Baseball Dreams: Striking Out in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, teens become prey to big-league dreams

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

On a sweaty evening in Santo Domingo, Ramon Genao, a towering, beer-bellied man who goes by the nickname Papiro, marches through a dark, dank barrio. Papiro is about to show me where, if he's lucky, the next Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz or Vladimir Guerrero resides. Papiro is a buscón, Spanish for searcher, one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of unlicensed scout-trainer-agents who scour the Dominican Republic for young, fresh baseball talent.

The D.R. is baseball's puppy mill. The buscones develop and sometimes feed and house these teenage players, with the intent of selling them to the highest bidder, a major league team willing to fork over thousands, if not millions, of dollars to secure a prospect. As a reward for their work, buscones typically pocket 25% to 50% of the prospect's signing bonus. Many folks in the Dominican Republic resent being labeled a buscón because of the term's other connotation: swindler.

A dead cockroach the size of a catcher's mitt rests on the side of the stairway. Papiro ushers me into an apartment that is a comfortable fit for no one yet lodges five of his pupils, all from 15 to 18 years old. In the "living room," there's not a single furnishing other than a few plastic chairs. The light doesn't work in one bedroom, and in another, a crater in the floor could swallow you whole. Only air drips from the kitchen sink. Papiro shows off the "terrace": it's a crunched, pitch-black walkway that houses a heap of trash.

In a country as poor as the Dominican Republic, these quarters are an upgrade for many impoverished teenage boys. Still, even Papiro knows the place isn't pretty. That's by design. First and foremost, Papiro is an investor. And if these hopefuls don't work hard and sign a contract, he'll lose money. "If you make things too comfortable, in the morning they'll never wake up," says Papiro, through an interpreter. "I'll give them vitamins and food. But no comfort."

Aside from the U.S., more Major League Baseball (MLB) players are born in the Dominican Republic, a nation of 9.7 million, with a per capita GDP of $8,300, than any other country on the globe. Of the 833 major league players on opening-day rosters, 86 of them, more than 10%, hailed from the D.R. Next highest? Venezuela, with 58. About a quarter of the 7,000 minor league players are from the island nation that shares a border with Haiti.

Baseball, which has been played in the D.R. since the late 19th century, glorifies the rags-to-riches tales of so many Dominicans who make it to the majors. But buried beneath these charming yarns are the often cruel, sometimes criminal, ways in which all that Dominican talent gets curated. The absence of a school-based sports system forces teams to lean on buscones like Papiro. These trainees find prospects, sometimes as young as 11 or 12 years old, and tutor them in baseball so they can be signed once they turn 16. Buscones often pull kids out of school — Papiro's players, for example, attend class once a week — to focus them on baseball. They have huge economic incentives to cheat. Age fraud and performance-enhancing drugs, which in the Dominican Republic can be bought like candy, are rampant. The families of these players see the sport as the only way out of abject poverty.

To its supporters, the buscón system offers hope to many who have none. After all, in a country where even doctors and lawyers often make little money, why go to school? To critics, that kind of thinking is a cop-out that lowers the country's expectations to dangerous levels. "In some ways, it's like human trafficking," says Arturo Marcano, a sports attorney who has written extensively on the effects of baseball globalization in Latin America.

Major League Baseball has finally recognized that Dominican baseball is broken. Still, the league deserves its fair share of blame for this mess. Several team employees have been fired for taking kickbacks from buscones. In 2000, MLB opened an office in Santo Domingo to oversee its Dominican affairs, but the league has admitted that its efforts have been underfunded. The living conditions in the baseball academies, created by MLB teams to train their Dominican signees, have vastly improved over the past decade. Many could use a face-lift, though.

What MLB can't fix is the withering math of the professional game. Over the past decade, just 2% of Dominican players who signed with a team have made it to the majors. The country's roadsides are lined with the failures — those who gave up school to chase a baseball career only never to see a single offer from a big-league club. Baseball has provided many real economic benefits to the Dominican Republic, plus immeasurable psychic delights to its citizens. But with these benefits comes a great social cost. "It borders on child exploitation when you're a dream merchant," says Charles Farrell, an American based in the D.R. who is trying to start a baseball-centric high school there, "and not delivering the dream."

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