Editor’s note: Baseball might be America’s national pastime, but the game’s global reach has long been evident. Newly arrived international players immerse themselves in new communities, languages and cultures each spring. Today, the Kane County Chronicle continues a series that examines how the language challenges that Cougars players face intersect with their transitions to professional baseball.
GENEVA – Julio Bruno rents an apartment in Geneva and still takes at least 90 minutes to commute to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.
That's neither a riddle prompt nor an indictment of his white Ford conversion van – just another way of describing one of Bruno's favorite acts.
Bruno begins his early work as Cougars hitting coach by encouraging another kind of contact among his carpool of Latin American players. It's called assimilation, and to the Dominican-born Bruno, it can be just as rewarding as cracking .300.
"Not only in the baseball area, but also as a person," he said, "I feel like I can teach about my past, my life and I think that will help."
Bruno began an 11-year minor league career at 17, coming to the Class A Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows in 1990 with eight months of sporadic English lessons under his belt.
The parent San Diego Padres organization allowed him to choose a roommate, and Bruno quickly tabbed Californian Ryan Thibault. Before long, day-to-day communication such as clubhouse conversation and ordering food became increasingly comfortable. Consequently, his Rainbows teammates "felt like family."
Thibault was out of professional baseball as Bruno worked to ascend the Padres' and Detroit Tigers' systems through 2000, but the pair remained in touch.
"You leave this game, but the people that you play with, the people that you work with, you still remember," Bruno said. "You still love those people after the first day you meet them."
Survey the Cougars and that sentiment doesn't change. Several players encountered Bruno earlier in his coaching and managing career in the Kansas City Royals organization – now in its 12th season – and have relished working with him again.
Third baseman Michael Antonio thinks Bruno "deserves a plaque, a trophy, or something" for taking the lead as an off-field mentor. Last season, the Cougars' first as a Kansas City affiliate, a Royals video intern transported foreign-born players without cars.
Bruno lives with his wife, Frencia, and 16-year-old daughter, Prescilla. He wakes around 8 a.m. for most home games, makes breakfast and leaves shortly thereafter.
In the late afternoon calm between batting practice and first pitch, he often can be spotted watching the grounds crew or relaxing in the concourse. Apart from the early windshield time before he picks up his first player, a few minutes to himself are rare.
"The guy's in a full-out sweat every day, throwing from different angles, doing flips every day, doing BP every day," outfielder Tim Ferguson said. "And he's always in a good mood."
Adds Antonio: "I think that what he does is amazing, personally, just because he has so much to do and he's just always on top of it."
Lately, Bruno has beamed about the prospect of tackling another project: He and his family becoming American citizens. He plans to file various paperwork with the U.S. government once the season ends in September.
Bringing his wife and daughter to the U.S. for longer than a baseball season became a motivation within the past five years. Without mentioning the phrase "Land of opportunity," Bruno described the advantages he has observed while playing, coaching and living abroad. He figures they could be especially beneficial for his daughter, a Christian singer and aspiring violinist.
In the interim, he has contacted newspapers in the cities in which he played – including Waterloo, Iowa; Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla. and Las Vegas – about procuring press clippings to show the scope of his time in the U.S.
"It doesn't matter what state you live in, work. It doesn't matter," said Bruno, who likely would live in Florida. "Your kids can get a good education and they can also live as a good person."
Bruno worked with the Royals Baseball Academy in Salcedo, Dominican Republic, this past winter, taking a break from his usual coaching stints in Dominican winter ball. He is set to return to the coaching circuit this offseason, counseling hitters from the low minors to the major leagues.
From the time of his Christian upbringing, Bruno has valued helping young people. After a few seasons in the minors, he "saw my reflection" in the next crop of Dominican and foreign-born players coming up behind him.
Becoming a coach – and part-time chauffeur – stemmed from that.
"I want those Latin players to learn as much as they can, so when they're out on the field, they know what people expect and when they're off the field, they know how to respect people," Bruno said.
"I want to give the players what I have, and when I get out of this game I can say, 'Well, I gave it my best.'"