The Dominican Baseball Machine

Commodity boom

Commodity boom

Apparently nobody was in the on-deck circle—an infraction punishable by an automatic out.

The shouting began from one dugout, alerting the umpire who enforced the rule, thus ensuring that the shouting would spread to the other dugout.

In the Tuesday night sandlot league, this could only end one way.

Soon both dugouts had spilled onto the dirt infield and upwards of 20 men surrounded the umpire, each shouting vigorously at the other. The line between banter and brawl seemed tenuous at best, though I never saw it crossed.

More than violent, these shouting matches were mildly entertaining and mostly tedious. Rain, power outages, unpaid bills—these were inevitable postponements to the weekly sandlot ball games in the heart of working class Santo Domingo.

The ten-minute bench-clearing shouting matches, however, were decidedly avoidable.

Begrudgingly, the players finally returned to their positions. As the shouting died down, the other sounds of the night reemerge: the slap of dominoes against plastic tables, the twang of bachata through a massive stereo, the clanging of kicked over Presidente beer bottles, the laughter of children watching from the bleachers, below the bright infield lights.

The ball players cursed under their breath, each vying for the last word, and dug into their pockets for rum soaked chewing tobacco.

A massively overweight dark skinned young man digs in at the batters box. The kid, probably between 20 and 25, had surely been part of some Major League Baseball team’s academy here in the Dominican Republic. Just like every other kid on the field, he had likely been lured from home and school by an assortment of shady scouts. He probably spent a year or two a few miles away at Boca Chica with los Phillie, or con los Met.

Maybe one of the team’s had even thrown him a couple grand as a signing bonus.

But, after a year or two, like every other sandlot player that humid Dominican night, he had been released: lo Phillie or lo Met had decided he did not have what it takes to ship him to the United States, so they cut ties altogether. Now, 17, 18, 19, these kids return to the city or the pueblo, still as professionally underdeveloped as they were when they were 12, 13, and 14.

But man, can they play ball.

The oversized hitter opens up on the first pitch and spanks the ball deep into the night. A righty, he pulls the junkball viciously over the leftfielder’s head, an imposing, athletic man himself who had played in the minors for the Atlanta Braves some years ago but more recently had been unable to pay the league’s five-dollar monthly fee.

The outfielder hardly bothers to turn his head. The ball disappears over the fence, then over the trees behind the fence. We don’t see what happens next but the noise of shattering glass is unmistakable.

Our rotund hitter flips the bat with that famous Caribbean swag and begins the slowest home run trot in the history of mankind. Before he reaches second, the dugouts are shouting at each other again.  Before he scores, the benches have cleared, the argument resumed.

Love in the Time of Curveballs

23-year-old Daniel Uribe has turned his crumbling Chevrolet into a makeshift taxi, and he navigates Santo Domingo’s traffic in punishing heat for 150 pesos a ride (US$4). He once had higher hopes.  At 15 he left school to play baseball in a Major League Academy.  Two years later he was released. He never returned to school.  “I guess it was a big waste of time,” he says. Then he flashes a million-dollar grin, “But I would give up a full plate of food – a full plate! – just to play baseball one more time.”

He is nostalgic. He is smiling. He misses his exit on the highway. He slams the Chevy into reverse, against oncoming highway traffic, in order to backtrack.

swinging

Baseball is to the Dominican Republic what reggae is to Jamaica. The art of the diamond has allowed this small, poor Caribbean country to pack a disproportionate cultural punch in the developed world. Since 1956, 542 Dominican ballplayers have ascended to the Major Leagues, and currently, a quarter of minor league ballplayers are from the island. World Series champions frequently have Dominicans at the top of the pitching rotation and at the heart of the batting order. From utility infielders like Wilson Valdez to megastars like David Ortis, they bring a joy de vivre (read: swag) that irks traditionalists (see: Carlos Gomez) but that has undoubtedly redefined acceptable on-field behavior.

They have also brought jaw-dropping skill.

Sometimes it’s adiós plate discipline. Everyone knows you can’t walk of the island. You could bounce a pitch to Vlad Guerrerro and he was still liable to stick it in the seats. Sometimes its consummate professionalism, as with Placido Polanco, one of the world’s smartest two-hole hitter over the last decade.

Purists have been forced to accept the untraditional exuberance Dominicans have brought to the field precisely because it is born out of a deep-seated love for the game. It’s a public love affair, shared at thousands of colmados, the open-air corner store cum bar where boys and men watch the Major Leagues from plastic chairs. It is shared on the thousands of unkempt fields teeming with youths in patched uniforms and improvised equipment.

It is in the face of Daniel, the 23-year old taxi driver- chewed up and spit out by the system, but still willing to trade a plate of food for one more at-bat.

Unfortunately, like many torrid love affairs, this one has an abusive side.

The Dominican Republic is fertile ground for Major League Baseball. American youths (and thus, Puerto Rican youths) are subject to an entry draft, in which players are selected by individual teams one-by-one. Typically around 18 or 19 years old, these draftees demand contracts worth millions of dollars that an organization must pony up before a kid has ever seen a major league pitch—let along proved that he can hit one.

Dominicans are not subject to this draft. Teams can sign young ballplayers at any time, at any age, frequently at a fraction of the price of an American draft pick. Moreover, Dominican youths offer distinct advantages over prospects from other foreign countries. Nicaragua, for example, is a baseball mad country (catch a Granada – Leon rivalry game, if you don’t believe it), but Nicaraguans are generally not the biggest of people. Anyone who has been in a locker room full of Dominican prospects can attest to the superhuman physical fitness and strength they often possess.

Essentially, these Dominican youths are exquisite raw material available to Major League baseball teams at dirt-cheap prices. It is sickening to think of it this way, but that does not make it untrue. And this is only the surface of the unbecoming elements of the Dominican baseball machine.

Welcome to the machine

Welcome to the machine

North American kids are drafted at around 18 or 19. That is ancient in Dominican years. Scouts pick up on Dominican youths around 12 or 13, and major league baseball teams have often determined if a kid can ball by the time he turns 15 or 16. This of course, incentivizes age lying and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) during formative years (the fact that Major League Baseball has mounted a major campaign combating both of these trends attests to the existence of the problem).

And yet, we are still only at the surface of the problem.

If we accept the gruesome truth that these kids are commodities, we see that the supply chain does not shoot directly from San Pedro de Macorís to Yankee Stadium. Rather, the players pass through a series of local scouts called buscones.

A buscon finds a kid, trains a kid, and eventually attempts to sell the kid on to a bigger more prominent buscon. This chain continues until a buscon is able to land a kid in a major league camp. The buscon is paid a percentage of any deal (often far greater than that paid to an American agent). Along the way, the kid is likely pulled out of school to train. He may be exposed to PEDs.

The buscon can attempt to strike a fatherly figure, but their true motives—and allegiances—are questionable. Take the case of Daniel, the taxi driver. According to him, the Arizona Diamondbacks had offered him a US$20,000 signing bonus. Apparently the buscon thought Daniel could do better, and advised him not to sign. Things didn’t pan out, and Daniel got US$0. I have been to Daniel’s apartment, where three generations live in a few small cinderblock rooms. 20 large would have gone a long way for them.

Either way, under a buscon, a prospect is unlikely to develop skills that would translate to any professional career off the diamond.

And here lies the rub. The Dominican National baseball team that recently won the 2013 World Baseball Classic has a combined annual salary of over USD$100mn. Everyone on the island knows this. What they may not know, or not want to believe, is the extreme odds against any one Dominican ballplayer making it just to the American minor leagues.

Anyone know where I can get some Mofungo?

Anyone know where I can get some Mofongo?

Even when a kid is picked up by a Major League Baseball academy on the island, his odds of reaching the big leagues are still below 5 percent.

Everyone else ends up mashing junkyard pitches in the local sandlot league, or slamming a taxi into reverse on a Dominican highway.

A Hanley Ramirez is a diamond in the rough. But finding such a diamond can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a buscon. So they cast a wide net. In the process, they end up pulling far too many kids from school, selling the allure of a big league contract, and ultimately leaving them high and dry.

Dominican ballplayers may not know how to take a pitch, but they don’t take their eye off the ball. Forced to choose between baseball or school, they often choose baseball. Thus, on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday morning, kids are more likely to be on deck then on computers. Observing the complexes that can hold five or six fields, one can’t help but view the buscones as tending to this year’s crop.

From Baseball or School to Baseball in School.

There is no easy answer. But there are places to start.

Given the Dominican’s floundering school system, it is no surprise that the country lacks a recognizable high school baseball league. Baseball in school could give an exciting outlet to the country’s best players. Perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to play inter-mural ball could keep the more marginally talented players in class—especially if participation is based on school attendance.

Step one: From baseball or school to baseball in school

Step one: From baseball or school to baseball in school

Research suggests that high quality extra curricular activities can lower attrition, raise self-esteem, and develop a more profound relationship between a young person and a school. Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador have used football effectively in this capacity.

On the one hand, this would seem rather feasible. For the price of some balls, bats and administration the country could begin to address a long-festering problem. Who knows? With time, a high school league could even generate revenue. One could imagine a televised playoff, for example.

On the other hand, Dominican schools are already dreadfully underfunded. If additional flows were available, there are more pressing needs than baseball.

Multilateral institutions could step in to fill this gap. Currently, Major League Baseball is making a modest effort with its RBI program, but even an honest crack at corporate responsibility cannot address the root of the problem. Moreover, the inherent conflict of interest is obvious. Major Leagues Baseball is still far more interested in uncovering the diamonds in the rough—the Hanley Ramirez—than it is in educating the rest.

The Inter American Development Bank (IADB) should take on the task of putting baseball in school—it would fit directly into IADB President Luis Moreno’s strategy of incorporating sports into the bank’s development tactics.  The IADB has considered using grant money to fund classes in the Dominican Republic that use baseball to teach math and English in the classroom.

This would be unlikely to have the same effect as bats, balls and a well kept field. With the option to play ball at school, the game could be a magnate to keep kids in class, not a magnate pulling them away.

The IADB cannot solve the murky underworld that moves a Vladimir Guerrero from the Dominican backlands to US primetime—nor should it. Let the lawyers and advocates decide whether incorporating the Dominican into the major league draft would help or hurt island ball. The IADB and World Bank ought to focus on the thousands of youth that will never be drafted, that will never sign a contract.

This would allow kids like Daniel to have their plate of food and eat it too.

Homestand

Homestand

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6 Responses to The Dominican Baseball Machine

  1. Jolly traveler says:

    Plácido Polanco the best 2 hole hitter over the past decade? What a phillies fan. Derek Jeter spent the majority of his time in the 2 hole, and he parlayed that into 3,000 hits!

  2. argument accepted. article updated.

  3. Michael says:

    Roughly a third of all major leaguers are foreign-born and more than a third of those are Dominican–that means of any nine men taking the field, it’s likely only six are domestic products and that at least one is Dominican. Given the populations of the U.S. and D.R., it’s actually more than three times as likely a Dominican child will eventually make a major league roster than an American child.

    And the U.S. does have an “academy” system–it’s just parent (and later school) sponsored rather than funded by MLB teams. It would be great to see the Dominican “baseball machine” linked to education, but I believe that may actually result in far fewer making the big leagues–consider all the would-be American athletes who never played outside their own neighborhood because they didn’t even finish high school…

    BTW–I think you meant “teeming” with players and “formative” years.

  4. juanemil says:

    Sam, great article! You did a great job of providing a snapshot of the current problems in Dominican baseball. A few things:

    As far as the draft is concerned–I should add, Central America, Mexico, Venezuela and Asia are also excluded from the draft, and Japanese players have to wait 9 seasons before they can become eligible to be signed by an MLB team. The implementation of a draft in the DR, or an international one for that matter, would certainly threaten the current way Major League players are developed in the Dominican Republic. No team is going to bother “developing” a player to have him swiped by another team come draft time. I would instead propose the cap on signing bonuses, and create a minimum signing bonus as well, in order to try and even the playing field.

    Baseball and education— While school attendance is a major problem in high school, the real problem lies in quality, and the perception of what having a high school degree can actually get you. I think having baseball in schools would be wonderful, and maybe the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Youth could cooperate to that end. Even then, given the current system of recruiting, what would stop a 16 year-old kid who hasn’t finished high school from not wanting to sign for a hefty bonus? Not much. An international draft would probably raise the minimum age to 18– which maybe would also be necessary in order for this system of baseball in schools to work properly. While this would certainly not constitute a priority for education, I also don’t see it constituting a large investment, and a few pilot programs could be attempted in a few places to start.

    As far as education is concerned, in general, what about the kids who prefer to wash windshields at traffic lights? or those who choose to shine shoes, or wash cars instead of going to school? The fact is that a drastic overhaul of the education system is needed in order to get to a point where families in general perceive sending your kids to school to be a safer bet than playing the lottery and sending them to the baseball fields instead.

    Buscones— What a mess. On the one hand, charging 30-40% for a signing bonus and placing a kid in a position of uncertainty in terms of their career is certainly not good, but on the other hand, buscones do help discover hidden talent across the country in places an average MLB scout would not reach. Maybe they could be government regulated? The amount they charge can be limited potentially… who knows.

    As far as what’s good for Dominican baseball or not… as a Dominican, I’d much rather have a society of productive people, as opposed to going to great lengths to maintain our international baseball standing. Puerto Rico has had the draft since 1990, and despite what people say, it has not killed baseball there, as evidenced by their 2nd place showing in the WBC this year. Should buscones be eliminated? If it means more kids will thrive in life, so be it. Baseball will never die here, just as it hasn’t in Puerto Rico. Viva Dominicana.

  5. Pingback: Pumas, ALBA, Mercosur, and the Supposed South American Split | No Se Mancha

  6. ElMayimbe says:

    Sam, with the many characters, institutions, and influences that operate the Dominican baseball “machine,” you did a great job covering it thoroughly yet concisely. Some points in the article and the comments raised some thoughts/opinions. Sorry to hijack this post a little bit, but I felt obligated to submit a comprehensive response.
    The ten-minute bench-clearing shouting matches, however, were decidedly avoidable
    I would argue that these sort of outburst are unavoidable—a field full of Dominican peloteros is likely to erupt in joyous or scornful passion at any given moment. I grew up with the American mold of reserved, hard-nosed ballplayers that adhere to the voluminous book of unwritten rules of the game. This is a stark contrast to the Latino style of playing the game. Sure, maybe it’s not the traditional American way to play the game, but many people stateside forget that Latino— especially Dominican—baseball has a long, rich tradition as well.
    You put a few Dominican ballplayers on a US team and maybe they stand out for their flare or maybe they are more reserved in their uncomfortable surroundings (or maybe they just wait until they prove themselves before letting loose), but assemble an entire team of Dominicans and they will certainly feed off each other’s energy, creating a rollicking, exuberant product on the field. The Dominican team’s brash ascent to the WBC crown this Spring brought ire from many baseball traditionalists who simply do not understand the Latin style of playing the game. I used to be more along the lines of the obviously spiteful Tim McCarver (WBC broadcaster), who adheres to the policy of “act like you’ve been there before,” but now I think that American baseball’s culture could learn a few things from its Latino counterpart.

    Now, 17, 18, 19, these kids return to the city or the pueblo, still as professionally underdeveloped as they were when they were 12, 13, and 14.
    …played in the minors for the Atlanta Braves some years ago but more recently had been unable to pay the league’s five-dollar monthly fee.
    While school attendance is a major problem in high school, the real problem lies in quality, and the perception of what having a high school degree can actually get you. I
    Although baseball scouts watch baseball for a living, their employment is not necessarily a pleasant one. They are notoriously underpaid, sleep perhaps around 180 nights a year in hotels like the Motel 6 or Holiday Inn Express. They watch primarily disappointing players while suffering through the seething summer heat of dusty, mosquito-y, muggy, small, underwhelming ballparks throughout the country. Even so, the pool of potential scouts grows indefinitely. Why? How many options do you have if your resume is the following: 26 years old, high school education, only work you’ve ever known is seven years playing a game with other 20-something year old males, with no skills development except for baseball skills. Scouting becomes a pretty intriguing option when, upon your release from an MLB Club, it allows you to continue to get paid for the only thing you’ve ever known.
    Point: now put the released Latin ballplayer in the same shoes. He likely didn’t even go to high school, he was signed when he was as young as 16, what little education he got was mediocre at best, he has no family money to fall back on since he’s been his family’s only provider, and he must return home to the country where he’s spent at most about 4 months in for the last several years. He has even fewer options than a released US player! Even more troubling—if he is from an impoverished area and had chosen school over baseball, he would still be presented with pretty much the same job options. In a place where school does not lead to opportunity, where is the opportunity? Baseball, for one. But what happens when baseball is no longer an option?

    An idea from me:
    Raise the minimum signing age to 18 from 16. This would help in many areas. It would discourage steroid use and age/ID fraud by allowing these teenage prospects to physically mature in a natural way and feel less pressure to match their more quickly-maturing peers or the sky high expectations of scouts. It would also help scouts project which players have the ability to “make it’ and which ones don’t because they will have a longer track record of the player and because less imagination will be required to guess what the player will look like physically down the road (an important aspect of scouting). More efficient scouting means less players being put through the system with little chance of making it off the island, let alone the big leagues. Raising the age to 18 would also discourage buscones from having such large contingents of players because they would have to feed/house them for two more years. Buscones’s camps are often overpopulated with “fillers” who are just trying to cling onto a chance of signing or are just being used to be able to field a full team. These players are leaving school in order to chase their (and their family’s) false hopes of signing a contract.

    Lastly a quick note on Cubans…
    I encourage readers to check out this article (it’s pretty long…): http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/07/cuban_baseball200807. The topic of Cubans in US baseball is quite intriguing, particularly with the current influx of Cuban talent in the big leagues. While these players defect for their own personal interests, the other interested parties’ roles make these defections very similar to any other human trafficking case. The people extracting the players from Cuba may be shady middlemen who will transport any product, whether it be a boat of drugs, teenaged girls, or ballplayers. Once out of Cuba, the ballplayer goes to the highest bidder, rarely without complication. Perhaps a new topic for the blog…

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