Baseball: The Dominican Pastime

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The Dominican Republic, a small island nation with about as many people as New York City, is arguably the birthplace of the world’s best baseball players. The game took hold during the eight-year US occupation starting in 1916, and it has grown in popularity ever since. By now, men with names like Martinez, Ramirez, and Pujols (not to mention their forebears Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers) have revitalized the old “American” pastime.

Dominican baseball is a story of passion: passion to escape desperate poverty, passion for the stars that represent a proud nation on a grand stage, and the ever-earnest passion these players bring to every play on the baseball diamond. But this is also a story of cold exploitation and empty dreams. Almost every major league team has an academy on the island, where kids as young as fourteen drop out of school and devote their lives to baseball. Street agents, or buscones, scour the poor neighborhoods for talented children — many as young as nine years old.

These same talented children, most of whom will never make it north, bear a heavy burden: the weight of desperate hope for a family ticket out of poverty. What are the financial stakes? The annual per-capita income in the Dominican Republic hovers around $2,100; Manny Ramirez will make about $30,000 each at bat this year, for a total of $17 million. Among other problems, this need to succeed has led many players to steroids; half of the players suspended by MLB for steroids since 2005 have been Dominican.

The fabled Dominican baseball Winter Leagues have suffered, as well. Major league baseball does not want its star Dominicans risking injury in the off-season.

So what strikes you here? Do we celebrate the pride of play Dominicans have brought the world, and the joy that play brings back home? Or do we take pause and dissect the hints of neocolonialism and exploitation? Is it possible to do both at once?

Alan Klein

Professor of Sociology-Anthropology, Northeastern University

Author, Sugarball: The American Game, The Dominican Dream and Growing the Game: Globalization and Major League Baseball

Luis Polonia

12-year veteran, Major League Baseball

Director, Expo Baseball Academy in Santiago, D.R.

Ronaldo Peralta

Director, Major League Baseball’s Latin American office

Extra Credit Reading

Republic of Baseball Trailer

Mike Fish, Steroid problem reaches critical mass in the D.R., ESPN.com, February 14, 2007: “How to explain it? Should we blame it on the “buscones” (pronounced boo-SCONE-ehs), baseball street agents, some of whom are suspected of starting teenage prospects on steroids to improve their ability to sell them to pro scouts? On tainted supplements and a government that allows banned drugs to be bought over the counter? On a lack of education about doping rules?

Barry Svrluga, Tapping into an Economy of Sale, The Washington Post, December 21, 2006: “The process, which Nationals President Stan Kasten has likened to doing business in “the wild, wild West,” involves Dominican baseball men — part coaches, part providers, part hustlers, part financial advisers — identifying and cultivating talent, preparing the players for tryouts and then selling them in the July following their 16th birthdays to the highest-bidding major league teams.”

Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, American Dream, Dominican Nightmare, The New York Times, August 12, 2003: “Of course, baseball is big business, and in the current American culture the only valid argument seems to be what the market will bear — ethical values are an afterthought. So the attitude is this: if the Dominican Republic, an independent country, does not protect its young citizens from rapacious baseball entrepreneurs, that is its problem. An American-based industry like Major League Baseball should be free to exploit Latino children as it would any natural resource.”

Geoffrey Kirkman, The Republic of Baseball, Geoffrey Kirkman’s Blog, March 13, 2006: “The difficulties that these first Dominican players faced 50 years ago are not totally gone. Clubhouses in baseball are still mostly divided by language and sometimes by color, and for even the most talented Dominicans who arrive in the US, there are tremendous hurdles of culture, language and ignorance to break down.”

Stan Grossfeld, Play Ball! Embedded in the culture, sport becomes national pastime, Boston Globe, March 13, 2006: “Baseball was introduced to the Dominican Republic by Cubans who fled a 10-year war (1868-78). The passion for baseball here intensified during the US Marines’ eight-year occupation of the island beginning in 1916.Today the game is at its zenith. When Vladimir Guerrero was named American League most valuable player this season, he was in the presidential palace as the guest of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who declared a national holiday.”

Alan Klein, The Dominican Comparision: ‘Developed vs. Undeveloped’ Baseball, PBS: “Typically all Dominican professionals came from the amateur leagues. Once the academies were present on the island, once there was widespread scouting going on almost everywhere on the island, young boys who were 14 and 15 and who would’ve made their way up through the ranks of amateur baseball in the Dominican Republic avoided that, they circumvented it and they moved directly to the academies.”

Arturo Marcano and David Fidler, Worldwide Draft, BaseballGuru.com: “One of the most unacceptable features of the existing free agency/academy system of recruiting Latin talent is the lack of rules regulating the system and protecting children and young men from exploitation. MLB rules on the amateur draft and playing standards for minor league facilities provide protection for baseball prospects from North America and Puerto Rico, but MLB has created no similar web of rule-based protection for Latin children and young men.”

Emmett O’Connell, in a comment to Open Source, March 16, 2007: “My problem with the MLB towards Latin America is that it has treated these leagues not as competitors, but as suppliers of raw materials for clubs in American cities. There is no expectation that a Dominican club, no matter how well it plays, will ever face the New York Yankees. MLB still very much acts like a monopoly, a cartel of professional teams, skimming the cream off of leagues around to world.”

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