How trips to the Dominican Republic and Cooperstown helped shape LSU star Dylan Crews
BATON ROUGE – Dylan Crews stepped up to the plate and there was no batter's box, only dirt.
The home plate circle was drawn with chalk, and a slice of it was taken out at the top, as the extending lines from the slice served as the start of the first and third baselines. The baselines themselves were just dotted white lines, seemingly there only to suggest what was fair and foul.
It was New Year's Eve, 2015 in the Dominican Republic, and the future LSU baseball superstar – donning a red shirt with bold white letters that read "AMERICA" – was ready to hit.
As Crews prepared for the pitch, two men, one after the other, started shouting in Spanish. Other fans – mostly parents and family members – watched while sitting on cream-colored concrete stands underneath a large, battered tin roof. The backstop and dugout were green, but weathered and rusted.
Crews took the first pitch high and outside for a ball. More Spanish cheering ensued. He took ball two, also outside. An engine growled in the background.
Suddenly, pitch No. 3 was right in Crews' wheelhouse. He shot his hands through the strike zone, making perfect contact with the ball as he lifted it deep into center field, deep enough to where neither outfielder could make a play.
Crews, a 13-year-old playing against older Dominican counterparts, had hit a home run.
"He (was) playing with high school kids and holding his own," Dylan's father George Crews said. "I mean, more than holding his own."
Dylan's trip to the Dominican was one of the first hints as to who the projected No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 MLB Draft has become today. Along with two trips to Cooperstown, these were the moments where the legend of his eventual superstardom began.
Dylan's Dominican adventure all started when George received an unexpected phone call from Peter Caliendo.
Caliendo is the president and general manager of Caliendo Sports International, an organization that puts together travel teams that go around the world to play games in Japan, Italy and the Dominican Republic, among other countries.
"Our coaches try to identify players and one of our coaches identified Dylan because I think he knew him somewhere, he had seen him play," Caliendo said.
After Caliendo called, it didn't take long before George and Dylan took up his offer.
"I'm like 'You know what, this is pretty cool.' This is a pretty cool opportunity," George said. "Dylan wanted to do it."
Dylan and his teammates played at least one game, sometimes two, on each day of their six-day excursion in the Dominican.
Scrimmages would usually just be the Americans against the Dominicans but sometimes they would mix up the teams. Games were held at various local baseball academies each morning, as the team would usually hold their off-the-field activities – trips to the beach or the pool, a tour of the Estadio Cibao baseball stadium – in the afternoon.
"What I like to do is have them play where the Dominican kids play, not where the professionals are playing," Caliendo said. "Which is an experience within itself because they see that the Dominicans don't have anything. The fields aren't very good.
"The bases might be potato sacks. The pitching mound might be a tire a tire in the ground or even just a chalk line. They're not worried about the pitching distance and the bases and all that. It's a very, very interesting cultural experience for our players and parents."
Dylan played well in the Dominican Republic despite being one of the youngest players on the field. He mostly played catcher, as Caliendo and the coaching staff felt comfortable with him calling pitches from behind the plate.
But what stood out to George most about the trip wasn't Dylan's performance, it was the Dominicans' old-school training techniques. It was similar to how Moe Pesce, Dylan's hitting coach at the time, was training Dylan.
"Just seeing how they do things down there with the wrist turns, with the weight and the ropes and dragging tires through a bumpy, dusty field," George said. "That's how Moe trained.
"It was a cool trip, culturally and the experience (itself)."
There are hot streaks, and then there's whatever Dylan was doing at Cooperstown in 2014.
Twice in the same summer, Dylan traveled up to Cooperstown, New York to participate in a six-day single-elimination Little League tournament with the Central Florida Pride, a travel youth baseball organization run by Chad Lee. George was also a coach on the team.
During the first trip in July, the Pride lost in the championship game to the Motor City Hitdogs from Detroit, 8-7. But it was the fuel from that defeat that motivated Lee to organize another trip to Cooperstown, despite it being in August and during the first week of school for Dylan and his teammates.
"We told them 'Hey, we'd like to come back if you have any opportunities,' " Lee said. "It took us two years to plan for the first trip, (but) it took us two weeks to plan for the second one."
According to the Cooperstown tournament archives, the Pride won their first six games in the second trip by a total score of 102-12. They eventually marched their way into the semifinals and scored an 11-10 win over the So Nevada Mizuno in the semis before capturing the tournament championship by defeating the Wisconsin All-Stars Black in the final, 3-1.
Dylan at one point in the second tournament hit eight home runs in eight consecutive at-bats. He also set the record for the most consecutive two-run home runs in Cooperstown history with six, a mark that still stands today.
He even hit a home run left-handed.
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"Probably, in hindsight, we played too many games. Actually, (we) played close to 200, if not more than 200 games when (Dylan) was 12," George said. "We were just traveling all over the place and all over the country just having fun."
If setting home run records and playing 200 games in a year wasn't enough, Dylan was also a football player at the time, playing linebacker, kicker, kick returner and running back. The relentlessness he showed on the baseball field was also prevalent on the gridiron.
Through watching his son compete in all of these competitive environments, George quickly realized that Dylan was just wired differently.
"I refuse to lose in anything," George said. "(But) he's taken that to the next level (compared to) me."
Dylan's trips to the Dominican and Cooperstown aren't the only once-in-a-lifetime moments of his career. His travel baseball team in high school, the Orlando Scorpions, played at major league ballparks such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Minute Maid Park.
"He probably played at, in high school, at least 12 different major league fields," George said.
But the seeds of what LSU fans see from Dylan today weren't planted at Fenway or Wrigley. His talent began to get recognized at the batter's box-less fields in the Dominican and the freshly-cut outfield grass in upstate New York. That is where the legend of Dylan Crews began.
"(He was) just a stud," Lee said.
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.