Nearly three years have passed since Robinson Mateo moved from the Dominican Republic to Washington and much has changed. He has learned a new language and become part of a new family that includes his mother’s live-in boyfriend and his son, as well as a 1-year-old half-brother.
The one constant in his life has been baseball.
A smooth-fielding shortstop who can hit from both sides of the plate, Mateo has led Wilson (19-6-1) to the verge of its 20th consecutive D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship. While the Tigers’ annual league championship photo-taking is a rite of spring — they play Bell on Sunday at noon for the DCIAA title as part of the D.C. High School Baseball Classic at Nationals Park — Mateo is unique: He is a D.C. public school baseball player with a college scholarship to play baseball.
“Here, you see baseball as a sport; we see baseball as a life,” said Mateo, who has signed to play for Southern University in Baton Rouge, which is generally considered to have one of the best Division I baseball programs among historically black colleges. “Not that that’s all we do, but that’s the only sport we really play in the Dominican.”
In Mateo’s family, baseball is a way of life. His uncles played the sport. His mother, Nancy Manzano, was a softball player, batting cleanup and playing first base. Mateo’s brother, Pedro, a Wilson junior who also hopes to play in college, starts at first base or catcher and is batting .473 with a team-leading four home runs and 22 RBI. Robinson is batting .510 and leads the team with 14 extra-base hits and 24 RBI.
Manzano’s partner, Carlos Chavarria — whom Mateo calls his stepfather though the two are not married — coaches with the D.C. Dynasty travel team. Chavarria’s son, Jerry, has been the starting catcher at St. John’s and also is bound for Southern.
“She’s a baseball gal, that’s why we’re together to be honest with you,” said Carlos Chavarria, who played the infield at Wilson and Bell before going to Bowie State. “I’m a baseball junkie.”
Manzano, whose mother and brother already lived in the Washington area, brought her sons here in the fall of 2009.
“For my son’s futures,” Manzano said in Spanish in an interview. “New opportunities in education and work.”
Though Robinson studied English in the Dominican before moving, he knew little of the language upon his arrival. “There, English is different,” Manzano said.
On the baseball field, though, Mateo quickly found a home playing with the Dynasty.
“I remember meeting him and his brother — they were here for a week and they knew no English and of course were a bit shy,” said Dynasty President Antoine Williams, who also coaches at Maret, which plays St. Albans in Sunday’s first game at 9:30 a.m.
Williams was unsure quite what to expect from the brothers. His friend, Franklin Rivera, who is the boys’ uncle, had alerted Williams that the boys were coming and ready to play.
“I’ve heard this story before, not just from Franklin,” Williams said. “Many people have called and said they have kids coming and they’re really good. [But] when I saw them play it was, ‘Oh, wow, they are really good.’ ”
The brothers initially attended Bell for a few weeks before transferring to Wilson so they could play for the Tigers’ powerhouse baseball team.
“It was easier [at Bell] because there were more Latino people; at Wilson there are not as many Latino people, but I have a couple teachers that help me and the ESL program helped me a lot,” said Mateo, whose daily commute includes two bus rides and takes more than an hour. “It was not easy. It’s like you’re a baby, learning to talk and communicate with people. I needed to listen to little kids’ songs, watch little kids’ shows, watch cartoons. It was the worst. It’s still tough.”
Making the assimilation a bit trickier, when his mother moved in with Chavarria in the Riggs Park neighborhood in Northeast, Mateo continued to live with his grandmother and uncle in Northwest near the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was partly to look after his grandmother and partly so he could have more space.
“It’s different waking up everyday in the morning and [Pedro] is not there, it’s a different life,” Mateo said. “But we have to got through it because we’re not always going to be together. There’s things that happen in life.”
The changes in Robinson have been noticeable, said Manzano, who works as a housekeeper at Georgetown Prep. He is more responsible, more disciplined and more focused on schoolwork, she said.
“He came here to play baseball and get a degree,” Wilson first-year Coach Jimmy Silk said. “He’s very solid in school. English certainly is not his first language, but he has adapted extremely well to the culture here and he has a lot of people around him who care a lot about him.”