Leal battles language barrier to play
Junior learned English, softball skills to play in United States
OKLAOMA CITY -- Baylor senior shortstop Dani Leal was a high school student in her hometown of Mexico City, Mexico, when the softball coach at Pratt Community College came to town and held a tryout camp.
“I went just for fun,” Leal said. “I never thought he would call me. My senior year, he called me and wanted me to play for him.”
Leal, who spoke hardly any English at the time, decided to travel to the United States and pursue both softball and a college education.
“I spoke a little (English). Just the basics, just to survive,” Leal said. “But I couldn’t really have a conversation with anybody. It was hard for me. I needed to listen, translate and then speak it a little bit. It was hard for me. It was tough to learn the language, but in six months I was able to have a conversation with my teammates.”
Leal, who has an older brother and a younger brother, had the support of her family when she chose to leave home—and her home country—at a young age.
“They really didn’t like the idea of me going away, being 17 years old, but they were like ‘This is what you like and this is what you want, we’re supporting you. We’re just going to miss you every day,’” Leal said. “I talk to them every other day. My mom calls me. She still misses me and asks ‘When are you coming back?’ She knows that I’m good here. My coaches take care of me very well. She knows I’m in good hands, so she’s good with it so as long as I’m OK, she’s OK.”
While playing junior college ball in Pratt, Kan., Leal also became involved with the Wichita Mustangs ASA travel ball program. It was through the Mustangs that she caught the attention of Baylor coach Glenn Moore.
“We had several of our players who played in that organization,” Moore said. “Through scouting them and through the coaches we were made aware of her. Then we liked what we saw and started recruiting her.”
The transition from Mexico City to the United States was not an easy one for Leal.
“I was very intimidated because I was going to come to the States with nobody,” Leal said. “My parents were at home so I was going to have to change pretty much everything. I had to get used to being on my own.
“It was very intimidating going to classes and not knowing what the teacher was saying. I couldn’t ask anybody for help so the first two months I was covering my ears. I only wanted to listen to Spanish.”
The soft-spoken Leal found herself homesick, but also found out something else: that she enjoyed softball enough to stick out.
“I was ready to go back home during Christmas break because the language barrier was pretty tough,” Leal said. “I went through off-season training and all of that stuff I guess coming back I was more into softball. That kind of helped me to [say] ‘OK, I’m going to learn English and I’m going to stay here because this is what I want to do.’”
“She spoke fairly fluent English when she came to Baylor and her English is better than mine by far now,” Moore said. “It’s probably better than anyone’s on the team because she learned it correctly and studied it so thoroughly.”
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As a junior in 2010, Leal started 47 games her first season with Baylor before a wrist injury ended her campaign on May 6. She collected a team-high nine home runs with 23 RBIs and 25 runs scored. This season, Leal is hitting .338 with 32 runs scored, six doubles, 11 stolen bases and team highs with 38 RBIs and 14 home runs. That goes along with a .950 fielding percentage as the Bears starting shortstop.
Those numbers speak well to Leal’s work ethic as she has made softball a priority.
“I had to get used to practicing every day,” Leal said. “In Mexico, softball was just a hobby to me. Getting here, it was kind of like a job to me. Going every day to practice and then playing hundreds of games, I had to work hard. I wanted to be the best I can be. I had to work hard and work extra with classes and on the field and everything. It was hard, but anything is [possible] when you want it.”
Moore believes that Leal has achieved that goal of becoming the best she can be.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Moore said. “She’s leading [the team] in home runs. She’s got a great arm, she’s got a great glove. I think she’s probably the best shortstop we’ve had at Baylor and she’s just an outstanding kid that everybody likes to fight for and play with.”
While Leal’s influence has helped propel Baylor to the program’s second WCWS appearance, her off-field influence is just as important to the Bears.
“Bringing that diversity of having someone outside of our borders come into our program and appreciate all the things that the kids that we have sometimes don’t has been great,” Moore said. “I include myself because we’re such a privileged country and at Baylor we have a lot of great donors that have provided the best in facilities and everything they need and everything I need as a coach is there. Bringing that aspect and that diversity into our program has made everyone step back and say ‘Hey. We do have it pretty good here.’
“Whether it’s a meal at a Golden Corral or an Outback Steakhouse or whatever, she’s always grateful. She’s done remarkable things to better herself in life. She inspires me as a coach and I hope I can tell her story for many more years so other kids can benefit from it.”