Thursday, March 12, 2009 Updated: March 13, 12:59 PM ET
It's Not All Sun and Games
By Jorge Aranguré Jr. & Luke Cyphers ESPN The Magazine
The next Dominican export rises from a former sugarcane field, slender and tall, with legs as sturdy as steel bridge cables. Under a cloudless sky, he stands on bare yellow earth, dark skin clad in a green Oakland A's jersey, like a misplaced mahogany tree in the desert. It is 3 p.m. on a mid-January Tuesday in San Pedro de Macorís, but more than a hundred spectators pack the concrete bleachers, and dozens more, many of them boys, line the backstop, some with their noses poking through the chain links. Inside the fencing, several dozen men wearing major league team gear halt their mostly Spanish conversations and peer out toward shortstop as well. They've come to see young Dominican players audition, and Miguel Angel Sano is about to steal the show.
The 6'3" teen takes 10 ground balls and fields each one cleanly. Every throw to first base forms a perfect line with no hump in the middle, no tail at the end, a geometry exercise in which points A and B connect in rapid succession. The crowd buzzes with each thwopp! of the first baseman's glove. Some scouts smile as they scrawl observations into notebooks or onto roster sheets. As Sano finishes, he grins too, then strides confidently through the pack of clipboard caddies.
Off to the side, two men look on, satisfied. One is Moreno Tejeda, a compact, dark-skinned Dominican; the other is a taller, tan yanqui named Rob Plummer. They've invested thousands of dollars and countless hours in Sano, and now there's talk that the kid, who turns 16 in May, will be offered as much as $3 million when he can sign a pro contract, on July 2. (Players have to be 16 by the end of August to be eligible for an MLB deal.) Moreno and Plummer will take a sizable yet customary chunk of that money, around 30%, for their services.
That's the system, an almost unregulated free market, one tolerated and ultimately funded by Major League Baseball through signing bonuses. It's a system rife with scandal, but one that resists reform. Because if the sole goal is to produce skilled pro players, the system works.
Every major league fan knows a fairy tale about Dominican baseball, the story of a magical island full of talented athletes, where the passion for the game overcomes ignorance and want. Barefoot children, with milk cartons for gloves and broom handles for bats and rolled-up socks for balls, somehow beat back destitution to become the fun-loving, wonderful Big Papis and Pedros and Vlads and Hanleys populating so many MLB rosters.
But a decade of scandals has spawned a sequel, a horror movie beset with villains called buscones: middlemen in a festering, corrupt hellhole who lie about players' ages, keep them out of school, inject them with animal steroids, then take most of their signing bonuses, sometimes without their knowledge. The Saw V of the series opened wide last year, when big league baseball started investigating scouts and executives in cahoots with buscones (which means "finders" but more accurately refers to trainers) for allegedly skimming signing-bonus money not just from players but from the teams themselves.
Several scouts and officials from the Yankees, Red Sox and Nationals have lost their jobs. On March 1, Washington GM Jim Bowden resigned days after the team fired José Rijo, who helped run the club's Dominican operation. (Both maintain their innocence.) Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating former White Sox personnel director David Wilder for allegedly inflating Dominican players' values and keeping large portions of their bonus money. The probe, and another one by MLB, commenced after Wilder was caught trying to take $40,000 through customs last year.
Neither the fairy tale nor the horror show reveals the whole truth of Dominican baseball. That's somewhere in between, and it's the story of a system: training academies that resemble low-rent communist sports schools driven by unregulated capitalism. Part East Germany, part Casablanca, the system is ruthlessly effective at finding, developing and producing pro baseball prospects. More than 100 active major leaguers hail from the DR, and nearly all signed their first contract for much less than a comparable U.S. draft choice gets. But that could be changing. In the wake of the latest round of scandals, some MLB clubs are reexamining how they operate in the country. And more and more buscones are operating like legitimate agents and trainers and realizing that the talent they find doesn't have to come so cheap.
Miguel Angel Sano enjoys some downtime during a busy week. He has three workouts for pro scouts in three days, the next one in about an hour. Last night he pounded the ball out of Valerio Cabrera ballpark, a short drive from his home in San Pedro. Today he'll do it again on the field next door. But right now he's sitting in the dirt yard outside the 600-square-foot cinder-block house, off a narrow street, where he lives with his mother, stepfather and eight siblings. Miguel shows pictures of himself, one taken in midswing, just after contact. "Home run," he says with a smile.
His family is terribly poor, but opportunity is in the air. Plummer, Miguel's agent, is here, which means new spikes and batting gloves. There's a photographer taking Miguel's picture. On the TV, Barack Obama is being sworn in, and Miguel talks about how he'd someday like to meet the new U.S. president. Opportunity knocks for Sano because of his talent, true, but also because of his trainer, Moreno, dubbed Supermancito (Little Superman) thanks to his stocky build and short stature.
Come July, Sano will be a millionaire, dramatically changing the lives of all around him.
"We don't know anything about baseball," says Miguel's mother, Melania Jean. "But we know Moreno. We trust him." Moreno helped Miguel develop his swing and his arm and provided a sprint coach to reduce his 60-yard-dash time.
In turn, Moreno trusts Plummer to set up tryouts, gauge scouts' interest and create a market. Plummer provides equipment and plugs financial holes, supplementing Moreno's income and lending money to the family. The Sanos have agreed to give Moreno 25% of Miguel's signing bonus and Plummer 5%. The payoff will come this summer, after more tryouts.
Impoverished families are part of the Dominican baseball landscape like palm trees and corruption, and Plummer has seen it all. The Philly-area native came out of law school at the University of Virginia in 1994 wanting to be "the Scott Boras of the Dominican." He first traveled to the island in 1996, has been there nearly 70 times since and represented one of the first players to sign for $1 million, pitcher Ricardo Aramboles, in 1998. For decades before that, teams could secure players for $2,000, with a $500 tip to the buscón, and top talent signed for no more than $25,000, based on a kind of gentleman's agreement. After Aramboles, top prospects were worth six, even seven figures. And their buscones could make real money.
Carlos Guzmán exemplifies the increasing savvy of the trainers. The former car dealer is finishing a cinder-block minidormitory in Boca Chica. It's gray and spartan but big enough to house 25 players; they dine on beans and rice from large, blue plastic bowls and sleep in bunks with mosquito netting. Even more impressive is Guzmán's batting cage. The roofed structure features a pitching machine, sits on sturdy concrete pillars and will have artificial turf by the end of the year. He points to his buildings as evidence that he's no scam artist. "I spent a million pesos on this batting tunnel, 5,000 a day for food, 2,000 a day for fuel," he says. Coaching, equipment -- it adds up, but it's an investment he plows back into other young prospects.
To show off his players, Guzmán would love to put together a team to compete in U.S. youth tournaments. Of course, one reason Dominican kids are so skilled is that they play few games. Unlike topflight American youth baseball, which emphasizes dozens of organized games a year, Dominican training is based on solitary repetition. "I don't know if they know baseball," one U.S. scout says of the trainers, "but they know how to coach them for the showcases."
Guzmán's charges drill seven hours a day -- five hours on hitting alone, up to 400 swings. "Just like the big leagues, scouts want big, strong guys who hit the ball out of the park," says Astin Jacobo Jr., a New Yorker who built an academy in San Pedro on an old sugarcane field eight years ago and now has 27 alumni currently in pro ball, including his son, Astin III. "It trickles down."
Something else trickles down too: a lack of regard for education. Most of these boys don't attend school. Dominican kids and families rolling the dice on baseball are making an economic decision. The United Nations says the Dominican government spends just 2.3% of its gross domestic product on education, ranking 121st in the world, behind Rwanda, the Philippines and Kazakhstan (the U.S. ranks 38th, at 5.7%).
Problems with education and the Dominican economy date back decades, and the fault lies mostly with a despised despot. In 1916, worried that the German navy might want to establish a beachhead in the Americas, the U.S. military took control of the Dominican Republic. In 1930, six years after the soldiers left, right-wing dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo took over the government. He seized people's land, stifled free speech and created a culture of mistrust and corruption. But because he was a vocal anticommunist, the U.S. appeased him for decades -- until 1961, when the CIA aided in his assassination.
Nearly 50 years later, Trujillo's legacy is still felt. He controlled the sugar industry, which was the main source of wealth in the Dominican, and left the country with few other economic outlets. When sugar collapsed in the 1970s, due partly to rising oil prices and America's switch to high-fructose corn syrup, the Dominican economy went with it. Ever since, "education has always taken a backseat," says Eric Roorda, a Latin American scholar at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
But baseball has been front and center. Brought to the island by Cubans in the 1880s, it became the national pastime by the 1940s. But until 1961, only eight Dominicans had played in the majors, compared with 87 big leaguers born in Cuba. Then Cuba went communist, setting the stage for the Dominican boom. "I'm not sure why I started it," says Epy Guerrero, who founded his country's first baseball academy, in Villa Mella in 1973. "Perhaps it was an inspiration from God. I thought to myself, If these kids had some guidance, maybe they could succeed."
A former minor leaguer, Guerrero came up with the idea while scouting for the Astros. The academy started modestly with a small field and a house for himself and his players in a $500 patch of cleared jungle, but by 1978, the Toronto Blue Jays were using his expanding facility. Guerrero signed more than 60 players who reached the majors -- including Alfredo Griffin and Tony Fernández -- and other teams took notice, most notably the Dodgers. Their lead scout in the Dominican was Ralph Avila, a Cuban who had fought side by side with Che Guevara. In 1987, Avila was part of another revolution, helping to open the Dodgers' Campo Las Palmas. Today, 29 major league teams have Dominican academies, but the Dodgers' facility was the first of its kind, built on a defunct sugarcane field for a mere $700,000, thanks in part to huge tax breaks for the visiting Americans.
This was nothing new. In the early 1900s, the Dominican government helped American sugar concerns with cheap land and tax breaks. In the 1980s, it did the same thing for baseball. "Players have become an export commodity," Roorda says. "It's part of the colonial project." In 2000, the Indians signed 40 Latin prospects for a total of $700,000, which was $675,000 less than the club gave first-round pick Corey Smith, who was traded in 2005 and hasn't reached the majors. Meanwhile, one of those 40 players, Santo Domingo's Fausto Carmona, won 19 games for Cleveland in 2007.
While the Dominican market has long produced bargains, it has at times winked at exploitation and nodded at corruption. A decade of media attention has revealed doctored birth certificates, false identities, steroids abuse and buscones taking as much as 50% of a player's signing bonus -- or in some cases, outright stealing it. MLB club operations in the Dominican Summer League were often run on the cheap, with little regard for the well-being of players. In the 2002 book Stealing Lives, Arturo Guevara and David Fidler documented how 19 Cubs prospects in the Summer League in the late 1990s were forced to live in a small, filthy house with no working plumbing or fresh water. One time, the team's drunken manager allegedly waved a pistol at them.
The future of the buscón business is a tall, striking figure with leaden feet that clomp with every step. Edgar Mercedes holds a clipboard and a handful of rosters as he paces from corner to corner in the Reds' training facility in Boca Chica. More than 60 scouts and team executives, including San Francisco GM Brian Sabean, are on hand.
Most player "showcases" set up by buscones are hastily assembled affairs in random locales such as the dirt parking lot of the local race track. But Mercedes has planned every detail of this day for weeks. Behind the modest home plate grandstands, a catering company serves scouts coffee and lunch under a tent. Mercedes is changing the menu in the Dominican, quickly becoming the biggest buscón, the superbuscón, el más macho. Last year, a Mercedes player named Michel Inoa received a $4.25 million signing bonus from Oakland. Everything in Mercedes' operation raises eyebrows. His bankroll comes from his main business: gambling halls, which are legal here. One of his coaches is Ramón Valdivia, the former head Dominican scout for the Yankees who was fired last year in connection with the bonus-skimming scandal. "I don't know about what he did before," Mercedes says. "Now he simply trains players."
Mercedes openly pays other buscones for prospects, sometimes as much as $25,000 per player. "A lot of trainers who don't have money, they prefer to make a profit immediately," he says. "Poor trainers, instead of losing their kids to other trainers, would prefer to sell them to me." This practice didn't start with Mercedes, but he legitimized it. And the contract for Inoa, a 17-year-old righthander who stands 6'7" and owns a 93 mph fastball, legitimized him. (Mercedes began training Inoa when the pitcher was 13.)
The buscón scoffs at his critics. "All I want is to have the best 30 players in the Dominican," Mercedes says. "They can have the rest." He adds that he's selling his gambling halls "to give peace of mind to people in baseball and to dedicate myself to this business." His latest prize prospect, Wagner Mateo, is a sweet-swinging outfielder who will compete for this year's highest signing bonus, likely more than $2 million.
The days of bargain scouting are over. When Major League Baseball opened its Dominican office in 2000, one of its first acts was to demand upgrades for teams' training facilities, some of which were abysmal. Now, several new academies have opened, with price tags between $8 million and $12 million, the prize being the Padres' facility in San Cristóbal. The weight room is comparable to any in the majors, and the clubhouse is equipped with the same lockers used by the big club in San Diego. As a measure of civic responsibility, the Padres teamed with USAID to fund a local school and give their young signees mandatory English and computer classes on-site. But San Diego's efforts aren't all about charity. The team has never competed for the top Dominican players, and this is a chance to change that. "It's a different country than it was 25 years ago," says Padres CEO Sandy Alderson. "So is the baseball community."
Right now, many in that community are talking about reducing the influence of buscones. Some critics advocate eliminating them altogether. But the cash-strapped Dominican government is unlikely to go after the one domestic group, besides players, making money off MLB. Another solution being batted around is a global baseball draft. Baseball officials think a draft will stabilize bonuses by reducing competition among teams. But others, like Plummer, say the overall talent pool would dry up. A draft would slot players into more clearly defined bonus categories, meaning less money for buscones. And with no scholastic or college baseball system to take up the training slack, the market economy would break down. "Where's the incentive to train the players?" Plummer asks. "When they put Puerto Rico in the draft, Puerto Rican baseball fell off." Puerto Rican players became draft eligible in 1990; two years ago, the island's secretary of sport asked out of the process, unsuccessfully. More and more buscones are operating like legitimate agents and trainers and realizing that the talent they find doesn't have to come so cheap.
Besides, MLB teams have been known to cut their own side deals with trainers, and as the recent scandals show, the system's faults can't be blamed on one group. "It's easy for us associated with teams to point fingers at the buscones and say they're the only problem," Alderson says. But as Rob Ruck, author of the seminal Dominican book The Tropic of Baseball, puts it, "Both sides are gaming the system." The Dominican player trade is a successful marketplace, and nobody has or wants to expend the resources to regulate its failings. "If you accept a capitalist system as the context, then there are contradictions," Ruck says. "Some of the buscones are really jackals and squeeze whatever they can from the players. But others are maximizing the chances of kids who don't have ideal alternatives."
The trainers have heard talk of reform before, but until the Dominican government or MLB or the market makes them stop, they will go about their business, which is supplying baseball with the players it demands, year after year. At a recent workout, Carlos Guzmán beams as he watches one of his trainees, Ramel Flores-García. The wiry 14-year-old lines up and runs a 6.7 in the 60.
He grabs a bat and cracks line drives to all fields, from both sides of the plate. But as Ramel heads out to shortstop with his glove, Guzmán flashes a you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet smile. On a rocky field that ate up three previous youngsters, Ramel is flawless, picking the irregular hops like so many dandelions and whipping the ball across the infield.
"The arm, the feet -- he's a natural," Guzmán crows. "He is the best in the world! ˇMejor en el mundo! You cannot find a guy like that!"