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Tale of love and baseball spans two worlds

Edinson Lantigua poses with Dave Johnson at a well-manicured academy ball field. Lantigua practices five days per week, five hours per day, going to school Saturdays at 6 a.m. He's currently tasked with learning English and becoming bilingual in anticipation of his stateside arrival in 2014. Contributed Photo1 / 2
Dave Johnson and Bobbie Burns (right) sit in their screened-in porch in Cloquet. Brady Slater/Pine Journal2 / 2

CLOQUET -- Dave Johnson and Bobbie Burns sit across from one another in a sturdy, three-season screen house just big enough to fit the mirrors of a parked convertible. In here, they spread out, breeze in their hair. They feel fortunate.

A world away -- in a home away from home -- the couple knows people who make do in tin-covered cinder block huts, and people like Genius, who feeds his family, including three smiling daughters, by running tabs for his customers in a dry grocery no bigger than a Ram pickup truck.

This is the Dominican Republic Dave knows. Bananas bunched oddly upside down in the trees. Similarly, houses bunched on top of one another in the metropolitan areas. Mountains all around. Baseball fields shoehorned into every neighborhood, calling all the nation's dreamers.

It's an annual trip to San Felipe de Puerto Plata, on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. What began as a vacation golf outing 20 years ago bloomed into a pilgrimage. The fruits for the 70-year-old Potlatch retiree are in the smiles of the resort workers he treats to $50 grocery trips and the students he supplies at the local three-room school, and the orphanage girls he helps with clothing donations.

"It's a situation I fell into," he said. "It used to be pure trip; it's escalated into what we do today. Sometimes, they have no avenues."

There is one: béisbol. Johnson witnessed firsthand how it can change a family. He knows the father of a talented young ballplayer, Edinson Lantigua, who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this month as a 16-year-old. Nearly $300,000 later, the family is being treated to a new world, with promises to see their son play in the States someday, as soon as next season. They're part of baseball royalty now on an island on which "that's their way out: through baseball," Johnson said. "They know the names of every Dominican player in the major leagues and all their stats."

"They call him Napo," Bobbie said of their star-crossed Dominican friend, "because Napoleon was a great leader and Napo is always first to bat. He's really that good."

Johnson met Eddy Lantigua, the father, when the senior Lantigua came around the resorts selling cigars and other goods. Under the tropical sun, Johnson has watched the son play grueling day-long baseball academy practices that start with an hour of running and stretching and end four or five hours later.

"They play baseball all the time," Johnson said. "You see kids with branches trying to hit rocks."

Dave once figured he'd hopscotch vacation spots after retirement, golfing and growing old. Now, he's growing younger at heart every year by meeting families whose skin is more brown than their rice. He's loving every minute of it. He and Bobbie can't wait to pack every year. Four of their five vacation weeks are spent bustling from orphanage to school house to grocery store to ball yard, Dave's pockets filled with bubble gum, which weighs heavily among the 200 pounds of freight he and Bobbie carry onto the airplane every year. The "significant others" (Dave is a widower) did curbside check-in this past February and the attendant forgot to charge baggage fees. Call it karmic luck. The bags were filled with donation clothes, school supplies, Neosporin donated from Dave's doctor, toothbrushes from Dave's dentist, you name it. Dave crushes 50 aluminum cans a day to help fund the trip. Our Savior's Lutheran Church accepts donations on behalf of Dave's Dominican fund.

Dave is neither a trained missionary, nor does he proselytize. He does deliver 22 pizzas and watch 90 Dominican children make it disappear in the time it takes him to say "dig in." He did help raise money for an 11-year-old girl named Pamela, whose cancerous ear lobes hung like fruit till doctors removed the tumors and put her through requisite treatments. On a tab, of course, knowing the island reputation of Dave Johnson was good for it.

"They're leery at first," he said. "You just have to gain their trust."

Now, the people around the resorts in Porta Plata call Dave and Bobbie "mama and papa." Because of Dave, there are uncles and aunts, too, others recruited into the fold to help out among the impoverished of another world. One friend Dave met at the resort paid to help fix the crossed eyes of a young girl.

It all started by giving away some baseball hats that first year he traveled to the Dominican. Then, the world was his oyster. He'd wanted to sample it all. "One year to get used to a place, the second year to know the ropes," he said. "I figured I'd travel like that every two years."

But in a snap it all changed. He stopped searching and started giving; and that says everything about the baseball-loving people of the Dominican.

"Once you get to know them they're your best friends," he said. "They're loving and gracious; they just wait for us to come and open their arms for us."

"Our heart is there," Bobbie said. "It's our home away from home."