Alumna credits CSUDH for her success in helping new Los Angeles Dodgers acclimate to careers in baseball.
Alumna Cathy Lara (BA ’93), senior manager of minor league instruction and education for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has always had baseball as part of her life. In fact, the sport even played a part in helping Lara decide to attend the university.
After high school, Lara was accepted into both CSUDH and Cal State Los Angeles and didn’t know which one to pick. A picture of a baseball player on the CSUDH flyer helped her make her choice. “I didn’t know any better and I love the game of baseball!” she laughs.
Lara is making her own mark on the sport in her position with the Dodgers, where she helms the education program for the organization’s minor league players. It’s her responsibility to help young players from around the world develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in the major leagues—and in life. Depending on their background, players might need to learn anything from English and Spanish literacy to banking and public speaking.
The team has academies in Arizona and the Dominican Republic, as well as five different affiliate clubs scattered across the country. As such, Lara spends a lot of time away from Los Angeles. “During the season, I’m in Arizona about four days a week, then come back here on the weekends,” she says. “I travel to each of our affiliate teams once a year, and visit the Dominican Republic four times a year. That’s where the bulk of our international players are, and they’re the ones who need the most help.”
In the Dominican Republic, children are only required to attend school through the fifth grade, so players end up at the Dodgers academy lacking in many non-baseball skills. “We get boys who come in at 16 years old, who’ve maybe finished fifth grade. Their education is below adequate—it’s been all baseball for them. Being inside a classroom is a foreign concept to them.”
Lara’s task is to help mold the young players into responsible adults capable of withstanding the rigors and trials of a life in baseball. Many of her young charges have never even been inside a bank, let alone know anything about how to open an account or cash a hefty bonus check. Many foreign-born players aren’t even fluent reading and writing in their native languages, so she and her staff have to get them up to speed there before working on English. “How can we expect them to learn to read and write in English if they’re struggling in their own languages?” she asks.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, it threw all of Lara’s—and the Dodgers’—plans into flux. Everything in the organization transitioned online, from coaching to Lara’s language courses. The MLB season was delayed for months, while players were stranded wherever they happened to be when the pandemic struck.
“We had some players stuck here because they couldn’t get back to their home countries,” says Lara. “Even our U.S.-based players had to scramble to keep training and stay in shape. Some players had to drive two hours to find someplace they could work out. We got one young pitcher in the Midwest connected with a local high school catcher, so that he could go to the park and practice.”
Even as the team has slowly transitioned back to mostly face-to-face interactions, Lara plans on continuing with some of the online learning options she was forced to adopt. “Moving forward, we’re going to be looking at a hybrid model,” she says. “For some, virtual learning worked great; for others, not so much. We want to use what we’ve learned over the past few years and create a system that works best for every player in the system.”
Lara didn’t originally plan on a career in education, but started taking on substitute teaching jobs to help make ends meet while she was pregnant with her first child. “I just got so much energy from the job and the kids that it all started to make sense for me,” she says.
Long-term sub positions eventually turned into a full-time position at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. Lara then moved to Chaminade High School in West Hills, where she served for 12 years as a teacher and chair of the school’s foreign language department. At Chaminade, she created an academic support program for student-athletes—a program similar to what she’s doing for the Dodgers now. Lara discovered the Dodgers opportunity while she was trying to help her daughter find employment.
“I showed the job notice to my daughter and she said, ‘Mom, that’s you! You’ve done all those things,’” Lara explains. After looking at her background, the Dodgers were excited to bring her into the newly-created position.
With the Dodgers, Lara has tailored individualized educational programs for everyone from teenage Dominican shortstops to twentysomething Korean pitchers. Each student has their own individual needs, so Lara works with a team of experienced teachers and coaches to develop classes that speak to them. “We’re dealing with a specific kind of person who’s very kinesthetic. They learn by experience. So I ask my instructors to toss the books and experiment, be creative,” she says.
She has been impressed with the Dodgers’ commitment to their young players. “I feel completely supported. The Dodgers have been incredibly open to exploring new ideas. They have the players’ well-being at the forefront of their thinking. They really do care about these young men being prepared for life in the major leagues and off the field, as well, because at some point baseball will end for everybody.”
Although the 2020 season had its share of COVID-related challenges, the Dodgers pulled together and made it a year to remember—capping it with a 2020 World Series win. One of the highlights of Lara’s stint with the club was the day that Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, flew down to the academy in Arizona and presented the staff with their very own World Series rings.
“It was so cool!,” says Lara. “My mother and father were both battling health problems, and it was great to see the effect it had on them. My dad, who came here with nothing, who’s been a fan and followed the Dodgers for years—for his kid to have a Dodgers World Series ring? It was very emotional.”
“Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump,” she laughs. “I’m just this suburban mom from The Valley, and now just from doing my work, I have a World Series ring! It helps bring home the whole idea that we really are a team here, working together, when everybody down the line gets a ring like that.”
Lara, a first-generation college student, is the child of parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. Her father worked in custodial jobs while her mother served as a nanny. Eventually the young couple saved up enough money to buy a house in Venice, which is where Lara grew up. As a young student, she didn’t really have college on her radar—she only applied to the CSU because one of her close friends did and Lara figured she’d give it a try. She was pleasantly surprised when she got the acceptance notice.
Lara credits CSUDH’s student success programs and professors for helping get her college career pointed in the right direction. “Dominguez Hills welcomed me, offered me a place where I felt I could belong, with class sizes that allowed me to be seen. I had professors who challenged me, who took time to know me. They gave me the opportunity to find my voice, to have enough confidence to ask for help, and validated my ideas.”
In particular, Lara pointed out CSUDH emeritus professors Jay Kaplan, and the late Lyman Chafee and Frances Lauerhass as mentors who helped guide her through her first years in higher education. “They created really safe spaces to express my ideas. Being first-generation and not really knowing anyone who was at a four-year institution, I really didn’t have anyone to talk to about problems I was having. But they really created the sense that I could talk to them about anything. I didn’t feel like I was getting lost in the system.”
I had professors who challenged me, who took time to know me. They gave me the opportunity to find my voice, to have enough confidence to ask for help, and validated my ideas.
Lara also credits CSUDH’s Summer Bridge program with making her feel that she could succeed on campus. “The Summer Bridge program was exactly what I needed,” she says. “Had I started off at the beginning of the school year, brand-new, without knowing the environment or knowing what the expectations were, I don’t think I would have done well. I think it would have been a little too much. I would have felt like a fish out of water.”
After graduating from CSUDH in 1993 with a degree in political science, Lara attained a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1995. She returned to USC 10 years later, earning a doctorate in education in 2015. She’s still a Toro at heart, though.
“I credit Dominguez Hills for taking a chance on a shy, average student, a young woman with no idea of what to expect,” she shared. “CSUDH provided the foundation to enhance who I could be, and allowed me to dare to look beyond the predictable. If not for that environment during my undergraduate studies, I would not have developed the fearlessness required to take the path less followed. That’s why I am so proud to be a Toro!”