While he’s not the guy who flashes the signals to the Dayton Dragon batters — he’s the first-base coach and that’s the duty of the coach at third — there may be no one better at the job than Luis Bolivar.
He proved that 13 years ago.
Back then he was a first-year player for the Dragons out of Maracay, Venezuela. He knew very little English and almost nothing about the new town in which he lived, but there was one thing he did know:
“She looks pretty!”
That was his first thought when he spotted the young woman with auburn hair who was sitting four rows behind the Dragons dugout during that night game in May 2003.
“I wasn’t playing that night,” he recalled. “In between innings I was looking up in the stands and I saw her and it was like ‘Wow! She is cute. There was like a brightness about her.’’
To better emphasize the reaction, he put the moment in context:
“I was not a wild guy. I had never done that before, but I started making signs to get her attention. And then one time our eyes crossed and I waved. But she turned around and looked behind her and when she looked back, I was like ‘No…no. it’s you!’”
He had been drawn to 24-year-old Kelly Collins, who grew up in Vandalia, had graduated from Butler High School and was working for a tax consulting firm in West Milton while raising her 2-year-old daughter, Kamryn, as a single mom.
Kelly had never been to a Dragons game before – she’d won tickets at work – and was sitting with a girlfriend.
“All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see this guy trying to flag somebody’s attention,” she remembered with a smile. “He was looking in my direction, but I had no idea it was me. He kept motioning and finally, I was like ‘Me?’
“He nodded, but I thought it was some kind of joke and didn’t pay much attention. But he was persistent and all through the game he kept making eye contact and finally he’s motioning for me to talk to him after the game.
“He had this infectious smile – it just drew you in – and finally I told my friend, ‘Amy, I’m gonna go down and see what he says. He’s just so cute.’”
The pair met up afterward, though the conversation was limited.
“I couldn’t speak English and she didn’t know Spanish,” Luis laughed. “I just told her my name.”
Kelly smiled: “And he asked if I had a boyfriend and then asked for my phone number.”
After that Luis remembers: “Coming back in the clubhouse, so excited: ‘I’d met somebody!’”
Later, when he couldn’t get a ride back to the apartment he shared with other Latin players, he called her and asked if she could drop him off.
“I gave him a ride and we must have sat out there and talked until 2 a.m.,” Kelly said. “He just seemed like a genuine, nice, good-hearted person. I thought he was adorable.”
While slightly skewering the saying, Luis agreed: “It was love at first saw her.”
After that Kelly began to come to games regularly and they’d hang out afterward.
“I started carrying this little Spanish-to-English dictionary and if there was something I wanted to say, I looked it up,” Luis said. “Before I went to bed at night. I’d look up words I could use and practiced them.”
A guy known mostly as an infielder, he said he did master his own repertoire of pitches:
“How pretty you are!…You are beautiful…Love…Cute.”
“I figured if I put my mind to it I could learn English. It’s like playing baseball. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You just got to try.”
When Luis was sent back to Billings to play, Kelly went there to visit. When he returned to Venezuela to play winter ball, she made the trip there.
As Luis’s vocabulary – like their romance – grew, she made sure he understood one phrase:
She laughed at that: “When he asked me to marry him, I wanted him to understand what he was saying.”
During spring training in Florida in 2004, they were married on the beach at Siesta Key.
“Look how it worked out,” Luis said the other day as he sat outside the clubhouse at Fifth Third Field. “We live in Vandalia. We’ve been married 12 years. We’ve got four kids.
“It was just meant to be.”
A different script
While Kelly said “this is our love story,” she admitted the script – two people from different continents, different cultures, speaking different languages and growing up with different dreams – is one neither of them envisioned.
She was an only child. Her dad was a computer program writer and her mom, she said, worked nearly 30 years with autistic kids as a teacher’s aid in Montgomery County.
“My dream and passion was to be a mom and I pictured myself with a husband who had a 9 to 5 job,” she laughed. “I never in the world imagined this.”
Growing up near Maracay – in the north central state of Aragua — Luis had three siblings. He said his mom ran the household and his dad was a school teacher and an amateur baseball player of some note.
After graduating from a technical school – and with his mom pushing him toward electrical engineering – 17-year-old Luis was signed as a free agent by the San Diego Padres, who sent him to the Dominican Republic to play in the summer leagues.
“I was released after my second year and I was devastated,” he said. “After that I was like, ‘Pfffff, I don’t want to play no more. I’m done with baseball.’ But my dad encouraged me. He said, ‘You’re good. I know you can do it. Give it one more shot.’”
The Cincinnati Reds signed him and sent him to the Gulf Coast League in 2002. A year later he was in Dayton and returned here again in 2004, a season in which he represented the Dragons at the Midwest League All Star Game.
He would play 180 games in Dayton and after that spent five more seasons at Reds minor league stops in Sarasota, Chattanooga and Louisville before finishing his playing career in 2010 with a pair of Atlanta Braves farm clubs.
One of the most versatile players in the game, he played every position but catcher as a pro. He even won a game as a reliever at Louisville. In all, he played 964 minor league games, 282 of them at the Triple-A level.
Although he got close on a couple of occasions – he was the last guy cut from the Reds spring training roster in 2009 – he never got called up to the big leagues.
As his pro career began to wind down, Luis knew he wanted to stay in the game and after helping coach at Butler and at Ted Mills Baseball Instruction, he joined the Reds’ Arizona League staff in 2013.
He returned to Dayton as the hitting coach a year later and remains the only Dragons player ever to come back to the team in that capacity.
That he already was living here made for an ideal set-up.
While Kelly said their personalities are different – “we’re polar opposites, he’s more calm and reserved and I’m more opinionated and don’t have a filter and just say it,” – Luis said that was a plus:
“She’s got the red hair, the fire and I’m more laid back. I think that makes a good balance and that’s why we stay together. We make a good couple.”
Neither he nor Kelly know of another Dragons player who has married a local girl, though, Luis said there have been some romances.
He mentioned a Dominican pitcher from a couple of years ago and a young Dayton woman who had a child together and he said a player from last year has a girlfriend from here.
“There’s something about the girls and Dayton that brings the guys in,” he smiled.
‘No better place to be’
Kelly and the children – Kamryn, now a 15-year-old freshman at Butler High School, Luisa, an 11-year-old fifth grader, 5-year-old preschooler Zoey and 16 month old Enrique, who is known as Enzo – were at Fifth Third Field the other night as they often are for Dragons games.
They sat behind home plate and were immediately spotted by Luis.
“They’ve gotten to love baseball and they like being near me here,” he said.
While he admitted it was tough for him to adjust to life in Vandalia — especially the cold weather after growing up in Venezuela — he said: “I’ve gotten used to it, I guess. In my mind, with my kids and my wife here, there is no better place to be.”
While the constant travel and the possibility of uprooting each season make it challenging on a baseball family – especially for the wife who is left with a lot of the household and child-rearing duties – Kelly said she and the kids embrace it:
“We’re a baseball family. It can be tough, but it’s been good to us, too. When it comes to baseball, we’re lifers. If Luis wants to spend another 25 or 30 years doing this, we’re in it for the long haul. We like coming to the ballpark.”
That was evident the other night as Enzo pressed against the netting protecting the behind-the-plate seats and waved to his dad, who had stepped out of the dugout before the game.
“He loves coming here,” Kelly said. “He loves to go out on the field and play with Luis when he gets a chance.”
She said her husband acknowledges all of them when he can. During a game, she said he’ll wave or “give the kids a sign” to let them know he sees them.
And that reminded her of that first night back in 2003….except for one thing.
“He’s just as adorable as he was 13 years ago, but he’s cuter now,” she said with a bit of a giggle. “He just gets better with age.”