manager of education and cultural development Laura Núñez.
Haines felt Núñez should be part of those calls, not only for translation assistance, but also as a nod to the role that she’s played in helping them, and countless of the Giants’ other Latin American prospects, on their long road to the Majors.
“I work with Laura every day, and you could argue that she’s just as impactful as anyone that we have on our players, more specifically our Latin players,” Haines said. “She’s a big part of helping their cultural assimilation, as well as their education, but she’s also just a resource for the players when they need someone to talk to who’s a non-uniform coach. She’s more than someone who teaches culture and education; she’s also a mentor for our players. A lot of people get a lot of credit for helping the players, and she doesn’t get near enough for helping us.”
Núñez, who has been with the Giants since 2016, officially oversees the organization’s academic efforts, including English-language instruction for Latin American prospects. But her duties aren’t fully encompassed by her title. She’s also a key stabilizing force for international players, serving as a life skills coach, a counselor and a motivator who’s available to help prospects work through off-the-field issues and other challenges they might face as they adjust to life as professional baseball players in the United States.
“The real work, I think, is done on a human level,” Núñez said. “Something that I always tell [the players] is like, ‘Hey, you’re on the field five hours a day. That gives you 19 other hours to mess up. I’m here to help you for those 19 hours that you’re off the field, making life decisions and helping you out with what you need.’”
It’s been a change of pace from the structured life Núñez previously enjoyed as an English instructor and educational administrator in her native Dominican Republic. She’s no stranger to baseball, though. Núñez grew up in Santo Domingo, where the game is the national pastime and a year-long presence on television screens across the island. She has fond memories of going with her father, Francis, to his softball games every Saturday and hanging out in the dugout, reveling in the sights the sounds at the field. Her favorite team was Águilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Winter League, a rooting interest that was also passed down by her father.
“Just being Dominican, it’s in your blood,” Núñez said. “It’s everywhere.”
Before joining the Giants, Núñez worked as a national program supervisor at the Dominican Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, where she helped manage a government-run initiative that awarded scholarships to underserved college students who wanted to participate in an English immersion program.
Núñez, who is bilingual and attended an English-speaking high school in Santo Domingo, has always been interested in working to level class disparities in the Dominican Republic by giving people access to language skills that can help further their careers. When she came across a job opening with Major League Baseball, she saw an opportunity to combine that mission with her passion for baseball.
She initially interviewed for a position in community engagement, but her resume eventually made its way to the Giants, who reached out and brought her on board their Arizona-based player development staff in 2016. Núñez was drawn to the job because of her desire to work with Dominican players specifically, though she quickly realized that her impact wouldn’t be limited to her countrymen.
“There’s a huge, huge group of Dominican guys that I knew had shortcomings in education, language, life skills and all those things,” Núñez said. “I thought I could go in there and make a difference, help out and give back to my country. And then, in the process, you realize that it’s not just Dominican guys — it’s so much more than that. So that was really cool, kind of discovering it over my first year.”
Despite her ample experience working in higher education, Núñez said she did find it intimidating to step into the male-dominated baseball industry and begin working with players who — quite literally — towered over her.
“I’m 5-foot-4. I’m not necessarily like a big presence,” Núñez said, laughing. “I have a strong, energetic presence. But these guys are 6-foot-4. So you’re trying to tell them, ‘You need to be on time,’ and you’re looking up at them, you know? I think that it was challenging. But also, I love a challenge. And it’s so rewarding once that respect is earned, as with everything in baseball.”
Núñez said she began to build trust with international players by making it clear that she was there as a resource and wasn’t looking to be a disciplinarian or take anything from them. The fact that she wasn’t a uniformed coach ended up working to her advantage, as players gradually became more comfortable opening up to her about situations they were facing in their personal lives.
“They allow themselves to be much more vulnerable, much more receptive and confide in me,” Núñez said. “It’s potentially hard to confide in your manager, for example, really intimate things. Family issues, financial situations, children situations, you name it. I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot.”
The importance of Núñez’s role became clear last March when the Giants were forced to shut down their Spring Training and Minor League operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most of San Francisco’s farmhands ended up returning home, but the situation became tricky for a group of about 25 international players, most of them Venezuelans, who couldn’t leave the United States due to travel restrictions.
The Giants continued to provide housing accommodations and food for the players who ended up staying in Arizona, but the prospects were largely confined to their hotel rooms and couldn’t access the club’s workout facilities during the shutdown period. Núñez made sure to constantly check in with each of them and provide emotional support during the difficult time.
One of the few silver linings was that the Giants’ player development staff was able to keep tabs on all their Minor Leaguers with the help of videoconferencing technology. Núñez continued to offer English classes and other workshops via Zoom, though she said they were oftentimes just an excuse to touch base with specific players and see how they were doing.
“Just listening to them and just being there for them, I think, was the most important thing that we could have ever done for them last year,” Núñez said. “A lot of them had family sick back home, and they couldn’t go see them. It was really, really hard.”
Minor League camp isn’t scheduled to open until April 1, but Núñez has stayed busy this spring, as she continues to work with several prospects who were invited to big league camp this year. One of them is Dominican shortstop Marco Luciano, who has drawn praise from a couple of his American teammates for his improved English skills this year.
“It’s pretty awesome seeing Luciano and how far he’s come with his English,” outfielder Hunter Bishop said. “It’s really a testament to his character. Marco is really standing out to me for how hard he’s working. Like I said, his English is 10 times better than it was last year. It’s really cool to see.”
“Luci’s been awesome this year,” infielder Will Wilson added. “He’s really settling in, getting more talkative. It’s always fun to be around a guy who’s confident and talkative like he is.”
Núñez has worked with the 19-year-old Luciano since he signed with the Giants in July 2018, though she said that he redoubled his efforts to learn English after spending last summer at the club’s alternate training site in Sacramento.
“He was uncomfortable, really, because he didn’t speak English,” Núñez said. “He quickly put it together like, ‘Well, I’ve got to get better at it.’I think that’s the key for most of the guys. When they see that it’s not just classes, it’s important to your development and to your communication with your teammates at different levels. Once they see that, then they develop a sense of urgency and really get after it. All the credit is his. I put the classes together, but he takes advantage of them. Same with batting practice, right?”
Still, Luciano’s experience is emblematic of the extra hurdles international prospects must clear as they chart their path to the Majors.
“It’s almost twice or three times the work,” Núñez said. “They have to operate under rules — I don’t want to say baseball rules — it’s just rules that they don’t understand. Social rules, team dynamics, information, food. A minute late is not just a minute late. It’s a cultural battle, and it’s every day. You add all that to having to continue to develop professionally, continue to develop as an athlete. Stay on top of your work in the gym, stay on top of your nutrition. A lot of them are also providers back home for their families. So on top of that, you add financial stress, and then just being away from home.
“It’s a lot. It’s a lot that they have to kind of put together. It’s a huge puzzle for them. I think once they’re able to put that initial puzzle together, it’s easier. There’s a lot for them to have to learn before they get to the field and just focus on that pitch.”
The journey is long, but Núñez feels a sense of pride when she sees her international prospts progress through the Minors and inch closer to the big leagues. That’s what made the November phone calls to Canario, Doval, Castro and Santos so special. She heard the joy in their voices, at least one of which was audibly cracking with emotion, and later relished the stories about how they were able to celebrate that momentous step in their careers with their families.
“When you see them being successful, and when you see one of the players that you work with and that you know you’ve influenced, having success at his dream and being the best he can decide to be, that’s really rewarding,” Núñez said.