Dominican Dreams: A dream come true

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic — Miguel Angel Sano smiled a $3.15 million grin as he accepted an offer from the Minnesota Twins at a restaurant in Boca Chica this week. Together with his family, long-time trainer Moreno Tejeda, and scouts from the team, Sano posed happily for a multitude of cameras, his 6'4", 190-pound frame taking up most of each frame.

“Of course I’m excited,” he gushed. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is play baseball.”

The story of Sano is the fourth and final 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 second part, "The next sure thing," here; and the third part, "an open place," here.) The announcement Wednesday that he had signed with a Major League Baseball (MLB) team came after nearly three months of waiting: July 2 was the date that Sano and all players who had recently turned 16 became eligible to sign professional contracts.

The wait had undeniably taken its toll on the family, and particularly on Sano’s parents.

“We’re happy,” said Francisco Soriano, Sano’s stepfather of 10 years. “Yeah, we’re happy that we can put all of this behind us and that he can get on with his life,” he continued, his voice barely masking his weariness.

Just a few months ago, Sano seemed to have an easy path laid out for him. As the top-rated prospect in the Dominican, he had tried out for nearly all of the MLB teams in the country. He had top executives eyeing him contentedly: This shortstop was a sure thing, a future superstar.

Not so the path to the U.S. major leagues.

The problem of age fraud has become seemingly endemic in the Dominican Republic. There have been several high-profile scandals, including one in which the Nationals lost $1.4 million to 19-year-old Esmailyn Gonzalez after it was revealed he was actually 23-year-old Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. And this year, the Yankees were forced to void the $850,000 contract with Damian Arredondo when it was revealed he was older than his purported 16 years. When a player is found to have a fraudulent identity or to have misrepresented his age, MLB suspends him for one year.

To combat such fraud, MLB also instituted a system of investigations in the Dominican Republic through which all players to be signed must be vetted. Using birth certificates, hospital records, school records, personal narratives, and even controversial DNA and bone testing, the MLB seeks to find out whether a player is who he says he is before he signs. With his potential signing bonus rumored even several months ago to be over $3 million, the results of Sano’s investigation became hugely important.

But for Sano, July 2 came and went, and the family still had no word about the results of the investigation. “We know he’s 16, they know he’s 16 … we just don’t know what’s taking them so long,” Soriano commented at the end of July. Sano busied himself with his daily routine — running at the track from 7 to 10:30 a.m. and practice at his field from 1 to 5 p.m. Still, at times, the pain and anxiety crept in.

“Yeah, I get sad sometimes thinking about it,” he revealed publicly at one point in July, before quickly adding, “but it’s OK.”

While his family seemed to falter during the months of testing and re-testing, waiting and not knowing, Sano became the rock for his preoccupied parents, happily doing whatever the MLB asked.

The patience and helpfulness paid off on Wednesday. Even Soriano, weathered from the two-month wait, couldn’t help but feel happy. “It’s worth it,” he said.

Meantime, 16-year-old Jean Carlos Batista and his trainer Astin Jacobo, Jr. are waiting for their happy ending. A shortstop from La Romana, Jean Carlos also had hopes for a sizable signing bonus on July 2. Like Sano, he will have to wait. Batista, at least, is prepared.

“July 2nd is like a door,” the young player said, “and once that door is open, you can sign. But you don’t have to sign on July 2nd.”

“We’re gonna keep working,” he added. “It’s gonna happen.”