No simple answers to complex issues
Ozzie Guillen's heart is in the right place, but some of his arguments aren't
When Oswaldo Jose Barrios Guillen signed with the San Diego Padres in 1980 out of Caracas, Venezuela, Latin players were undervalued, mistreated and left mostly to fend for themselves.
These are all truths that any players who came up through the minors during that time will verify. Countless stories exist about the difficulties many of these players faced while transitioning to life in the United States, most often illustrated by the need to order the same particular food item because that was the only item on the menu these players knew how to pronounce.
But the system has evolved, and although Guillen makes many sound points in his most recent call to action, the discussion is much more nuanced. In regard to the issues facing these players, there are no simple answers, yet, thankfully, Guillen always seems to raise all the right questions. Ultimately, when history judges Guillen's baseball career it might be less for his career statistics and more for his role as Latin American players' guardian angel. Guillen's heart is in the right place. Some of his arguments aren't.
It's common to think of Latin American players as low-cost commodities, as they were in Guillen's era, but that's no longer true, either. Last year, according to Major League Baseball, $64,408,750 was spent on player bonuses in Latin America.
Even Guillen knows the days when Latinos were much less valued than their American counterparts are in the past.
"[Dayan] Viciedo is the luckiest man on earth," Guillen told reporters earlier this year when Viciedo was benched. "He's making $10 million and living out of Cuba, he has cars better than mine, he spent one or two years in the minor leagues, and now he's in the big leagues."
For that reason, many teams are doing what Guillen has suggested. Although they aren't hiring specific interpreters, many organizations have intensified their English and cultural assimilation classes at the minor league level. This is a recent development, which is why Guillen hasn't seen its impact at the major league level.
Teams recognize that a player's path to success depends on how quickly he can assimilate into the American culture. It's not nearly enough to be able to throw 95 mph or to hit a ball 450 feet. Pity the teams that lag behind in realizing this. It's to a team's benefit to have its players focused on baseball and not on whether they can order dinner, pay their rent or call for a taxi. Teams should do this not for altruistic reasons but for simple economic reasons. It's a sound fiscal decision to put your employees in the best position to succeed.
Take the case of star Cleveland Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana. Although he had been bashing Triple-A pitching for most of this year, one of the reasons Cleveland waited until the middle of the season to call him up to the majors was because the team wanted him to focus on language training.
Several times a week, Santana worked with field staff, front-office members, a mental skill coordinator and a cultural coordinator so he could learn the nuances of English that would help him succeed as a catcher in the majors. Often, Santana would role-play several situations to re-enact what he might face after his call-up.
"It's a dream of mine to be considered a team leader, and for that to happen I have to be able to interact with everyone," Santana told ESPN The Magazine earlier this year.
Yet it stands to reason that Santana received this attention only because he was a top prospect. Santana was worth the investment, unlike, perhaps, many other lesser-regarded players who might never get individualized English training.
Here is where Guillen's point is illustrated. Asian players usually receive special treatment -- aka interpreters -- for two reasons: (1) because most are well-regarded, high-cost investments and (2) because most come to the majors without any formal English training.
It's not unusual for Latin players in the same position as Asian players to have interpreters, either. When Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Jose Contreras signed large contracts with the Yankees, each had an interpreter who traveled with him.
Guillen's better argument is in regard to Latinos' use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Approximately 80 percent of the minor league players who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs this year are from Latin America, a drastically troubling number.
To its credit, MLB has significantly ramped up its efforts to curtail PED use in Latin America in recent years.
Among the things MLB says it has done to curtail PED use:
• Public service announcements starring Manny Acta, Omar Minaya and Guillen airing on Dominican television denouncing PED use.
• Presentations during spring training and in the Dominican Summer League about the perils of drug use.
• Individual meetings with a drug expert for all newly signed players.
Could MLB do more? Certainly. It would be wise for MLB to begin having discussions with prospects when they are 12 to 14 years old, the ages when most of these kids are identified as standout players.
Last year, the family of Miguel Jean Sano -- the top Dominican prospect who signed with the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million -- said the family had not received any advice from MLB about the intricacies of the signing system and would have appreciated some guidance.
Yet ultimately there are problems in this, too. How do you reach these kids, given that most don't go to school? Do you make these discussions a prerequisite to signing? If so, what happens to the kids who aren't affiliated with well-known trainers and might not know about all the procedures to sign? Do you penalize them? By penalizing them, you might be forcing more and more players to sign with well-known trainers, the very people MLB has identified -- wrongly or rightly -- as the most damaging cogs in the Latin American signing machine.
But ultimately there might be little MLB or Guillen can do to stop young Latin players from taking PEDs. The stakes are just too great.
Although the effects of PEDs on a player's performance are arguable, most will agree that such use will make a player stronger, which exactly feeds into a signing system in Latin America that rewards players for how they perform in individual workouts. Although taking steroids won't teach you how to hit a curveball, it certainly will allow you to pound balls farther in batting practice or help you throw harder in a bullpen session. These short-term gains are exactly what gets a player signed in Latin America.
If a player and his family are convinced that taking PEDs is the only way he can get signed, the choice is simple. Signing with a major league team is not merely a life-altering decision, it's a generation-changing event. It's unfair to apply American morals and ideals when judging Latin players for having taken a steroid or having changed their age.
No one can judge the magnitude of these decisions until they understand the economic situations of the players involved. Most come from poverty-stricken areas where baseball is the only way out. If a pill helps that happen, then it's hardly a choice at all.
This is a systemic problem that is bigger than baseball. It lies at the heart of the issue of whether the particular countries these kids come from are providing enough for their own citizens so the citizens aren't faced with these dubious choices.
Guillen might not be altogether right or altogether wrong in what he said Sunday. Like Ozzie himself, the issues are complicated.
Yet the ever-growing number of Latin players in the game demands that their plights be of the utmost importance. For that, baseball and Latino players are better off for having Guillen bring up the discussion.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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