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When a big league catcher turns 36, as Dave Valle did last fall,
his prospects are usually bleak--another year or two in the Show
at best, with a fingernail grip on his job and bench burns on
his butt. But on this January day in the Dominican Republic,
Valle is wandering through a genuine pit of despair: Santo
Domingo's La Cienaga shantytown. To reach these depths he has
descended a narrow stone stairway that ends abruptly, forcing
visitors to scramble the rest of the way over boulders and
broken concrete. On the valley floor, a stream black with sewage
meanders under a canopy of coconut palms and almond trees. Naked
children splash in puddles, and wan mothers stare listlessly
from shacks of rotted wood and corrugated metal.

If this place had existed when Columbus landed here in 1492, he
probably would have fled in horror. But Valle, who has been here
before, has brought his wife, Vicky, and two of their three
children, 11-year-old Philip and seven-year-old Natalia. Their
purpose? To witness a small miracle.

The miracle's beneficiary is Balvina Concepcion, a thin,
brown-skinned woman with bright eyes and a quick smile. As the
Valles watch, Concepcion emerges from her hovel with the bottom
third of a steel barrel. She balances it on two rocks and a tin
can, leaving room for a fire underneath. When her husband gets
back from the market with a package of pork fat, she will fry
chicharrones, which she sells in the barrio. "They fry it and
fry it and fry it," explains Fred Gregory, an aid worker based
in Bellevue, Wash., who has 30 years of experience in Third
World development programs. "It's just deep-fried fat."

Actually, it's something more. It's an enterprise. With the
profits from her little business, Concepcion supports her
husband, three children and a grandchild. She is, by La Cienaga
standards, a person of substance.

With the Florida Marlins' newly acquired outfielder Moises Alou
looking on, Valle and his Cuban-born wife ask questions in
Spanish. Concepcion rattles off answers, frequently using the
word esperanza (hope). "She's been in the program for 2 1/2
years," says Niobe Segura, head field coordinator for the
Valles' Esperanza International Foundation. "She's had five
loans. The first one was $110."

The amount--less than two days' meal money for major league
ballplayers--seems too small to have transformed six lives. But
that's how it is in the world of microloans and
microenterprises. Opportunity is born on a tabletop. The price
of dignity is surprisingly low.

Or not. In La Cienaga the wailing of hungry babies is masked by
the din of Caribbean music playing from cheap speakers. Hope and
hopelessness seem to be evenly matched teams. "Sometimes it's
overwhelming," says Dave Valle, ducking under strands of
electrical wire stretched like clotheslines between trees and
huts. "Where do you start? How do you make a difference?" But
Valle doesn't look overwhelmed. He appears energized and
absorbed. Here, in this Dominican shantytown where pigs compete
with children for scraps of garbage, the journeyman catcher is
calling the game of his life.

The path from ballplayer to international development banker is
not a straight 90 feet down the chalk line. But it was outside a
Dominican ballpark, in 1985, that life changed for Valle, a
native of Queens, N.Y. Playing his fourth season of winter ball
as a Seattle Mariners prospect, Valle encountered a knot of
shoeless children after a game one evening. "They weren't
looking for autographs," he recalls. "They were looking for food
to survive the night."

At the time the Valles had little more than pocket change to
throw at this problem. But they vowed that someday they would
return with something more substantial. In 1991 Vicky reminded
Dave of his commitment, and they decided to make a seven-week
off-season tour of orphanages and day-care centers in the
Dominican Republic. ("I was a baseball player," Valle says, "and
I really didn't know how to start an international ministry to
the poor.") Back home in Seattle the Valles sought guidance from
Bud and Judy Greer, a couple that founded several Latin American
orphanages, and met Fred Gregory, who was president of World
Concern, a development agency.

Gregory introduced the Valles to the work of Muhammad Yunus, the
Bangladeshi economics professor who pioneered the concept of
trust banks in the early 1970s. In his book Give Them Credit,
Yunus argued that traditional macroeconomic aid, such as the
multimillion-dollar road and harbor projects favored by the U.S.
and the Soviet Union during the cold war, did little to empower
those who were malnourished and illiterate. To rescue the poor,
he wrote, would-be Samaritans needed to focus on the so-called
informal economy of developing countries: the unregulated,
untaxed, unloved people who sold goods and services from
pushcarts or from blankets on sidewalks. Yunus proved through
his groundbreaking Grameen Bank in Bangladesh that loans as
small as $50 could enable destitute women to provide for
themselves--at virtually no risk to the lender.

"It's a fact that poor people pay their debts," says Valle,
citing Esperanza's claim of a 96% repayment rate for
microborrowers worldwide. "It's their last hold on dignity."
Furthermore, a microloan, once repaid, can be recycled. "It's
not a food program where you feed somebody and four hours later
they're hungry," says Valle. "The money never goes away."

Convinced that microloans showed the most promise, the Valles
founded Esperanza in 1995, using a portion of the two-year, $1.1
million contract Dave got for joining the Texas Rangers as a
free agent. The foundation has funded 19 "banks of hope" in the
Dominican Republic to date, each with 15 to 35 "promoters."
Almost all of them are women, the theory being that mothers
funnel more of their income into food, medicine and education
for children. The promoters of each trust bank serve as a
lending committee, approving loans to people they know to be
trustworthy. If a borrower defaults, the promoters have to pay
off the loan. The interest rate--currently around 2.3%, with a
one-time loan fee of 5%--is minuscule compared with the
Dominican loan-shark rate of 200% a year. So far Esperanza has
made 957 loans in the barrios of Santo Domingo for a total of
$143,000. There have been no losses due to default.

Nor have there been additions to the Santo Domingo skyline, but
that's the nature of microenterprise. On their January tour the
Valles visited a blue-walled beauty parlor in the Guachupita
neighborhood, where two of their loans have made an entrepreneur
of a woman named Ida. "Actually, it's created three jobs," Ida
said, gesturing toward a young hairdresser working on a customer
and toward a little boy on the concrete floor shining shoes.

Up on a dusty market street, a man sells eggs from a tabletop,
while a few blocks away another chops fresh chickens to sell at
eight pesos (60 cents) each. Both men are beneficiaries of
Esperanza loans. "We're not creating a dependence," Valle notes
with satisfaction. "This gives people the opportunity to be

In 1997 the Valles plan to take Esperanza 60 miles down the
coast highway to San Pedro de Macoris, a baseball-mad town of
about 80,000 known as the shortstop capital of the world. There,
in a former college dormitory owned by the Episcopal Church,
workers are fashioning a very basic surgical facility to be used
by volunteer medical teams from the U.S. Just up the street, at
a small children's clinic, Sister Jean Gabriella, a transplanted
Marylander, listens as New York Yankees infielder Mariano
Duncan, a San Pedro native, offers to be a mule for donated
medicines. "They never bother me at customs," says Duncan,
drawing a smile of delight from the missionary.

Beyond the obvious impact Esperanza has had on its grateful
clients, there is the good it has done for the Valles and those
who have joined their crusade. "I used to question why God would
not allow me to play baseball anymore," says Esperanza board
member Brian Holman, a former teammate of Valle's who was 11-11
with the Mariners in 1990 before shoulder surgery ended his
pitching career. "The first time I held a child who was dying of
malnutrition, that question was answered."

Several active major leaguers are Esperanza donors, including
Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Dan Wilson of the Mariners and
Will Clark and Juan Gonzales of the Rangers. "It's a great
program because it teaches people how to support themselves,"
says Alou, whose star-laden family is the closest thing the
Dominican Republic has to royalty. "But it's kind of shocking
that somebody from outside my country could show me how bad
conditions are here."

Actually, Valle thinks his background prepared him well for his
current role. His father, John, died when Dave was eight, and
his mother, Marilyn, had to support eight children on her wages
as a graveyard-shift hospital nurse. Young Dave had to entertain
himself, first as a stickball wonder and later as a star catcher
at Holy Cross High. Although he never lived up to his early
hype--he was picked ahead of Cal Ripken Jr. in the 1978
free-agent draft--Valle was the Mariners' regular catcher for
seven years and was behind the plate in 1990 when Holman came
within one out of pitching a perfect game against the Oakland A's.

This season Valle will play for the A's, who signed him to a
one-year, $355,000 contract in January. "I'm at the end of my
career," he concedes, "just hanging on a year at a time." But
unlike many athletes, Valle has no fear of life after sports.
"We spend the first half of our lives looking for success," he
says. "The second half, we look for significance. At the end of
the race, you want to be able to look in the mirror and say,
'This was a life well lived.'"

That's why Valle takes his children into the shantytown. Philip
was seven when he got his first glimpse of Dominican poverty.
Natalia is getting her first exposure now, and she looks
bewildered. (Alina, 3, is back at the hotel with Vicky's
mother.) Before their last trip, Dave recalls, Philip
desperately wanted a new pair of black Air Jordans; then he saw
Dominican children walking naked in the streets. "All of a
sudden," Dave says, "having two pairs of sneakers wasn't that
important." He adds, "I don't want my children to feel guilty
about what we have, but I want them to appreciate it."

For Vicky, who was born in Havana, the sense of mission is
equally strong. So is the sense of irony: In Communist Cuba,
whatever its other hardships, even the poorest children get
medical care and full-time schooling. Wandering off on her own,
Vicky finds a shack where a mother, surrounded by undersized
children, spoon-feeds watery soup to an infant lying motionless
in her lap. "The baby needs vitamins," Vicky says after a short
chat with the woman in Spanish, "but they have no money."
Rummaging in her purse, she comes up with $7, which she hands to
the mother. "That's why I can't be here," Vicky says as she
walks away, her eyes brimming with tears. "I get so involved in
their lives."

Which, of course, is the point. The old modes of U.S. aid, the
big-ticket infrastructure projects, may have produced more
concrete than concrete results. "And when we think that way--if
government is involved, I don't have to do anything--it takes us
out of the picture," Dave says. "I can stay in my comfort zone."

If that sounds like a subtle pitch for contributions, it is. But
unlike some of the pitches in Valle's life--fastball, slider,
curve--the one for Esperanza is hard to lay off and almost
impossible to second-guess. "Nobody's going to remember what
I've done as a ballplayer," he says, escorting his family back
up the crumbling steps to Santo Domingo's paved streets. "My
statistics won't matter. But the work we do here, the things we
do to help people change their lives for the better.... "

He lets the thought hang, halfway to the plate.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Valle's foundation is helping Dominicans help themselves. [Dave Valle and children]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Dave Valle batting]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Natalia and Philip (in blue) know their dad's work in Santo Domingo is as important to him as baseball. [Back view of Natalia Valle, Philip Valle, Dave Valle and others walking along street]