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From issue: Sports: Business, Integration and Social Change (Summer 2011)

AQ Feature

Baseball's Recruitment Abuses

Unscrupulous agents prey on young Dominican players. It's time to clean up their mess.

Baseball may no longer be the national pastime in the United States, but it remains a pan-Caribbean passion. No other region celebrates the game with such panache or sends so many stellar players to the major leagues. f you visit any ballfield in the Caribbean, it will be hard to miss the talent scouts lurking on the sidelines, systematically picking off young boys who show flashes of athletic promise. But Caribbean baseball’s success has a dark side. The promise of multi-million-dollar payoffs in the north has triggered unscrupulous tactics by a growing industry seeking to profit from the region’s juvenile talent.

The high-stakes game for recruits and prospects has given rise to a feeding frenzy involving a wide range of players, from local talent-spotters and foreign investors to nongovernmental organizations and representatives of Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. The lives of boys and the game’s honor—at least what’s left of it—hang in the balance.

So does baseball’s potential to serve as a way to strengthen local communities and economies in the region.

Since Jackie Robinson opened Major League Baseball to darker-skinned players in 1947, the trickle of Latin Americans to the majors has become a torrent. They now comprise more than a quarter of all major leaguers, about half of all minor leaguers, and they dominate the ranks of the game’s best players. Latinos won half the Silver Slugger Awards—given to the best offensive players at each position in the National and American Leagues—last season and represent a staggering 40 percent of the players nominated for the 2011 All-Star game.

The Dominican Republic, a country of only 9.3 million, accounts for more than a tenth of all major leaguers, with 86 players on opening-day rosters this year. Players from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia represent another 17 percent of major league players. And rosters are also sprinkled with dozens of Hispanic Americans who grew up in the United States.

These players have turned baseball into a multi-billion dollar Caribbean industry, especially in the Dominican Republic, the game’s regional epicenter. In addition to about $1 billion in salaries paid annually to professionals from Latin America and the Caribbean, teams spend approximately $100 million per season operating some 40 year-round baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. They also pay several hundred million dollars in signing bonuses each year to boys who then enter the Dominican Summer League, the cornerstone of MLB’s player development system.

This bonanza has spawned a profitable market in young talent and made the procurement of Latino players akin to the trafficking of children. Most of these boys are poor and lack good counsel, but they benefit from MLB policies that exempt them from the draft and prevent them from signing contracts until the year they turn 17. This minimum age was instituted after the Toronto Blue Jays were derided for signing a 13-year-old Dominican boy, Jimy Kelly, in 1984.

The rule, though, has also created an opening for self-styled agents known as buscones (from the word buscar, to search) who lure boys as young as 13 to their own training facilities—with the promise of developing their baseball talent—until they are old enough to be peddled to major league teams as free agents.

The exemption from the annual draft (restricted to boys from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico who have reached the age at which their high school class would graduate) means that Latin American players can begin their careers as free agents. As Latinos have become more sophisticated about the workings of the baseball industry, that loophole has led to increasingly lucrative signing bonuses for top prospects, further fueling the buscón industry. For their part, teams abhor paying these sums, and view the inflation in signing bonuses with trepidation.

Exploitation and Deceit

In 1990, major league clubs signed about 300 Dominican boys to contracts for a total of $750,000. Most received bonuses of between $2,000 and $5,000. Fifteen years later, the average signing bonus for the 407 young players who signed in 2005 had risen to about $33,000. And then the full impact of the buscones began to hit. In the first four months of 2011, the 188 boys signed by major league organizations received bonuses averaging almost $131,000.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller
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The bonus spiral has upped the rewards and spurred competition among buscones. In the Dominican Republic, more than a thousand buscones search for boys they hope to turn into saleable commodities. In return for investing in a young player, the buscón takes as much as a third of the bonus and salary if a prospect signs professionally. Several buscones run their own academies, sometimes backed by U.S. investors and agents who see these kids as a futures market.

But no laws govern the buscón-boy relationship. Parents, who are most often poorly educated and know little about the business of baseball, rarely serve as a check on less-than-ethical buscones.

The higher-end facilities, like one operated by former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic Hans Hertell and former Yankees Chairman Steve Swindal, offer comfortable quarters and competent instruction. Perhaps a dozen buscones aspire to fill this niche. But most run ramshackle accommodations filled with vulnerable boys.

For some of the aspiring players, a buscón’s intervention is the best thing that ever happened. The buscón will facilitate player development, create a market for their talents and drive up bonuses. Few buscones, though, see to it that their young charges remain in school; many are more like hustlers than surrogate fathers. They might steal from a boy, enmesh him in career-damaging fraud (several boys have been suspended or had contracts revoked after being caught lying about their age) and even administer performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the guise of B-12 shots to add pop to a player’s bat or speed to his fastball.

Scores of Dominican minor leaguers have been suspended for the use of illegal PEDs, with players in the Dominican Summer League having the highest rate of positive drug tests for PEDs in professional baseball. The deception doesn’t play well on the receiving end. Major league clubs do not enjoy being made the fool when a steroid-enhanced prospect’s towering shots turn into lazy fly balls or his fastballs lose 10 miles per hour after he stops juicing.

Other buscones falsify birth certificates to lower a boy’s age, knowing that ballclubs pay more for younger prospects who might have higher upsides. The Washington Nationals were caught flatfooted when they paid $1.4 million to 17-year-old Esmailyn ‘Smiley’ González in 2006, only to find out he was neither 17 nor Esmailyn González. Instead, he was 21-year-old Carlos Álvarez Lugo posing as a relative, a boy with disabilities who rarely left his home in a small rural town. Those who knew of the deception were either bought off or gladly cooperated to benefit the families involved.

These issues led MLB owners to send Sandy Alderson, a former executive with the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres, to the Dominican Republic in 2010 with a mandate to reassert control over the player development system and restore their profitable control over the talent it produces. Alderson spoke of creating MLB-run youth leagues for Dominicans under age 17 to displace the buscones, and called for drug-testing and fingerprinting prospects as young as age 15 to create a database to verify age and identity.

But he ran into criticism for his plans as well as his demeanor. Alderson “came into the Dominican Republic with an air of imperiousness and a swagger that can only be likened to the U.S. Marines invading a Caribbean nation,” said anthropologist Alan Klein. Buscones feared that Alderson’s agenda would weaken their grip on talent and that MLB intended to undercut free agency by extending the draft to the Caribbean, thus driving down signing bonuses. In response, the buscones, along with the boys they train, demonstrated against Alderson outside the hotel where he was meeting with MLB scouts during his visit to Santo Domingo.

But Dominican concerns were allayed, at least for the time being, when Alderson resigned his position after the 2010 baseball season to become the New York Mets’ general manager. Further expansion of the draft awaits the next collective bargaining agreement (December 2011), and it would require the Major League Baseball Players Association’s approval. While Latin American ballplayers will oppose extending the draft, the Players Association might be willing to allow it in exchange for other concessions from owners.

These aborted and timid efforts by MLB to address the exploitation of young baseball talent in the Dominican Republic underscore the responsibility of Latin Americans themselves. The delay in action by MLB gives the region a chance to clean up player recruitment and limit the damage buscones and foreign investors can do to its baseball patrimony, before MLB seizes greater jurisdiction.

Baseball's Caribbean Roots

And it is their patrimony. In the Caribbean, baseball is as much a part of the cultural heritage as it is in the United States. And in the former, it remains vital, as the U.S. game loses ground to football, soccer, basketball, and other sports.

The Caribbean began to embrace baseball in the 1860s after expatriate Cubans, including students, brought the U.S. game back to the island. What they took home was not simply sport. Baseball, historian Louis A. Pérez Jr. has written, was soon perceived as “a paradigm of progress.” It did not take long before Cubans made baseball their own game.

By the late nineteenth century, in the eyes of those struggling to end Spanish colonialism and welcome the twentieth century, Cuban baseball had become a symbol of modernity and democracy. Bullfighting was linked in Cuban minds to Spain’s brutal colonial rule, while baseball was idealized as a sport in which distinctions of class, race and gender could be set aside, an arena where mobility and freedom prevailed.

While baseball’s image as a sport free of racial constraints could scarcely have been imagined in the U.S., it rang true in Havana in the early 1900s. Segregation in the U.S. confined African Americans to their own teams and leagues, but the Cuban game was multiracial. Its ballfields reflected the racial diversity of the Cuban people. Each winter they played host to the best North Americans, white and black. Cuba, of course, was not immune to racial prejudice, but for decades, the Liga Cubana was the only place in the world where the best ballplayers of all nations and colors competed with and against one another.

And it was the Cubans who brought baseball—their multiracial version of the game—to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

By the early 1900s, North American clubs were visiting the island. As much of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean adopted baseball as its sport, these U.S. teams began to see the region as an ancillary source of revenue. Major league teams barnstormed there during the winter off-season, playing local squads or each other with a share of the gate receipts and bragging rights as their rewards.

In addition, individual Major and Negro Leaguers picked up paychecks by joining island clubs during the winter season. They joined Latin Americans of various hues on teams that paid minimal attention to racial issues.

The better Latin American players, meanwhile, journeyed northward each summer. Although these men might have been teammates in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean, in the U.S., the lighter-skinned players joined a major league club or one of its minor league affiliates, while their darker counterparts competed in the Negro Leagues.

For a quarter of a century, professional baseball in the U.S. and the Caribbean peacefully co-existed. Then, in 1937, Caribbean baseball posed its first challenge to U.S. professional baseball. That season, emissaries of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo raided the Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawfords for players who could bolster his club, Los Leones de Ciudad Trujillo, as it contested the Dominican title. The Leones won their championship, but the Crawfords—black baseball’s leading club—never recovered from the defections of nine of their players, including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson.

Mexican entrepreneur Jorge Pasquel soon posed a far more serious threat. After reorganizing the Mexican League in 1940, he signed scores of the best Negro Leaguers and Cubans to play in it during World War II. Afterwards, in 1946, Pasquel not only continued to seek top Negro League and Cuban players, but pursued major leaguers, too. He paid top dollar, treating players with the kind of personal touch they had never received from major league moguls, and offered African-American and Afro-Caribbean players a progressive atmosphere where race hardly mattered.

Already concerned about its own future—racial integration and player unionization were on the horizon—Major League Baseball attacked the Mexican League. It blacklisted North American players who jumped to Mexico, warned Cuban teams and players not to cooperate with Pasquel, and even made concessions to major league players to stave off Pasquel’s effort to create a league that would rival the U.S. major leagues.

If the Cuban league had joined with Pasquel to create a combined summer and winter league operation, he might have pulled off his audacious plan. But when Cuba fell into line with MLB, and after sustaining huge financial losses, Pasquel ended his challenge to the major leagues.

Soon, winter leagues in Cuba and elsewhere in the region accepted Major League Baseball’s authority. MLB determined under what conditions their players, including Latin Americans, could play in these leagues. Within a few years, only the Mexico league retained a summer schedule. The rest shifted almost exclusively to winter play.

Mexican baseball went its own way, and MLB agreed that Mexican players who signed first with a Mexican team could not be signed by a major league organization. Mexican teams, for their part, stopped raiding major league clubs.

This would favor MLB for years to come. Cuba, meanwhile, left MLB’s orbit after the Cuban Revolution. Still, Cubans continue to play baseball at the highest level, but mostly as a noncommercial game that has become an instrument of statecraft and internal cohesion. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted the Cuban economy in the 1990s, though, the lure of major league contracts has seduced many players to defect and sign with U.S. clubs.

While MLB salivates over the prospect of Cuban talent once the island normalizes relations with Washington, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the rest of the region have more than made up for the absence of Cuban players.

Fixing the System

MLB has long benefited from the supply of talented players coming from the Caribbean, profiting immensely by signing players for tiny bonuses and discarding all but the few who make it professionally. In 1957, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal received $500 when he signed to play for the New York Giants. Thirty years later, the Los Angeles Dodgers paid Pedro Martínez $6,500, while the Texas Rangers signed Sammy Sosa for $3,500. Their signing bonuses seem laughable by current standards. Buscones, by forcing teams to bid for their clients, have pushed bonuses skyward, sometimes topping $3 million or even $4 million.

But too many boys aspiring to become multi-millionaire peloteros become casualties instead. In recent years, often aided by buscones, many players have been shamed by steroid use, and lies about age and identity have ensnared others. Latin American players, particularly Dominicans, have become complicit in the game’s ethical decline. It is up to them to institute the reforms that will restore ethics to Caribbean baseball and preserve its rich cultural legacy.

So far, reforms have been slow in coming. Dominicans—including President Leonel Fernández, ballplayers Felipe Alou and Juan Marichal, and ex-major leaguers like Winston Llenas and Junior Noboa—must be bolder in reclaiming the island’s baseball infrastructure. A few, notably Noboa, have built and rented academies to major league clubs, but there is still more to be done.

Several former players and NGOs have begun building baseball academies that compete with the buscones. They include the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy, the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, and the International Baseball Academy of Central America in Nicaragua. Some are profit-oriented; others emphasize education and building the fabric of society via baseball; still others emphasize instruction in religion alongside baseball. Nicaraguan Hall of Famer Dennis Martínez has opened an academy on his country’s Pacific coast; Pedro Martínez and his wife, Carolina Cruz, are developing one in conjunction with a school in Manoguayabo, his home town.

Taking ownership of the game also means spearheading the effort to stop abuses in player procurement and development, and holding MLB to much higher standards than in the past. Priority must be placed on reclaiming the job of player development from the buscones.

This will not be easy, given the stranglehold buscones have over the system. MLB teams feel they have little choice but to deal with buscones, even though the league has committed itself, at least rhetorically, to implementing higher standards of scrutiny regarding age, identity and drug use. As the driving economic force in the business, MLB will need to be part of the solution to the problems plaguing Latin baseball.

But who will hold MLB accountable? Left to themselves, major league teams will enact measures that drive down player development costs and minimize the embarrassment of any scandals. Instead, MLB needs to invest more in young players’ education so that viable options exist if professional baseball careers do not work out. Attorney Adam Wasch has called for MLB to adopt a corporate code of conduct on child labor modeled on the codes adopted by several multinationals after troubling scandals in their plants in developing countries. But some entity will need to police such a code. The bottom line is that given how much profit MLB has derived from Caribbean baseball talent, the league should invest more in the social fabric of the region.

Nor should the MLB Players Association be left off the hook. For once, this notoriously self-interested guild needs to think about the needs and rights of those who are not its members. They should oppose the extension of the draft to the region, barring major reforms that protect the rights and interests of its youth.

Without greater initiative by Latin Americans to force action, there will be irreparable damage to the sport. If Caribbean baseball becomes little more than a predatory business, it will not only be young people who suffer—but fans in stadiums from Santo Domingo to New York.

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