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.
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.
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.
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.
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.