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

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A Baseball Education
In 1980, nine players from the D.R. were signed to minor league contracts; on average, they received a signing bonus of $1,266. Last year, teams signed 396 Dominican players; their average signing bonus was $94,023. That's a huge improvement, but in a league where the average salary is $3.3 million, it signifies that the deep Dominican talent pool can still be tapped relatively cheaply. It's why teams have made a huge investment in the island. If a Dominican boy is lucky, he'll enroll in one of the academies that major league teams have established to house, feed and train their Dominican players. By 2000, every team had created an academy or program in the D.R. Some resembled prisons. "Most of them were horrible," says Farrell, who was part of a group directed by MLB to study these facilities. "We found bugs in the rooms, cheese sandwiches for dinner."

Now, Farrell says, academy conditions are "light years" ahead of where they were a decade ago. Teams have invested millions to spruce up facilities or build new ones. The San Diego Padres, for example, spent $8 million building an academy in Najayo, about 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Santo Domingo. Driving in, you start searching for golf courses and tennis courts: the place feels like a resort. Palm trees stand in front of the main building; the rooms are shiny and air-conditioned, with two single beds and a bathroom.

Not all academies, however, resemble the Ritz. At the Cubs academy one hazy afternoon, 10 prospects piled into a room that, at best, could comfortably fit two or three. There were four bunk beds crammed into the space; two kids napped while sharing a mattress on the floor. Several players said they all lived in that room. I snapped a picture of the scene and showed it to Sandy Alderson, the veteran baseball executive who was tapped by MLB commissioner Bud Selig earlier this year to clean up the sport in the D.R. He said the conditions were "not acceptable," though he later insisted that not all 10 prospects actually lived in that room and that players sometimes sleep on the floor because it's cooler. Still, he stood by his "unacceptable" assessment. It's difficult to disagree with a Dominican man who also saw the scene. "It looked like f______ county lockup," he said.

The confines are much friendlier at the $5 million complex that the Pittsburgh Pirates — one of the worst teams in baseball — opened last year in a countryside town near the capital. Late one afternoon within the facility, the eyes of four players are fixed on a dry-erase board, on which a teacher is writing 11th-grade chemistry formulas. Eight more prospects, all over the age of 16 but with seventh- or eighth-grade educations, are being taught the basics of geometry.

Most teams require only basic English classes for their prospects. But if the Pirates, a small-market team with the lowest payroll in the majors, can afford to offer real schooling to the Dominican players, why can't everybody else? In their novel approach, the Pirates have partnered with a local education provider, and all players are required to be in the classroom for four hours a day, five days a week. In total, the Pirates' education initiative cost them $75,000 this year. That's a rounding error, even for Pittsburgh. Of the 31 prospects in the academy during this school year, 29 passed their current grade level. Five kids are expected to earn high school diplomas.

Is it baseball's duty to offset the failures of the Dominican government, which spends only 2% of GDP on education, one of the worst rates in the world? After all, baseball is a business, not a social agency. Surprisingly enough, Alderson, a Harvard Law School graduate who built the dominant Oakland Athletics teams of the late 1980s, talks about expanding baseball's social role. He is not downplaying expectations one bit. "We need to provide educational opportunities for players who have signed contracts, who are in these Major League Baseball academies," Alderson says. "We also have to figure out a way to provide similar opportunities to kids before they sign their contracts."

Right off the bat, Alderson can mandate that every team require its signed prospects to attend formal classes. In sports, only a numbskull would copycat a team that has suffered 17 straight losing seasons, as have the Pirates. But in the D.R., teams should be more like them.

Dominican Draft Dodging
Alderson has already taken steps to control the seedier aspects of the Dominican system. Beginning this year, MLB's Santo Domingo office fingerprinted and drug-tested the top 40 unsigned prospects. (According to a Dominican baseball source, about one-third of them tested positive for steroids.) This pilot program will include more players next year. Baseball is also starting antidoping education for unsigned prospects.

Most buscones have no objections to these measures. What really rankles them is the possibility of an international draft, in which players' negotiation rights would be assigned to teams, not put up for bid. Right now, Dominican baseball is a free-market enterprise; players can be signed by any team, at the highest price they can get, and the trainer-agents command a hefty negotiation fee. For prospects in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, a single team acquires the rights to them in a draft in which clubs make selections in a set order, with the most prized prospects taken off the board first.

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