"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 independent."
In 1997 the Valles plan to take Esperanza 60 miles down the coast highway to San Pedro de Macon's, 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 As.
This season Valle will play for the As, 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."