The Dominican Republic's baseball magic

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic — On a dusty field in Barrio Lindo, kids shout in a mixture of Spanish and English as they chase down fly balls: “Oye, I got it, I got it!”

The outfield is framed by a burning trash heap, a few stray dogs, a handful of goats and a wandering horse. The ragtag players are wearing sandals, not cleats.

You would never know this is the Mecca of Dominican baseball, but it is.

And despite the dilapidated field and the lack of uniforms, baseball is king here. It is the place of big dreams of the big leagues and the pride of a nation that has made baseball a lucrative commodity for export.
Starting today and into this summer, we will be documenting for GlobalPost the pursuit of the dream among teenage prospects battling for a spot in the coveted baseball academies here, seasoned trainers vying for a percentage of future signing bonuses, and hard-ball agents representing the corporate interests of Major League Baseball. We will be following the action with video portraits and written reports in a series titled “Dominican dreams: El barrio to the big leagues."

Though the focus of much attention in recent years, Dominican baseball is largely misunderstood. The classic image of impoverished children playing street-ball with cardboard gloves and wound-up sock balls has recently been overtaken by reports of scandals and corruption. Neither portrayal adequately depicts the whole story.    

What defines Dominican baseball today is a system of multi-million dollar training compounds owned by MLB teams. While these academies may dominate the landscape, the structure of the industry is actually much more complex. Without the traditional track to the majors provided by high school and college baseball, these facilities rely on independent and virtually unregulated trainers to supply their talent.

The number of Dominicans playing professional ball in the United States is staggering.  At the start of the 2008 season, slightly more than 10 percent of the 855 players in MLB were from the Dominican Republic (see map below), making them the single largest minority in the game. In addition, approximately one-fourth of all players in the minor leagues are from the Dominican. The city of San Pedro alone has produced more professional baseball players per capita than any city on earth — including such stars as Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and former MVPs George Bell and Julian Javier.

“San Pedro is like the Mecca of baseball,” says Astin Jacobo Jr., a new type of Dominican baseball professional.

He refuses to admit that the string of highly publicized scandals accurately represents his country’s game.  Instead, he develops and signs a bevy of young talent in a legal and healthy training environment. Jacobo avoids the term buscon, or scout, which has become a pejorative designation implying a predatory and exploitative approach to the business, in favor of entrenador, or trainer.

Unlike coaches in the United States, entrenadores take on responsibilities that begin with identifying potential prospects and providing them with training, housing, meals and equipment. In addition, the trainers double as scouts, managers and surrogate parents.

Moreno Tejeda, one such entrenador, explains, “Imagine… If they’re hungry, you buy them something to eat. If they don’t have sneakers, you buy them sneakers. I get their gloves, their cleats, whatever they need.” Moreno meets these demands daily for his highly touted 15-year-old prospect Miguel Angel Sano.

In this way, entrenadores justify their 25 to 40 percent cut of their players’ signing bonuses, a figure that is up to five times what American agents earn for signing a player.

While a player can technically sign at any time during the year if eligible, one day in the dead of summer matters more than the other 364 combined: July 2. On this day, the youngest players — boys who have turned 16 after August of the previous year — become old enough to sign professional contracts, and the largest signing bonuses are divvied up among the year’s top prospects.  

This year, Tejeda’s shortstop Sano is in the running for what is rumored to be a seven-figure signing bonus. Tejeda keeps him busy, shuffling him to and from a gamut of tryouts and showcases for the area’s top scouts and even a few executives.  

While the official amount will not be released until July 2, trainers and teams will more than likely be talking in the weeks leading up to that day.  “All of the scouts tell me he’s going to be the next superstar … so we’re going to wait until the last minute,” Tejeda says, “not only so that he can sign for the most money, but also to sign with whoever can give him the best opportunity.”

Until then, Tejeda intends on keeping Sano focused. “I don’t want to take away the love he has for the game by thinking about money,” he explains, “What I’m interested above all is that he continues in the game.”

In the United States, top draft prospects earn seven-figure signing bonuses between the ages of 18 and 22.  Dominican players who fail to sign a big deal on July 2 at age 16 are significantly devalued in the prospect market thereafter. But that doesn’t mean they won’t get a shot at the big leagues.

Jose Serra, Latin American director for the Chicago Cubs, is one of several MLB directors who prefer to avoid the July 2 hype.  “I’m not focused on those players who are thinking about July 2nd,” he says.  Alternatively, he signs players who he deems worth the investment for the Cubs — often for a fraction of their alleged July 2 value.  He continues, “I’ve signed players for … 50, 60, even 100 thousand dollars with the same ability [of a] player who signed for 2 million on July 2nd.”

The intense focus on July 2 in the Dominican baseball world has both defined the country’s training methods and encouraged its excesses.

In some cases, this has led players and trainers to fabricate birth certificates in order to qualify for July 2-style signing bonuses. Jacobo explains, “When a guy’s 18, he’s victimized … it gives guys motivation to be 16.”  

Once signed, recruits will stay in an academy for two months to four years.  Such facilities offer luxuries that many players will never have previously experienced — advanced medical and dental care, hot showers and one’s own bed. While some academies are nothing more than a Spartan dormitory and adjacent field, other teams have invested as much as $12 million building verdant camps that better resemble palm tree-lined country clubs.

Behind the sunny facades of these institutions lies a highly managed baseball boot camp in which every facet of a player’s life is purposefully controlled. The academies are intentionally isolated in an attempt to remove all distractions. Players spend up to eight hours a day fine-tuning their technique through a myriad of drills, games and workouts.  

Serra signs between 10 and 20 players a year.  Once they are in the academy, his job is to refine the players’ raw talent so that they can ultimately reach the United States.  “When I sign the contract, I’m 100 percent sure that he’s gonna make it,” Serra says. “I don’t sign any minor leaguers. I sign big leaguers.” Nonetheless, although half of the players from any given academy will make it to the States, only a handful will ever get to take a swing at a Major League pitch.

For those who don’t make it, the cut sends them back to a precarious existence.  Most will have abandoned what little education the government provides for a chance to play baseball, and with recorded unemployment at 16 percent, decent job opportunities are rare.  However, those who do make it are fulfilling the dream of a nation. That dream, says 15-year-old Sano, is “to get to the big leagues."

"I think I can get there in three years," says Sano, "or maybe less.” 

This article is the first part of a continuing series, “Dominican dreams: El barrio to the big leagues," about baseball in the Dominican Republic and the lead-up to July 2, International Signing Day.

Read the second part of this series, about 15-year-old shortstop and hot prospect, Miguel Angel Sano, and the third part, about Astin Jacobo Jr.'s training program. You can also check out the authors' website.

More GlobalPost dispatches about sports:

Is Chicago's star falling?

Baseball's Olympic banishment


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