Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

NFL Lockout Raises Question of MLB Recruiting Reforms

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As the NFL lockout nears an end, its resolution will almost certainly redistribute income from incoming rookies to veteran players.  The same could be the case in impending Major League Baseball (MLB) negotiations, where the interests of Caribbean youth might be sacrificed to those of the league and its current players.

Historically, top NFL draft picks yet to play a down received larger contracts than players who had proved themselves over seasons of bone-crushing, concussion-inducing play.  But as owners and players negotiated distribution of the players’ share of revenue, the 224 collegians drafted by NFL teams—who had no seat at the table—found their collective self-interests ignored.  Instead, the new contract will include a rookie salary scale limiting their pay.

A similar scenario could unfold in baseball.  The issue is whether Caribbean youth will be included in the annual player draft.  Currently, only players in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico reaching the age at which their high school classes graduate are draft-eligible.  Extending the draft internationally would include youth from the Caribbean, baseball’s most fertile recruiting grounds.

Dominicans alone hold a tenth of all major league roster spots and a quarter of those in the minor leagues.  Foreign-born players, overwhelmingly Latinos, constitute over 27 percent of all major leaguers and about half of all minor leaguers. 

Few rules govern the scramble for Caribbean talent—a reality that I describe in the forthcoming article “Baseball’s Recruitment Abuses” in the Americas Quarterly to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble stores beginning August 15.  Exemption from the draft is one of them.  Historically, clubs signed handfuls of poor young Latinos for small bonuses.  Most were soon discarded, but those who succeeded more than justified these investments because their cost was a fraction of the sums spent on drafted players.

Another rule bars teams from signing boys until July 2nd the year they turn 17.  The combination of this policy with free agency opened the way for the buscones.  These self-styled agents establish relationships with boys who they train and care for until they’re eligible to sign.  At that point, they shop their wards to major league organizations and take about thirty percent of boys’ signing bonuses and salaries for their troubles. 

This unregulated market, involving over a thousand buscones in the Dominican Republic alone, has caused scandals over drug use, age and identity fraud, and theft of bonuses and salaries.

Even more upsetting for major league teams—the average Dominican signing bonus has soared to almost $100,000.  That’s still half of what drafted players received, but a far cry from average 1990 bonus of $3,500, when Dominicans had yet to assert themselves in the player development system and buscones did not exist.

Inclusion in the draft would destroy a Latino’s free agent status and eliminate the competitive bidding pumping up signing bonuses.  A drafted player can negotiate only with one organization; a free agent can auction himself off to the highest bidder. 

There’s little reason to think that nearly as many Dominicans would be signed if they were draft-eligible.  About two-thirds of drafted players come from college baseball.  These players are older and more developed than sixteen-year-old Latinos.  And while high school graduates who think clubs are not offering them enough can accept college scholarships instead and re-enter the draft later, few Dominicans have that option.

Including the Caribbean in the draft would imperil the buscones, who have become integral to player development.  And Dominicans, pointing out that baseball declined in Puerto Rico after its inclusion in the draft, warn the same could happen to them.

Internationalizing the draft requires MLB Players Association to agree to it in the next agreement, set to begin in January 2012.  What position will Latino players take?  Allowing the draft’s expansion would likely mean that owners would make quid pro quo concessions to current players.  But it would mean selling out the interests of the next generation of Latino players.  Given that Latinos constitute a fourth of union membership, they could likely prevent this from happening.  Will they?

Player associations have been notoriously self-interested organizations.  They’ve done wonders for the pay, pensions, and benefits of their members, but little to address the needs of retired players.  Now, they confront whether to move beyond self-interest and consider the boys back home.

Rob Ruck
is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a University of Pittsburgh historian, author of Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Beacon Press: 2011) and author of “Baseball’s Recruitment Abuses” appearing in the Americas Quarterly Summer 2011 issue to be released on August 10, 2011.

Tags: Baseball, Dominican Republic, Sports
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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