SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic — Today is moving day for Miguel Angel Sano, 15, and it’s the first of what will undoubtedly be many payoffs for the family of one of the most talked-about prospects for Major League Baseball coming out of the Dominican Republic this year.
Moving is a haphazard affair. Family members weave through a labyrinth of overflowing boxes, upturned mattresses and tied-up chickens to a moving truck parked outside the two-bedroom cinder block house they are leaving behind.
Sano, meanwhile, is cradling his most valuable assets: a pair of cleats, three bats and a glove.
“Billy,” Sano calls to his younger brother as he walks back to the house. “Watch my glove and stuff. If it gets stolen, [my trainer] he will kill me." His brother watches vigilantly over these tools of the baseball trade.
The equipment and the talents of Miguel Angel — a unique gift of fast hands for fielding and a natural timing to his swing — have allowed the family to move out of the barrio in which they were living to a more comfortable home closer to the fields where Sano is vying for a big break into the big leagues.
Miguel Angel’s story is the second installment in a special report for GlobalPost of video portraits and written reports titled “Dominican dreams: El barrio to the big leagues." (Read the first part, "The Dominican Republic's baseball magic," here.)
The family’s new home is a bright and airy two-story house rented in anticipation of the 6’3” shortstop’s July 2 signing bonus — rumored to be as much as $3 million.
Such seven-figure sums paid to elite players have inflated the average value of signing bonuses in the Dominican Republic to $108,000 as of 2008. Most prospects, if they get signed at all, will receive far less.
Players from the Dominican Republic make up the single largest international demographic in Major League Baseball.
At the beginning of the 2008 season, slightly more than 10 percent of the 855 players in the big leagues were from this small country in the Caribbean with a population of just 9 million. And approximately one-quarter of all players in the minor leagues are from the Dominican Republic.
The major stars who hail from "The DR," as it is called, include big names like David Ortiz, whose hitting has led the Red Sox to two World Series titles in the last five years. Others include Manny Ramirez, who was traded from the Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers and was re-signed for a two-year, $45 million contract, which is one of the largest in baseball. Another is Jose Reyes, the Mets' starting shortstop who has incredible speed. The list is long.
For Sano, July 2 is a chance to join that coveted list and make a dream come true.
“So far, all teams we have shown him to said that they are going to find the money from the big bosses to pay him what he deserves,” says his trainer, “Moreno” Tejeda.
Moreno keeps a running list of the teams Sano has tried out for, and he chuckles when asked about it. As he starts to list off teams that are interested in Sano — Boston, Tampa, the New York Yankees, Seattle, Texas, Houston, the Chicago Cubs, Colorado — it becomes clear he’s talking about every team in MLB.
“There are scouts that tell me, ‘He is the next superstar that I’m going to sign,'" Moreno says with a smile.
As a result, Sano has faced a gauntlet of tryouts and showcases at virtually every team’s academy. These academies are the Dominican training centers for 29 MLB teams, where signed recruits live. There, they spend eight hours a day polishing their skills in order to move up in a team’s system, with the goal of making it to the United States and ultimately to the big leagues.
While the ordinary Dominican prospect fights for a chance to try out, in Sano’s case, the academies are competing for him. In spite of all the attention, it’s impossible to escape the cloud of corruption that has been darkening the Dominican baseball scene.
Only a handful of 16-year-olds sign multi-million dollar contracts every year, while scores of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds sign for a fraction of that money. For players who are 20 and older, their chances of playing pro ball are slim to none. With players desperate to make as much money as they can in order to escape extreme poverty, fabricating documents in order to enter an academy becomes increasingly appealing.
These recent scandals have put significant pressure on MLB to conduct background investigations on prospective players or risk losing their investments. Signing bonuses paid to players who turn out to have falsified their ages are notoriously difficult to recoup.
Sano, however, is nonplussed about the process. “Let them investigate me,” he says easily, “I know I’m 15.”
While he has the documents to prove it, he also has the demeanor to vouch for his adolescence.
His father, Francisco, says, “Sometimes he likes to play with the other kids, but because he’s already so big, he dominates them and the kids say, ‘Don’t play with us.'"
At dusk on the roof of his new house, Sano steals the reins of a simple kite from his younger brother. As he directs the kite between power lines and antennas, a look of joy grows on his face.
A few onlookers laugh, and a neighbor comments, “He’s just a boy in a man’s body.”
This article is the second part of GlobalPost's 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.
Next week at GlobalPost, read more in part three about Astin Jacobo, Jr., who embodies a new generation of Dominican trainers. You can also check out the author's website.
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