"We call baseball America's pastime, but I don't know," Sophia Minnaert said, "Baseball in the Dominican is at a whole different level."
In a joint venture between FOX Sports Wisconsin, which televises Brewers games, and FOX Sports North, which covers the Twins, Minnaert traveled throughout the Dominican in November with coordinating producer Trevor Fleck and camera operators Ralph Gasow and Dan Truebenbach, compiling more than 50 hours of video currently being converted into six half-hour specials and a series of shorter features that will air in the coming months.
FOX is producing special programs about each club's Dominican academy, in addition to specials about Brewers All-Stars Gomez and Jean Segura, and Twins prospect Miguel Sano and Minnesota's Dominican middle infield tree. Minnaert also spent a day apiece at academies run by the Braves, Indians and Tigers for shorter features to air during those teams' broadcasts.
"It's something that FOX has wanted to do for a long time," said Minnaert, a social media specialist and sideline reporter for FS Wisconsin for the past two seasons. "But it needed to be the perfect storm, of the stories being there and the timing being right."
This fall, the timing was right, with Gomez and Segura on the heels of All-Star seasons for the Brewers, and Sano generating so much interest in Twins country.
As a bonus, FOX found itself with the right reporter to pull off the trip.
Minnaert, a 2009 graduate of Marquette University in Milwaukee, is the daughter of a football coach from the Midwest and a mother born in Costa Rica. They met after Sylvia's older brother, Tony, spent his senior year of high school with the Minnearts as a foreign exchange student in Annawan, Ill. When Alan visited Costa Rica after graduation he met Sylvia, and their relationship continued by mail.
Sophia grew up speaking both English and Spanish, and immersed in sports. Her dad is the head football coach at Edgewood High School in Madison, and Sophia was his unofficial team manager. She would eavesdrop on his postgame media interviews, then read the story in the newspaper the following morning and ask more questions based on Alan's answers.
"I think it was my grandfather who finally said, 'You know, you can do that for a job,'" Sophia said.
So she went to Marquette and majored in journalism and Spanish. After graduating in 2009, Minnaert worked for a high school sports production company in Madison and made connections with FOX Sports Wisconsin, which televises the state football tournament.
In May 2012, FS Wisconsin hired Minnaert to manage their social media. She did not appear on air until the end of August, but her profile quickly grew, and Minnaert was also visible during Milwaukee Bucks telecasts that winter. In 2013, her role grew further, and she regularly served as the field reporter for Brewers broadcasts.
Along with Dominican Summer League manager Jose Pena (right), Sophia Minnaert poses for a photo with Brewers prospects.
"We wanted to give an accurate portrayal of what baseball is like in the Dominican," Minnaert said. "We came home with a completely different perspective of who these guys are, where they come from, and what they went through long before they got to the U.S. and became the players they are today. We were able to see them in their natural element with their families."
The trip was bookended by two-day visits with Segura and Gomez, two highlights of an otherwise tough 2013 Brewers season.
Segura was born and raised in San Juan de la Maguana, in the western part of the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border. He picked up Minnaert and a cameraman at the hotel, a practice that would continue in later visits with Sano in San Pedro de Macoris and Gomez in Santiago.
"We put a GoPro mini-camera on his car and had him take us on a driving tour of his city," Minnaert said. "He showed us all of the main sites, where he played dominoes, where he went to school. We know a lot of the fans watching haven't been to these places, so it was important to us to have an accurate portrayal of what the place looks like, what it sounds like."
Fans will meet all four of Segura's grandparents and get a cooking lesson from Segura, whose family still supplements its income by making candy. Minnaert visited the sandlot where Segura grew up playing baseball and still trains, and met his uncle -- Oscar Antonio Encarnacion -- who was a former sprinter, denied by injury a chance to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
"That's who Jean does his training with, and when we visited there were at least 30 other kids there, all just recently signed or trying to get signed," Minnaert said. "It was fascinating to see Jean interact with them, and just to see the fields where he played. It's nothing like we think of a baseball field in the U.S. It's all-dirt infield, patchy grass, bad hops everywhere.
"[Segura] was genuinely excited to show us all of this stuff, so that made it really fun."
The next subject was also a young infielder, Sano, the Twins' No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com. The 20-year-old had been playing in the Dominican Winter League before an elbow injury cut short his season.
Minnaert spent a full day with Sano in San Pedro de Macoris, interviewing Sano's mother, father and sister at a family home so full of animals -- including Sano's pet monkey -- that Minnaert described it as a "petting zoo."
When it came time to record a sit-down interview, FOX faced a choice: English or Spanish? It chose Sano's first language.
"For his introduction to Twins fans, we wanted it to be comfortable and natural," Minnaert said. "People are so looking forward to his debut. When is it going to be? What is he going to do? He's a big part of the future of that organization, so we went back and forth about how to [present it] -- how much English, how much Spanish."
The Brewers' and Twins' academies were nearby, and they were the next stops.
The Twins had 30 players at their academy in Boca Chica when Minnaert visited, and the Brewers were hosting 41 players at their facility near San Pedro de Macoris. At each, the day began as early as 6 a.m. and ended late, with on-field work followed by classroom work in languages, finance and culture. The young men at the teams' academies are generally aged 16-20.
"My favorite part of the whole academy experience was sitting in on their English classes," Minnaert said. "That's where I think you start to see differences in the approach of different teams. What is valuable to them?
Sophia Minnaert conducts an interview with new Brewers coach Mike Guerrero.
All of which led to her and a FOX Sports crew boarding a flight to the Dominican Republic.
"They are also trying to develop these kids as baseball players, but also recognizing that for a long time players were having a really difficult time adjusting to the language barrier and cultural differences. You can't just ignore that. To me, it was interesting to see what teams are doing to prepare kids for that change."
Gomez made that adjustment years ago with the Mets, then moved to Minnesota and Milwaukee, where he is finally making the most of his natural talent. Minnaert, Fleck, Gasow and Truebenbach capped their trip by exploring Gomez's humble beginnings.
Gomez gives much of the credit to his father, Carlos Sr., a regular around Miller Park during the regular season, who will finally get some camera time during the FOX specials. Carlos Sr. was a good baseball player in his own right, playing professionally in the D.R., but he never made it to the U.S.
"Some people say his dad was better than Carlos, and so there's this running competition between them," Minnaert said. "Even today, his dad will say, 'You know, I'm a better baseball player.' It was funny to watch that dynamic."
The interviews filled up the first day of FOX's visit with Gomez. Day 2 brought a tour of Santiago, including monuments to the city's best ballplayers and a school visit that was carefully planned.
"He told me, 'We need to go to the school between this time and this time, because I don't want to be there when the kids get out of school,'" Minnaert said. "But as soon as we got to the school, and the kids realized he was there, I'm not exaggerating when I say that kids came running out of their rooms into the hallways, screaming and cheering and chanting and wanting autographs and pictures. The kids went crazy. It was mayhem, to be honest, but it was so cool to see."
It was the enduring moment of a memorable trip.
"We're going to have a hard time getting all of it into half hour shows," Minaert said.