Last week on the site we pointed your attention towards an article that Time had recently writtenregarding the status of baseball player development within the Dominican Republic. It was a great piece which featured extensive digging into the somewhat shocking culture that exists in that country, one where young boys are groomed to be Major League Baseball players. We didn’t get a chance then to express our thoughts, but when Ozzie Guillen chimed in yesterday with his own ideas on the issue, we had our opening.
Let’s get started by giving you some background on the Dominican Republic. According to Time, “Aside from the U.S., more Major League Baseball (MLB) players are born in the Dominican Republic, a nation of 9.7 million, with a per capita GDP of $8,300, than any other country on the globe. Of the 833 major league players on opening-day rosters, 86 of them, more than 10%, hailed from the D.R.” It goes on to state that “Baseball, which has been played in the D.R. since the late 19th century, glorifies the rags-to-riches tales of many Dominicans who make it to the majors. But buried beneath these charming yarns are the often cruel, sometimes criminal, ways in which all that Dominican talent gets curated.” To sum it up, I guess I would just ask you to use your imagination. Picture everything horrible you would presume to exist in a culture where the only chance to pull your family out of poverty is through sports. Now imagine the setting of that story is a highly destitute country with corruption and shady business practices—where everyone is looking to get their piece of the action. Got it? Well you pretty much just constructed the backdrop of baseball development in the Dominican Republic (confession: the more I wrote in the last paragraph, the more I thought I was writing about basketball within impoverished areas throughout the United States…weird).
Perhaps Time described it best though, “The D.R. is baseball’s puppy mill.”
If you’ve listened to talk radio or tuned into ESPN in the last day or two you’ve no doubt heard that Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen sounded off yesterday on what he perceives to be a lack of accountability on the part of MLB to aid the efforts of Latino players trying to make it to the big leagues. Here are the two main highlights as perceived from the people who analyze sports (via ESPN):
Guillen blasted MLB for a lack of equality when it comes to the treatment of foreign players. He claims Asian players receive better treatment than their Latino counterparts. “Don’t take this wrong, but they take advantage of us. We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid (and say), ‘(Blank) you, you go to the minor leagues, good luck. And it’s always going to be like that. It’s never going to change. But that’s the way it is.”
Guillen also knocked MLB for a lack of PED education and prevention within the Latino countries that MLB scours for talent. “”I’m the only one to teach the Latinos about not to use. I’m the only one and Major League Baseball doesn’t [care]. All they care about — how many times I argue with the umpires, what I say to the media. But I’m the only one in baseball to come up to the Latino kids and say not to use this and I don’t get any credit for that.”
From the beginning, everyone has unanimously dismissed his first rant that Latino players aren’t afforded the opportunity of a translator upon making it to the big leagues. They universally cited that because the Asian players are usually established veterans before they come over, players from Asia require a much larger investment of resources than a player from say, the D.R. The other presumption I keep hearing is that there are enough Latino players scattered throughout the clubhouses in MLB that a translator isn’t necessary (because teammates will no doubt translate for a rookie every opportunity he needs it).
I concede point number one. We have witnessed the lengths at which teams like the Red Sox have gone to sign players such as Daisuke Matsuzaka—paying $51 million just for the right to negotiate with the Japanese pitcher. Teams can be forgiven when they do everything possible to ensure an investment of Dice-K’s magnitude is afforded every possible chance to succeed, even if that means giving him twelve translators, speech coaches, and cultural trainers as part of his traveling crew.
I take issue with point number two of the rebuttal to Guillen’s argument though. It’s surprisingly ignorant that analysts would be willing to take the leap that there are “enough” players who speak Spanish throughout MLB so as to justify it as a reason why major league teams shouldn’t employ translators, speech coaches, and cultural trainers. Although the assumption could hold true (in that every roster in MLB no doubt has a plethora of Spanish-speaking players), the Latinos employed throughout baseball are not required by their contracts to look after one another, nor are they required to help rookies integrate properly into American life, tax brackets, cultural norms, behavior, etc. It is simply too much of a burden for players who have their own families and lives to maintain.
The issue Ozzie has seems to stem from a recent trip he took to watch his son Oney play down in Class-A ball. From ESPN, “Guillen, who is from Venezuela, said when he went to see his son, Oney, in Class-A, the team had a translator for a Korean prospect who ‘made more money than the players. And we had 17 Latinos and you know who the interpreter was? Oney. Why is that? Because we have Latino coaches? Because here he is? Why? I don’t have the answer,’ Guillen said. ‘We’re in the United States, we don’t have to bring any coaches that speak Spanish to help anybody. You choose to come to this country and you better speak English.’”
Described in both the Time article, and from the mouth of Guillen, MLB organizations are playing a betting game with Latino prospects, throwing small amounts of money at players like they are the numbers on a Roulette table, hoping to hit the rare 00.
Teams can be excused for providing more security to bigger investments like the Dice-K’s of the world, especially if that is how they are going to view their players: as investments. But at what point does that line of reasoning extend to Latino players? Although they are doing it on a much smaller scale, teams are still making investments in them. Time reported that, “Last year, teams signed 396 Dominican players; their average signing bonus was $94,023.” So why wouldn’t MLB teams want to ensure that those investments succeed as well, even if the insurance occurs on a much smaller scale? It makes no sense how organizations would want to blindly throw money at Latino players and hope that they pan out. They could give these kids a better chance to succeed by removing a number of the minor difficulties that come from the culture shock of being supplanted from home and thrown into the United States of America.
A proactive measure by MLB to require at least one translator per team at every level of an organization would surely go a long way. It is absurd to think the teams around the league couldn’t afford it either when, “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, interpreters and translators earned an estimated average yearly salary of $43,130 in 2008.” So why not do this? Guillen is 100% right on this issue and although he can prove to be a nutcase on other occasions, we shouldn’t take his words lightly. Everyone stands to benefit from it. Organizations would be demonstrating proactive stewardship, while players are given a better chance to succeed, meaning we might get to see four or five more superstars make in the big leagues every year.
But the deeper issue that Guillen addresses is the extent of the abuse of PEDs within Latin American baseball prospects. The players are brought up in a culture (via Time) with, “huge economic incentives to cheat. Age fraud and performance-enhancing drugs, which in the Dominican Republic can be bought like candy, are rampant. The families of these players see the sport as the only way out of abject poverty.” Guillen himself describes it like this (via ESPN), “If you tell me, you take this … you’re going to be Vladimir Guerrero, you’re going to be Miguel Cabrera, you’re going to be this guy … I’ll do it. Because I have seven brothers that sleep in the same room. I have to take care of my mother, my dad. … Out of this I’m going to make money to make them better.” The pressures are deepened by a system in which young players sign with agent figures known as “buscones” who look after the boys with the expectation that if they make it big, they will hand over 25-50% of their signing bonus. A pimp with his prostitutes, if you will. Within the past two years, MLB has taken few measures to curtail this, but the effects have yet to be seen.
After Ozzie’s rant, MLB came out with an immediate response through their spokesman Rich Levin, “We spend more time and effort educating our Latin players about PED use than we do our domestic players in the United States. We test extensively in the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues, and we’ve increased the testing every year. We also have Sandy Alderson down in the Dominican Republic on a full-time basis and he’s dealing with a lot of these issues as well.”
I found it semi-hilarious that Levin cited Sandy Alderson as a reason why we need not be worried about PEDs being abused in Latino countries. It was reminiscent of cigarette companies informing the American public that their product was currently being studied by the smartest scientist in the whole world, and that users need not worry about its effects. It’s not difficult to envision Bud Selig actually believing that one man can figure this all out after he ignored his own steroid problem at the big league level for the better part of a decade.
If there are any lessons to be heeded from Ozzie’s comments, I believe the first one is that MLB can be far more aggressive in how it deals with issues concerning Latin American players. Yes they have taken the initial steps necessary to fix many of the prevalent concerns of guys like Ozzie Guillen, but those steps alone are not sufficient. I firmly believe that the “Latin American” issue in baseball could become the equivalent of the NFL’s concussion issue. Bud Selig would be wise to not let things spin out of his control by taking the necessary actions now. Steroids destroyed the credibility of his sport. Now a generation of players are going to have to suffer the consequences as the Hall of Fame, writers, and fans are left to speculate amongst themselves as to who was actually using and who didn’t. Why he would even let PEDs pop up into the conversation again is beyond me. He should be out there campaigning in those Latino countries that love his sport, warning about the dangers and long-term effects of steroids. You have to imagine there is a line of current and former Latino players waiting to support him, should he ever choose to take the necessary steps.
A sit down meeting with Guillen and other Latin American baseball leaders would be a great start. [Time][ESPN][collegeboard.com]