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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The buscones' fear is that if a single team acquires a Dominican player, that team has all the leverage. In the U.S., a top high school prospect can go to college if he gets a lowball offer from the team that drafted him and re-enter the draft later. Dominican prospects don't hold that negotiating card. "Our kids don't go to school," says Astin Jacobo, a trainer from San Pedro de Macorís. "Our kids don't go to college. We don't want to fall into that trap."

That trap is the fate of Puerto Rico. After the U.S. commonwealth became subject to the draft in the 1989, the number of Puerto Rican signees remained flat, while those in the D.R. skyrocketed. Dominican stakeholders worry that a draft would reduce both the number of players signed and their bonuses, giving young Dominicans less incentive to chase a baseball career. "The factories would be shut down," says Papiro, the buscón from Santo Domingo.

That's exactly the point, argue draft proponents. Without buscones shopping prospects to the highest bidder, a draft would curb their influence. Baseball could also require that Dominican players graduate from high school to qualify for the draft, as it essentially does for Americans. Such a rule would spike school attendance across the island and perhaps force the government to improve education.

Selig has publicly expressed his support for the international draft. The issue stirs such passions that when Alderson first arrived in the D.R. in April, buscones staged a heated protest outside his hotel. Alderson has repeatedly insisted that he is not in the country to enforce a draft, though he won't rule out the possibility.

Alderson has reached out to some of the top buscones, but Dominicans are still chafing at his meddling. "They are imposing themselves instead of coming down to negotiate," says Jacobo, who is not ready to profess full trust in Alderson. "We are the ones making the kids, taking them and selling them. We have to have a say in the decisionmaking ... They're still the sheriff."

Alderson recognizes the sensitivity of the situation and understands the resistance. But he's not apologizing. "This is an American company, this is an American institution functioning in this country, and there's no reason why someone like myself shouldn't be here," he says. And his intentions are clear. "People are making a lot of money based on a system that is flawed," he says. "And they don't want to see change, it's as simple as that. From my point of view, change is coming. Whether they accept it or not."

Forgotten off the Field
Wander onto the side of almost any road in the D.R., and you'll understand why reform is urgent. There you're sure to bump into a common Dominican meme: the washed-up baseball player struggling to get by. Edgar Arias, for example, is hanging around the province of San Cristóbal one wet morning, mere minutes from the palatial Padres academy, with too little to do. Arias spent some time in the Los Angeles Angels camp two years ago, but he never got his signing bonus — he said he was going to get $70,000 — because the team found out he faked his identity. Arias, who says he stopped school in the 11th grade, claims a trainer told him to lie about his age so that he could secure a bigger bonus. "He was messing with my head," says Arias, 22.

Now Arias lives in a shanty he shares with seven other people. And like so many former players, he's cycling back into the same system that spit him out. Arias wants to be a buscón because that's where the money is. His players practice hitting in a trash-strewn space near his house, amid the wandering pigs, abandoned sneakers and empty bottles of booze. They pound stringy balls, many absent their cowhide cover, into a tattered net tied to a tree. They lift weights, which are nothing more than cement poured into tin cans, in a gutted-out space that feels like a dungeon.

If former players aren't hanging on as trainers, many take jobs as moped drivers or handymen. David Toledo, 21, left school after the 11th grade to concentrate on baseball but was never signed by a team. Now he says he goes weeks, if not months, between painting jobs, while still living in an area where little children roam naked. "My whole world came down," Toledo says about the moment he realized he wouldn't make it. When asked if baseball left him with anything, his mother is quick to chime in. "Nada. Nada. Nada," she says.

"We see so many former baseball players who are just disenfranchised with life," says Gary Hale, an American-born missionary who has started a school and baseball program in San Pedro de Macorís. "Even if they have a high school degree, they don't want to continue. They carry around a lot of guilt." While Hale is leaving the house of Nestor Fernandez, 31, the nephew of ex-major leaguer Tony Fernandez and a former farmhand of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Fernandez asks Hale to pray for him. He needs a job.

Not every former player feels pangs of regret. Francisco Hernandez, a truck driver from San Pedro de Macorís who spent over two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates academy in the late 1990s, has an eighth-grade education. "It's good to study," says Hernandez, 31, who says he took steroids. "But here there's no other option besides baseball to gain something quickly." Hernandez never made it out of the D.R., yet he won't dwell on any baseball failures. "Now my job is to prepare the best shortstop in the world," says Hernandez, "and that's my son." The boy is one.

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