Commentary

MLB pushes into Dominican Republic

But exploitation concerns remain, especially in light of education, poverty realities

Updated: October 10, 2011, 7:53 AM ET
By T.J. Quinn | ESPN.com

SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic -- Edgar Ferreira has just been asked to spell his name for an ESPN camera crew, and after a blank look, he says, in Spanish, "A-E-I-O-U."

He is asked to spell it again. Again, Ferreira, 23, recites the vowels.

[+] EnlargeEdgar Ferreira
ESPNEdgar Ferreira got caught lying about his age, ended up hurt and missed out on a signing bonus of $75,000 -- almost 15 times the average annual household income in his home country.

There is silence. Could he have misunderstood? It is ignored, and an interview begins.

He is better with numbers.

When he was 18 years old, Ferreira says, he could throw a baseball 95 miles per hour. The St. Louis Cardinals offered him $3,500 to sign. A street agent, known as a "buscon," told him there was more money out there. If Ferreira took the birth certificate of a younger man, he could earn more money.

Ferreira says he didn't want to, but he became 17-year-old Cesar Miguel de los Santos. The Angels liked what they saw and offered him $75,000, but U.S. Consulate officials in the Dominican Republic became skeptical about the birth certificate. They questioned Ferreira aggressively. Two days before he was to receive the check, he confessed. The money never came.

Because Ferreira cooperated, Major League Baseball suspended him for only a year. Ferreira kept playing baseball, but then his pitching shoulder started to hurt.

With no professional organization to monitor his pitching and tend to the injury, his shoulder wouldn't improve. And that was it.

Within the course of one year, Ferreira had been stamped as a savior for his family, was disgraced, then was helpless as his dream was snuffed by the sharp throb in his right shoulder.

"My spirit sank," he says in Spanish. "I screamed a lot. I said, 'I'm not going to be able to help my family anymore.'"

But the topic of conversation on a balmy tropical day at the tin and wood shack where Ferreira lives is reform. Major League Baseball has taken steps over the past 19 months to cut back on the rampant identity fraud and performance-enhancing drug use that made doing business on the island risky for ballclubs and snagged would-be major leaguers like Ferreira. Would his story somehow have been different if those reforms had been in effect five years ago?

"They would have helped me more, and I would have more capability," Ferreira says. Although he can't say how, exactly.

What he has is a vague sense that something would have been different. He is confident he could have been great. Someone should have looked out for him, a little bit. All he had was the advice of a street agent who vanished once the U.S. government became suspicious.

"I would have made it to the big leagues, because my level of development was big league level," he says. "My dream was to make the Hall of Fame."

Now he's a coach -- more of an assistant to a coach -- at one of the country's many private baseball academies, many of which are owned by American or European investors. Ferreira's prospects, as a possibly illiterate coach in a poor nation, are not promising.

Progress with MLB presence, but unease remains

Nineteen months after the reform movement began, even MLB's sharpest critics agree the corruption that beset the Dominican baseball machine has improved with the presence of an MLB department of investigations. There are fewer cases of age and identity fraud, and with increased education and testing, the number of players turning up positive for performance-enhancing drugs has dropped. (Anti-doping experts agree that in a country where the annual per capita income is $5,200, it's highly unlikely players are beating the system by using expensive, sophisticated drug regimens.)

But there remains a constant sense of unease about the country's dependence on the estimated $125 million baseball puts into the economy every year, and the fact that a sovereign nation must depend on the kindness of strangers to survive.

"[MLB] came here, and I think they took advantage of a community, a republic, which they subjected to their influence," says Epy Guerrero in Spanish, a legendary scout from the Dominican who signed more than 40 major league players. "Because this is an exceedingly poor country. The way I see it, they crushed our country."

There is muscle on the island, in the sweaty sinew of thousands of boys on hardscrabble fields and in the worn shoulders of men who have lived beyond their ability to dream, carrying machetes as they walk to cut sugar cane in sweltering fields.

But the island is rank with vulnerability.

The country does not have major exports, and except for the walled-in tourist enclaves at the beach resorts and a few pockets of wealth in gated buildings and developments, the country is third-world.

[+] EnlargeMoises Alou
AP Photo/Roy DabnerMoises Alou greets his father after a home run. The Alou family is legendary in the Dominican Republic.

Columbus himself showed them 500 years ago what it meant to be at the mercy of someone more powerful. To this day people hope the tourists come and the hurricanes don't but they have little power to affect either. Few entities have the power over the country that baseball does.

The love of the game came generations ago, down the Caribbean from Cuba. Cuban elites who rejected soccer as the sport of the imperialist Spanish sent their children to be educated in the United States, where they learned the game. They came back to Cuba with baseball. Dominican workers who came on boats to work Cuban sugar factories learned the sport there and brought it back to their island.

It became a passion, but after Felipe, Matty and Jesus, the famed Alou brothers, came to the United States in the late 1950s, followed by hundreds more from Juan Marichal to Pedro Martinez, it became a way off the island.

"Everybody that has a kid, it's like money in the bank, or they're playing to win the lotto," says Felipe's son Moises Alou, who played 17 seasons in the majors himself. "A lot of these people, they're counting on their kid so they can come out of poverty. So, when parents have a young kid, 15, 14, 16 years old, and they see that kid has talent, they're going to do whatever it takes for that kid to make it so they can have a better life."

In the world of professional baseball, the D.R. became known as "the wild west." It rankles some Dominicans, even as they acknowledge that the term isn't inaccurate.

"It wasn't wild, wild west, it was a little wild west," says Astin Jacobo Jr., an independent trainer (he despises the term "buscon") and the son of one of the country's original MLB scouts. "I mean, the problem with the birth certificates, it wasn't a baseball problem, it was a national problem. This is a third-world country. I'm pretty sure, if you go back to the 1800s or early 1900s in the States, they used to have a lot of problems with that, too."

Yes, he says, there has been a problem with players using fraudulent documents and performance-enhancers. But that legacy should not fall only on the shoulders of his countrymen.

"Everything we learned, we learn from the Americans," Jacobo says. "I mean, we don't do steroids here; our guys are not that smart. I mean, we got doctors and stuff, but our guys are not that smart. Steroids came from the States. The thing about changing ages, that also came from the States. They used to tell you, 'I like this kid, but I don't like him with age 19. I would like him age 16.' Dominican guys were like, 'Oh, there's a difference in the things you like.'

"We are vilified for that and that's not right."

Commissioner's appointment sent big message

For decades, the corruption in the D.R. was an open secret in the world of professional baseball, and many criticized Major League Baseball for tolerating it.

[+] EnlargeAstin Jacobo Jr
ESPNAstin Jacobo Jr., talking to his players, fears what would follow the implementation of an MLB draft for Dominican players.

The biggest sign to some of those critics that commissioner Bud Selig was serious about reform last year was his choice of reformer: veteran executive Sandy Alderson.

A Marine combat officer in Vietnam and a Harvard law graduate, Alderson was the general manager of the Oakland A's from 1983 to 1997, and was the mentor to current A's GM Billy Beane, of "Moneyball" fame. He became MLB's head of operations, then president of the San Diego Padres, and is currently the GM of the New York Mets.

Alderson became MLB's head of Latin American oversight in 2010 after a series of scandals broke, including MLB personnel taking kickbacks from signing bonuses given to Dominican prospects.

Alderson says Jacobo was correct that the corruption wasn't limited to Dominicans.

"There was as much concern about the conduct of some club employees as there was about the conduct of independent scouts," Alderson says. "It was a problem that extended throughout the industry in the Dominican Republic and other places in Latin America. One of the things that helped our credibility there was the fact that we didn't point fingers, but admitted that we had other things we needed to deal with in our own situation."

But before he could explain to the Dominican baseball establishment that he was going to be fair, the first issue to deal with was the possibility of a draft. To many Dominicans, especially the independent trainers who develop talent, the idea of an international draft has long been seen as an existential threat.

Only players born in the United States, its territories and Canada are included in the amateur draft; Dominican players, like others around the world, sign as free agents. In a poor country, labor, like most things, is inexpensive. Teams can sign roughly 10 Dominican-born players for the cost of one draft-eligible player, so there is a greater chance that the same money spent in the D.R. will produce a player who will someday make the big league club.

Not having a draft has affected both ends of the pay scale. At the higher end, top prospects can earn more through bidding wars than they could as draftees. But players not in that top echelon still tend to sign for less than players born in the United States and Canada, allowing teams to keep buying in bulk.

When Alderson came to the D.R. last year and held meetings at the Occidental in Santo Domingo, Jacobo and other independent scouts gathered dozens of their prospects and demonstrated in front of the hotel, chanting, "No queremos draf" -- "We don't want the draft."

"A draft would be like what happened to the Titanic, man," Jacobo says. "We are only No. 1 in the world in one thing, and it's baseball. And if they take baseball away from us, we're dead. We gone. We be erased from the globe. I mean, nobody would know who the Dominicans are."

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonSandy Alderson

The topic is part of ongoing labor negotiations between MLB and the players' association, and both bodies declined to discuss it. Alderson says he doesn't know whether the parties bargaining in New York will decide to establish a worldwide draft, but he says the powerful fear Dominicans have of that possibility is unfounded.

"There are too many players, there's too ingrained a cultural interest in the game," he says. "Baseball already has a lot invested there that they're not going to just uproot without some major justification. I think even if you have a draft, a lot of Dominican players will be signed after the draft as free agents."

Alderson, who is no longer leading the MLB oversight initiative, says his mission in the D.R. was to convince the establishment that without reforms, baseball in the country could die with or without a draft.

When Alderson was the Padres' president, two Dominican players were suspended when both were discovered to have committed age fraud and one tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

"The total investment was about a million and a half dollars," he says. "So that was a million and a half down the drain, basically. As a business person, forget about baseball, if you get burned to the tune of a million and a half periodically, you start to rethink your whole strategy."

'They're a commodity, but people forget that these are children'

While Dominicans wait powerlessly to see what the result of collective bargaining is, both the attention of MLB and reform advocates has turned to the country's decided lack of education and what happens to young men who don't make it as players.

"They're a commodity, but people forget that these are children; 16-year-olds are essentially children and they're the pawns in this industry where very few make it," says Charles Farrell.

Farrell ran sports programs for Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH for years but moved to Santo Domingo and is working to open a school for young Dominican ballplayers called the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy. "The collateral damage is overwhelming, where only a few make it in the system of baseball and the rest of them are just tossed away on some sort of garbage heap, basically. They're useless if you can't make it to the big leagues."

Farrell says less than 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product is spent on education, and that 10 percent of the population never attends school. Only 22 percent finish eighth grade.

"I've been to schools here where there's no paper, pencil, books in the classroom, where there's no electricity, so there are no lights in the classroom. There's no fan in 90 degree heat," Farrell says. "So you have a kid who says, 'Do I sit in a hot classroom with no books and no paper and no pens and struggle to learn something? Or do I get out on a baseball field on a nice sunny day and play a game where I might become a millionaire?'"

[+] EnlargeCharles Farrell
ESPNCharles Farrell worries about what happens to the players who don't make it to America for baseball.

Flavio Espinal, an attorney and the former Dominican ambassador to the United States, says it's hard for Americans to understand the gap in education between the two countries, especially for ballplayers.

"[In the D.R.], most of those kids, when they show talent, they're taken out of school. They're taken out of their natural environment to be put in a place to play baseball and get trained," Espinal says. "They receive some education, maybe on the weekend or maybe one or two hours a night. They go to an independent trainer's facility, and from there they move to the possibility of signing with a club."

That's why the "buscones," derided as parasites by critics, are considered an essential part of the system: there is no alternative to developing talent. There is no Little League, no high school baseball. Most players don't even play games, they simply train all day.

As part of Alderson's reforms, he told major league clubs with academies in the D.R. to develop their own educational programs, with the thought that the successful elements of each will be used to create a comprehensive, MLB-wide approach. He says he understands why critics like Farrell are worried that Major League Baseball won't follow through on a program that won't put money into the pockets of owners.

"Until there's actually an educational program that is rolled out and implemented, there are going to be questions about it," he says. "I think those are legitimate questions. They're going to have to see that money has been allocated by Major League Baseball and individual clubs for post-career education, and that's stuff that should be easily verifiable."

In a land of poverty, the dreams -- and heartbreak -- are big

And all sides recognize that whatever system MLB adopts, the real issue remains poverty. There is still a powerful incentive to cheat, and some innovators have attempted getting around the increased scrutiny of birth certificates by getting Haitian birth certificates; there are waves of immigrants coming from the Haitian part of the island and it is trickier for investigators to determine where those players were born.

But as long as MLB has both the magic to inspire and the power to affect millions in the country, Farrell says it is MLB that must take responsibility for young men like Ferreira, who are left behind.

"You are benefiting from being here and identifying the next generation of baseball talent that is enriching the pockets of owners, providing entertainment for the fans, and you're doing it on the backs of 16-year-olds," Farrell says. "You can treat them as a commodity, which too often they are treated as, or you can treat them as human beings that can become productive members of society. "I have been so many places where I have seen kids in academies or younger with the aspirations. You ask them who their favorite player is and they can name every Dominican player on almost every team and they speak of baseball with this delight, this joy, and there's a light in their eyes when you talk to them. And I've talked to 19-, 20-year-olds who are now out of baseball and now there's a dead look in their eyes.

"It's like, 'What am I? My life is over.' That's a crime to me."

T.J. Quinn is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise/Investigations unit. He can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.