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Inside Major League Baseball's Dominican Sweatshop System

Teen shortstop Yewri Guillén died the day the Nationals were supposed to ship him to America. Has MLB learned from the tragedy?

Yewri Guillén, in an undated family photo

THE BASEBALL MEN started coming around when Yewri Guillén was 15. Like thousands of other boys in the Dominican Republic, he had been waiting for them for years, training on the sparse patch of grass and dirt across the road from the small concrete-and-wood house he shared with his mother, father, and two sisters in La Canela, a hamlet 45 minutes southwest of Santo Domingo. By the time the American scouts took notice, he had grown into a 5-foot-10, 165-pound, switch-hitting shortstop with quick hands and a laser arm. In 2009, at the age of 16, he signed for $30,000 with the Washington Nationals. The first thing he'd do with his bonus, he told his parents, was buy them a car and build them a new house.

But soon after Guillén's signing, Major League Baseball put his plans on hold. The league, having grown more vigilant about identity fraud, suspended him for a year, alleging that he'd lied about his date of birth on paperwork to boost his potential value to scouts. Guillén's family got a lawyer to fight the suspension, and in the meantime he lived and trained without pay at the Nationals' academy in Boca Chica, the epicenter of MLB's training facilities in the country. There, he was notoriously hard on himself. Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals' international scouting director, said Guillén would even take himself out of games after making small mistakes like missing a sign from the third-base coach. "He had no education, none at all," DiPuglia told me. "I didn't think he had any teeth because he never smiled. And he always had watery eyes—there was always sadness in his eyes."

DiPuglia made it his mission to cheer up the teenager, "to open up his heart." He wouldn't let Guillén pass without giving him a hug and a smile, and little by little, DiPuglia said, Guillén started to loosen up, becoming a better teammate and a happier kid. Later, when other talent brokers approached Guillén claiming that they could get him a better deal with a different team, Guillén turned them away because he felt that he owed it to the Nationals for sticking with him. After MLB finally authorized his contract at the beginning of 2011, the Nationals told him they'd be sending him to play for their rookie league team in Florida. He was to leave in mid-April.

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When the headaches first came on, they were barely bad enough to mention. On April 1, Guillén headed home to La Canela to get his travel documents in order. His family brought him to a clinic in nearby San Cristóbal. When he returned to the academy and missed a couple of games, DiPuglia called him out—in the Dominican Republic, nobody rides the bench because of a headache. When the pain got worse, DiPuglia sent Guillén to the trainer's room, where he was given some tea and an aspirin.

The next day, on April 6, the Nationals sent Guillén back to La Canela. He had a slight fever when he left the academy. On April 7, Michael Morla, a longtime local trainer who also acted as Guillén's agent, was at the field in La Canela when he saw Guillén, a damp towel wrapped around his head, lurching toward the community's health post, adjacent to the field. Morla approached Guillén's family, urging them to take him to Santo Domingo for care: "The boy is bad!"

Guillén's aunt and uncle rushed him to the Clínica Abreu, the capital's best private hospital. But because his contract hadn't been finalized he didn't have health insurance, and he was refused treatment when his family couldn't come up with the $1,300 admission fee. His aunt and uncle moved him to a more affordable Cuban-Dominican clinic nearby, where he was admitted on April 8. The doctors diagnosed bacterial meningitis. Guillén later had surgery to drain brain fluid, but the disease had progressed too far. On April 15, the day he was to leave for the United States, Yewri Guillén died.
 

THE TRAGEDY WAS a blip on the sports world's radar, a blurb on ESPN's Spanish-language crawl. The handful of news reports hit all the same notes: MLB said that the team followed appropriate protocols and did all that it could; the Nationals vowed to promptly vaccinate all the players at their academy; everyone from the team's medical director to the general manager expressed sorrow about the death.

"A 16-year-old doesn't know how to play baseball," Red Sox star David Ortiz told me. "I don't care what they say."

Here's what those stories left out: There wasn't a certified athletic trainer, let alone a doctor, to evaluate Guillén at the Nationals' academy, a spartan training camp with cinder-block dorms. No one from the team accompanied him to Santo Domingo or intervened when he couldn't get into the Clínica Abreu. (The club didn't cover the costs of his treatment until after he was admitted to the Cuban-Dominican clinic.) And following Guillén's death, the club required his parents to sign a release before handing over his signing bonus and life insurance money—a document also stating that they would never sue the team or its employees.

Guillén's death is the worst-case scenario in a recruiting system that treats young Dominicans as second-class prospects, paying them far less than young Americans and sometimes denying them benefits that are standard in the US minor leagues, such as health insurance and professionally trained medical staff. MLB regulations allow teams to troll for talent on the cheap in the Dominican Republic: Unlike American kids, who must have completed high school to sign, Dominicans can be signed as young as 16, when their bodies and their skills are far less developed.

"A 16-year-old doesn't know how to play baseball," the Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz, an eight-time All-Star who grew up in Santo Domingo, told me. "I don't care what they say. When I signed at 16, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing."

Teams are not eager to talk about the disparity between MLB's domestic and foreign rookie leagues, as I would learn firsthand when looking into Guillén's death in his native country. Nor is it much of a concern to locals: The sport is ubiquitous and beloved, and given the Dominican Republic's 40 percent poverty rate, the allure of the big leagues is powerful. Ortiz said Americans don't understand the pressure on Dominican teenagers, including in some cases to lie about their age. "The thing that made me mad about the whole situation is that people want to look at us like we are criminals," he said. "I would like to get in their face and ask them, if that was their only way out, what would they do?"

A Tale of Two Talent Markets

These star American and Dominican players have a lot in common—except the age they signed and the bonuses they got.
 

The legions of teens swinging bats and diving for ground balls each year on Dominican fields must negotiate a system with little in the way of support or a safety net. Whereas Major League Baseball requires all 189 minor league teams in the United States to have certified athletic trainers and "all reasonable medical supplies," no such requirement exists at the Dominican academies. Nearly two years after Guillén's death, Mother Jones found that 21 of MLB's 30 teams lack certified trainers in the Dominican Republic, including the Nationals.

Rafael Pérez, head of Dominican operations for Major League Baseball, said his office's role is to provide services to the clubs, not wag a regulatory finger at them: "Sometimes people have a negative reaction when things are imposed," he said. That's why the Nationals faced no sanctions, even though one of their players died of an entirely treatable illness. They had followed the rules, but those rules don't require the teams to do very much. Pérez insisted that the league has aimed to improve facilities and standards in recent years, albeit on a voluntary basis: "Some clubs are having a harder time than others. But they all have great intentions."

The reality is that a stark double standard persists, said Arturo Marcano, a Venezuelan-born lawyer who a decade ago coauthored a book on corruption and youth exploitation in MLB's Dominican operations. League officials recognize that the system is flawed and that it should be improved, he said. "They always say, 'We're working on it,' or, 'Things are getting better.' But in the end, it's the same response they've been giving since 2002."

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