By Trae Green
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
That was the first and most significant of what would be a life-lasting impression on Colby Wright. Even though the destination wasn’t actually a completely different world – it definitely felt like it.
The Dominican Republic hardly resembled the friendly confines of his native Castro Valley, California, nor was it as inviting as his temporary four-year home in Lawrence, Kansas.
But, there he was in December of 2012.
Fresh out of high school and just four months removed from enrolling nearly 2,000 miles away from home at the University of Kansas on a baseball scholarship, Wright found himself in the midst of not only a week-long baseball trip – but a life-changing eight-day trek - alongside 30 or so of his newest friends.
“It’s eye-opening is what it is,” Wright said as he snapped his fingers. “Just like that, you’re in a different state and then, boom. You’re in a different country.”
Kansas head baseball coach Ritch Price worked to schedule the trip south to the native-Latin community with the intention that his players, especially the younger ones, learn something about themselves in the midst of the overwhelming experience.
“We want our kids to appreciate the opportunity that the University of Kansas has given them,” Price said. “I took my guys to the Dominican Republic so that they could see the passion for baseball that exists on that island and the passion for baseball that those kids play with.”
The Jayhawks took part in eight baseball games with three contests against the Kansas City Royals’ Dominican team at their complex in Boca Chica, while squaring off against the Cleveland Indians’ Dominican team in San Antonio de Guerra. In addition, KU participated in two matchups with local amateur teams.
The competition in the Dominican Republic was really good, even somewhat surprising to Wright that kids who were three years younger than him were so advanced in the game.
“It was great to play the Indians and the Royals and see how talented those young guys are at 15 or 16 (years old),” Wright recalled. “Almost all of them are better than us.”
More important to everyone than eight simple baseball games, though, was the opportunity to provide help and offer service to people with lifestyles vastly different than their own.
Help came in many different forms. The Jayhawks hosted free fundamental baseball clinics to youth, visited an orphanage and prepared and delivered over 1,000 health kits to an impoverished sugar cane village.
“The poverty will put a tear in your eye,” Price said.
These were the memories that stuck with the then 18-year-old Wright the most.
When he was the age of the kids they met and embraced, Wright loved to wake up and spend the entire day outside at Lake Chabot near his house in Castro Valley. He and his friends would fish for rainbow trout, bass and catfish. When they’d get bored of that, they’d ride their bikes throughout the different winding trails encompassing the lake.
Here though, in the Dominican Republic, the kids had no idea what any of that would be like. Their priorities were much different.
Instead, these kids were elated to receive a bag of basic necessities like soap, or for an impromptu soccer game to break out with the Jayhawks at an orphanage.
The trip opened a new passion for travel, but it also put things into perspective for Wright. It’s not as though he was ever oblivious to the circumstances in different parts of the globe, it’s just that it’s completely different to witness what is some people’s normal life firsthand.
“It was great to just see the smiles on their faces and hear the laughter,” Wright said. “It was an awesome experience and I wish that I could do it again. It’s just an awesome experience – one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Still, after the time had expired on KU’s memorable holiday trip, he was left with one parting memory permanently burned into the back of his mind.
“One of my most memorable things was the smell of the Dominican Republic because they don’t have a disposal system like we have,” Wright explained. “Leaving the country, you could see all of the trash fires and that was eye-opening like, ‘Wow, we’re pretty blessed to live where we live.’”
The following spring - where they live, in America - Wright embarked on his first season as a collegiate baseball player. One that saw him experience a few bumps and bruises physically and emotionally while only seeing time in 11 of the Jayhawks’ 59 games.
The depth in KU’s infield, coupled with the nerves of a freshman playing in a Power Five Conference, led to Wright having to dig in and soul search what he wanted his remaining collegiate career to look like.
“There’s tons of talk and then obviously you talk with your family like, ‘Hey, did you make the right decision going all the way out to Kansas? Are you ready for the Big 12 Conference?’” Wright remembered.
Wright recalls leaning on his father quite a bit through that first season. Always his biggest baseball influence, John Wright also taught his son the value of perseverance and that with willpower, anything can be accomplished.
“I see how great of an attitude he always has, the integrity he has and how much he’s done,” Wright said of his father. “He lost his job in the financial crisis and then he ended up starting his own business and actually ended up taking his old business out of business. It was a pretty cool thing to see how far you can go with hard work.”
After completing 2013 just 2-for-9 at the plate, Wright met with Price for an end-of-season interview in which he promised to dedicate himself into transforming into a completely different player.
“He told me in the exit interview that he was going to lose 20 pounds and he was going to come back and be fast enough and agile enough to play second base and win the job,” Price said. “That’s exactly what he did.”
And did he ever.
Wright not only reconstructed the physical aspects of his game, but a combination of his father’s mentality and the first-hand experience of seeing what baseball means to people in other parts of the world, he showcased his revamped psyche as a player the next season.
“I played with a lot of nerves my freshman year,” Wright explained. “Then last year, I came out and played with a chip on my shoulder and a ‘nothing-to-lose’ attitude. I realized that everyone puts the pants on the same way I do.”
Wright returned for his sophomore season defying all expectations. He not only claimed the second-base job, but he was an integral part of KU’s postseason run to the NCAA Regional Tournament. At season’s end, Wright had etched his name onto the All-Big 12 Conference Second Team after hitting .314 and bringing in 21 RBIs.
Looking to ride the momentum from last season, Wright entered 2015 as KU’s headline player. A de facto team-leader as a junior, playing alongside a crop of underclassmen, Wright picked up in February right where he left off the previous year.
Before suffering an injury in mid-April, Wright had started 38-of-39 games. His batting average slightly dipped down to .264 in comparison to his sophomore campaign, but he reached base safely 43-percent of the time and had scored 29 runs – thanks to leaning-in to 18 pitches in the batter’s box.
Regardless of his second baseman’s injury, Price isn’t too concerned about Wright’s ability to effectively bounce back.
“He has to get healthy, relax and he’s got to let the game come to him,” Price said. “When he does those things, he’s one of the best players in our league.”
Now, with the remainder of his season in jeopardy, Wright is relegated to a leadership role in the dugout. However, the injury doesn’t stop him from also being one of the conference’s best in the classroom. A member of the Big 12’s All-Academic team throughout his career at Kansas, Wright’s main concern is obtaining his degree.
“Education is just part of the opportunity you get coming to Kansas,” Wright explained. “You’re coming to the flagship university of the State of Kansas and you’re a student-athlete. For free, I’m going to take the opportunity and not disrespect what they’ve given me and not care about school. I think it’s your duty as a teammate and as a Jayhawk to perform in the classroom as well as on the field.”
Nobody close to him is concerned about the success in-store for Wright’s the future. A year from now, he will be armed with a degree in sport management, but he still may not have a clear-cut career path.
“I always heard you want to know what you want to do and have a direction,” Wright said. “I know I want to do something that matters. I don’t want to just sit on a phone all day.”
With the knowledge bequeathed to him by his family and Kansas baseball; the life lessons of perseverance and cherishing every moment is leading Wright in hopes of sticking with the sport that has brought him to where he is today.
Whether that be as a player, a scout or a front-office member, all he wants to do is experience anything and everything, and not just in the United States. The trip to the Dominican Republic his freshman year makes Wright want to see what else the world has to offer – and what else he can offer to the world.“Absolutely,” Wright said. “That’s my dream -- to be able to travel. There’s just so much in this world that I want to experience and that I’ve already gotten to experience at such a young age. I just figure why not keep it going and see what I can learn.”