Friday, November 1, 2013

Chasing Dreams: Baseball in the Dominican Republic

The Pittsburgh Pirates' baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Photo via Pittsburgh Pirates

By: Steve Uhlmann
Produced & edited by: Tim Tripp

  Every year, hundreds of teenage boys in the Dominican Republic pack their bags and take part in a rite of passage: professional baseball tryouts.
  Before they take the field, the dream seems so real. The fame, the honor, the money are all there for the taking.  As they field grounders and fly balls, only a few scouts watch. Given the stakes, it may seem more like 40,000 screaming fans during a World Series game to these young men.
  If the scouts like what they see, a contract and an opportunity to play in a team-affiliated development camp awaits. If not, it’s time to hitchhike to another locale to give it another try.
  Ever since Cuban immigrants escaping war in the late 1800s brought the game to the small island country, the Dominican Republic and baseball have had a close marriage. Even the poorest of the developing country’s youth learn the game with whatever they can get their hands on. Broomsticks were used as bats, rolled up socks served as balls and old milk cartons become gloves.
  Ozzie Virgil Sr. became the first Dominican to play in Major League Baseball in 1958, and since then many young boys have looked to professional baseball as their ticket out of the slums.
  While adding their name to the ranks with superstars such as David Ortiz, Nelson Cruz and Jose Reyes may appeal to wide-eyed young people, it’s not a very realistic proposition. Dr. Roberto Gonzalez Echevaria, a Cuban native who has devoted his life to studying Latin America culture, has done extensive work exploring baseball’s place in Dominican culture. He feels that this irrational thinking.
 “It’s delusional thinking,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds of kids sign on to pro teams yet only three or four out of that hundred make the big leagues. What happens to the rest? It becomes a problem.”
 A big part of this problem is that many children out of school in order to pursue baseball. Economics professor Dr. Julia Paxton spent time in the Dominican Republic studying the schooling habits of teenagers in the country. The results she found were alarming.
Shortstop Jose Reyes, a native of the Dominican Republic. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

 “The Dominican has high gender disparity for secondary education,” she said. “There were much more girls attending secondary school than males and a lot of that has to do with baseball.”
  MLB rules prohibit teams from signing players until they are 16 years old, but many abandon school before that to train on their own.
  For those young men lucky enough to sign with a professional team, a long laborious road awaits. All 30 MLB teams have training academies in the Dominican Republic where they try to find the best players to bring to their minor league systems in the United States.
 While the word “academy” is used as a title, there is not much learning happening besides baseball.
 “These academies do try to provide a little education, some English, to help them prepare for the U.S.,” Dr. Echevaria said. “But essentially they are baseball factories with cheap labor.”
  Young Players Subject to Outside Dangers
  Besides having to battle every day for their future, there are many other dangers for young players in the Dominican. The threat of buscones, or street agents wanting to take advantage of prospects and their money, is always a concern.
 “There were scandals with these men that were serving as unofficial intermediaries between families, kids and baseball teams,” Echevaria said. “They pay a small sum to cover these kids and then try to pocket all the bonuses.”
 Performance-enhancing drug use is also prevalent. In 2013, 15 of 44 players suspended for PED’s were Dominican. Echevaria said that the desperate circumstances many face cause them to take drastic measures to get an edge.
“You hear the horror stories,” he said. “They try to control it but it’s still a big problem.”
 When Charles Farrell traveled with the MLB to investigate team-owned Dominican baseball academies in 2000, he and the others could not believe what they saw.
“The teams had no idea what was going on at the academies,” he said. “The conditions were poor, poor nutrition and no education.”
 That’s when Farrell and a group of associates decided to move to San Pedro de Macoris to begin the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy. The school would give students a safe place to train for baseball, but with a primary focus on post-secondary education.
 “We want to inspire future generations with the power of education,” he said. “They can use their baseball skills to get a college scholarship or have the foundation to study to be a doctor, an engineer. They can have an impact on their country beyond just being baseball players.”
 The pilot class in 2013 has 15 students and the academy is ready to expand to over 100 next year. The complex will feature state-of-the-art dormitories, classrooms and baseball facilities for students to practice. Curriculum consists of English, life skills and financial planning to prepare students for college and beyond.
 The MLB is also drawing out plans for the 98 percent of team academy enrollees that will never get a chance to play in the United States and must re-enter the Dominican workforce. A big problem for most of these youth is that they lack the skills needed to get careers that pay well. They have no choice but taking low-wage jobs that continue the cycle of poverty for many.
 “It’s our responsibility to make sure that these young men become productive members of society,” MLB public relations officer Mike Teevan said. “We’ve retooled the way our teams educate players to make sure they have the tools needed to succeed.”
 Farrell said it’s tough to get parents on board with any long-term education plan given the time commitment.
 “A lot of times it’s the mother and father who push their kids into baseball for a career because that means alleviation from poverty,” he said. “It takes a parent also understanding they need their son an education.”
  He says that reaction has been positive, however, and there are still plenty of kids interested in the program going forward. The goal is to be successful enough to reform the way young baseball talent is treated there.
 “A lot of people call us dreamers, illusionists, but we are succeeding,” he said. “These young men are going to become the heroes of the countries beyond just baseball.”  

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