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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?

The top six producers of major league talent as of Opening Day 2012

Since then, Latin American players have become an ever more important part of the game. At the start of the 2012 season, players born in Latin American countries made up 42 percent of minor leaguers and 24 percent of major leaguers. They accounted for 6 of MLB's 25 highest earners, and like superstar Albert Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240 million contract in December 2011, more than half of the Latin American players came from the Dominican Republic, the most from any country outside the United States.

And yet, if 2006 is any indication, of the hundreds of Dominican prospects at the academies each year (along with Venezuelans and other Latin Americans also training there), less than half will ever leave the island to play even in the minor leagues, let alone in the big show, where under 3 percent will eventually step up to the plate. More than three-quarters will drop out of baseball in four years. Americans in the rookie leagues also face long odds, of course, but nearly 70 percent of them will advance at least one minor league level, and they are more than four times as likely to crack a major league roster. They are also far better paid at the outset: The average signing bonus for American players drafted in 2011 was $232,000; for international players, it was approximately half that.

Everyone participating in the system—from the CEOs of major league franchises all the way down to the often sketchy local talent brokers in the Dominican Republic known as buscones—has a say. Except for the kids. "The objective in Latin America is to sign talent, but do so in an affordable way," Marcano said. "But there isn't anyone who speaks for the players, who are giving up their childhood in search of a dream that few realize."
 

BASEBALL FIRST CAME to the Dominican Republic in the late 1800s, most likely brought to the island by Cuban immigrants. Although several teams formed and began playing tournaments by the early 1900s, it wasn't until Ozzie Virgil debuted for the New York Giants in 1956 that a Dominican made it to the American major leagues. Several accomplished players followed, including Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, but the first real wave came after Toronto Blue Jays scout Epy Guerrero started the first academy in 1973, turning a house and a cheap plot of land into a rudimentary training camp. A decade later, the Los Angeles Dodgers, recognizing a potentially rich vein of talent, created a template for the contemporary baseball academy called Campo Las Palmas. But most teams were content to play the odds, parachuting in to look for big-time talent at bargain basement prices. As former Colorado Rockies executive Dick Balderson once explained, "Instead of signing four American guys at $25,000 each, you sign 20 Dominican guys for $5,000 each."

Young Dominicans dreaming of big league stardom play in a 2009 pickup game in Santo Domingo. Marc Asnin/Redux

Conditions at some academies were substandard and even dangerous. When the Nationals' DiPuglia was starting out with the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1990s, his players slept eight to a room and navigated a field full of rocks and the occasional goat. In his book, Stealing Lives, Marcano told the story of a player named Alexi Quiroz and his path through the Chicago Cubs' Dominican academy, a place the ballplayers referred to as "Vietnam." There, 19 teenage boys shared one bathroom without running water, a drunk coach allegedly threatened them with a gun, and, after Quiroz separated his shoulder playing shortstop one day, he was treated by a street doctor who stomped on the joint to pop it back into place, ending his career.

As American teams began paying more attention to Dominican prospects in the early aughts, more and more ex-players and wannabes started working as buscones, scouting and training teens even before they had turned 16. They had flashy nicknames like Cachaza or Aroboy, and their training methods and negotiating tactics led to rising bonuses for their players—typically along with a hefty 30 percent cut for their efforts. Some buscones gained a reputation as ruthless operators willing to do anything—forge player birth certificates, bribe investigators—to boost their take.

By 2009, following several high-profile identity fraud cases and bonus-skimming scandals, MLB dispatched executive Sandy Alderson (now the general manager of the New York Mets) to take stock of operations in the country. His report called for restructuring the league's Dominican office, improving identity investigations, regulating the buscones, and generally curtailing corruption.

But his recommendations were only advisory, and critics maintain that little has changed since. One big shift did go into effect in 2012: Major League Baseball restricted teams to a $2.9 million international free-agent budget, in part to blunt the power of buscones by driving down signing bonuses. The bonuses had hit a high point the prior year, when the Texas Rangers signed 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Nomar Mazara to a record $4.95 million deal, but since have begun to drop and will remain suppressed under the cap. A few teams, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres, have chosen to invest in better facilities and training programs, but they remain in the minority.

The Nationals, meanwhile, have been tight-lipped about their operation since Yewri Guillén died. (MLB later said Guillén had died of a sinus-related infection, not meningitis, but league officials declined to provide Mother Jones with any documentation confirming such a diagnosis.) And access to the team's academy proved challenging. Shortly after I arrived in the Dominican Republic in January 2012 and scheduled a tour of the Nationals' facilities, I received an email from team administrator Fausto Severino retracting the invitation: The visit was "not going to be possible for the moment."

"The only player I've had who could throw harder than this kid was Yewri Guillén. He was tremendous."

I headed over to the academy anyway. My cab driver drove out of downtown Boca Chica on a street that quickly gave way to a trash-lined dirt track. After a few bumpy minutes, the road dead-ended in front of the entrance, which had a large Nationals logo painted on the wall. A security guard sat near the metal gate, chitchatting with a couple of players, an empty batting cage behind them.

Eventually the guard stood up and waved me in. With its smallish concrete dorms, the facility was humble compared to the country's high-end academies, including the $6 million Pirates complex I'd visited a few days before. But it wasn't unpleasant, either; palm trees lined two well-manicured fields beyond the gravel driveway.

The guard suggested there was a kind of family atmosphere to the place, mentioning how some players who'd made it to the minor leagues came back in the offseason to work out. He seemed happy to talk, so I asked him if he knew the player who died.

"Ah, yes," he said, his voice dropping a little. "Yewri, he got sick, went home, and passed away. So sad."

I asked if he thought the team did right by Guillén's parents.

"They collected money," he said. "But what's that to a family that lost a child?"

DiPuglia would tell me later that he saw the settlement deal as fair. "We pushed it through," he said, noting that the team's owners were under no contractual obligation to give Guillén's family the $30,000 bonus or the $50,000 insurance payout. "I think they did the right thing, the humane thing."

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