Gilberto Fleitas, who is slated to break camp as the Milwaukee Bear Claws’ designated hitter, expressed his gratitude to the Bear Claws organization and to the Patriot League for allowing him to pursue a dream he thought was dead. “I am so lucky to be here right now,” Fleitas told reporters. “Baseball is so much to me, and I am overflowing with joy at the opportunity to play once again.”
It has been a long and winding road for the 26-year-old Fleitas. He grew up in the Dominican Republic idolizing Sammy Sosa and dreaming of being a Major League outfielder someday. “Where I come from, we have two industries: baseball and sugar cane,” Fleitas said. “If you are not able to play, you will spend your life cutting cane.” Fleitas showed promise as a young, fleet, power-hitting outfielder; scouts began talking to him at the age of 13. “They told me I could be the next Sammy, maybe,” Fleitas recalled.
When Fleitas was 15, his family moved to America in search of a better life: “My father said that baseball was a lottery ticket, and he was not going to have his sons spend their life cutting cane.” Fleitas proved to be a decent student as well as a gifted athlete. He received a scholarship to the University of East Florida, and MLB clubs considered drafting him out of high school.
Fleitas starred at UEF, batting over .400 and displaying an incredible outfield arm that scouts compared to Roberto Clemente. In his senior year, he was drafted in the 7th round by the Chicago Cubs. But then, tragedy struck. At the end of the baseball season, Fleitas went to Daytona Beach with his teammates for a party weekend. He was waterskiing when his friend lost control of the boat; Fleitas wound up slamming into a dock. “The doctors told me it was a miracle that I was not dead,” Fleitas said.
It took Fleitas over six months before he could walk again, and a year before he returned to a baseball diamond. When he did, he discovered that his magnificent throwing arm was gone: “I could barely throw the ball back to the infield.” He did recover his hitting stroke, however, and remained determined to live his professional dream. Fleitas worked with family and ex-teammates over the next two years to get back into playing shape.
In 2014, Fleitas’ perseverance was rewarded with a spring training invitation from the Minnesota Twins. Unfortunately, bad luck struck again: in his third exhibition game, he stumbled rounding first base and severely sprained his ankle. He wound up being cut by the Twins, and when no other team took a chance, he figured his career was over.
“I cried for a week, because I came so close and it was all stolen away,” Fleitas said. During his recovery, he had taken a job as a high-school PE teacher in Hialeah, Florida, and he returned to that position, seemingly for good. “I figured that God must want me as a teacher instead of a player,” he said.
But his fortunes changed this spring, thanks to the Patriot League and a little help from family. Kim Fleitas, Gilberto’s younger brother, attended PL tryouts and was picked up by the league, and he recommended Gilberto to PL scouts. “I knew he could still play,” Kim said, “and we have always looked out for each other.” When Gilberto was drafted by Milwaukee, he was shocked and then thrilled. “I thought my time was done,” he said on the night of the draft. “But thanks to God and my brother and the Bear Claws, I have one more chance.” While he had hoped to wind up on the same team as his brother (who was drafted by the Jackson Hammerheads), “I am just grateful to be anywhere.”
With the security of a two-year deal and the support of Bear Claws manager Poss Horton, Fleitas looks forward to showing what he can do at the professional level. “I am excited to pay back everyone who has believed in me,” he said. “The best way for me to do that is to play well and succeed.” And whenever the Bear Claws play the Hammerheads, he plans to have dinner with his brother beforehand. “He can pick the place, and the meal will be my treat,” Gilberto said. “It’s the least I can do.”