— Major League Baseball has received a lot of credit in recent years for its diversity on the field.
The number of African-American players in the game may have decreased in the past 20 years, but so has the number of white players. In their place has risen an increasing number of players from Latin America, young athletes leaping at the chance to rise from the poverty of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Cuba in search of a better life and riches through baseball.
But although baseball has been credited with giving many young Latinos a way to escape from poverty, the system — and MLB in turn — has been accused of exploiting these same players.
Most major league teams run baseball academies in Latin American countries where they scout, train, woo and sign talented young players with which to stockpile their minor league systems.
In many cases they find players with the help of local agents — unregulated talent seekers called buscones. Some reports have accused buscones of taking healthy chunks — if not all — of players’ bonuses once they sign with big league clubs. There have also been cases of age and identity fraud, and a comparatively high rate of players being busted for steroid use.
In a New York Times article last month, Jonathan Mahler described academies in the Dominican Republic as “baseball plantations,” and wrote that “the teenagers inside their barbed-wire-topped walls are sold by local scouts to big-league teams or private investors who will ultimately profit off a chosen few and return the rest to lives of poverty.”
The problem was alarming enough that MLB commissioner Bud Selig hired former MLB vice president Sandy Alderson in early 2010 to tackle the problem.
Alderson admitted the problem was serious, and said that the culture of the system had to be changed.
“Not all the problems originate with the Dominican Republic and buscones,” he told The New York Times in March of 2010. “There are people on the team side who are playing a role in aiding this.”
Indeed, in March of this year, a Chicago White Sox scout pleaded guilty to a scheme in which he and two others are accused of pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from hopeful Latin American prospects.
Alderson later left his post to become general manager of the New York Mets, but Selig hasn’t let the issue die, and last month mentioned the possibility of expanding the draft to include countries worldwide. Currently, only players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for the draft.
But would a worldwide draft really eliminate the problems in places like the Dominican Republic? Some, like Atlanta Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez, think that would cause more problems than it solves.
Gonzalez, who is from Venezuela, said his country doesn’t have any high school or college baseball programs to speak of, and that players rely on the academies both to use as training facilities, and as a way to be seen by scouts.
“If they bring the draft to Venezuela and Colombia, I don’t know if that will work,” he said. “Schools don’t have baseball teams. … Getting into the academy is like a draft itself. Players come from all over to go to them. You get food — breakfast, lunch and dinner — you get training, and weights. The scouts go right away to the academies and see many guys. I think it’s a very good way.”
Gonzalez, who said he signed for a mere $4,500 with the Florida Marlins in 1994, pointed to improving signing bonuses as a good sign for international players.
Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Gonzalez’s countryman, signed for $1.9 million in 1999. In 2008, the Cincinnati Reds spent $4.7 million to sign just two players, a pitcher from Venezuela and an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, both just 16. And on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs gave $1.1 million to a 16-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic named Enrique Acosta.
“That’s why I think the best thing is to go to the academies,” Gonzalez said. “If you perform for those guys and show the scouts what you can do, you can make some big bucks.”
But what about the players who don't make it? Is it worth it for those who fail to draw interest from a big league team?
Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez likened the system to a tennis or soccer camp in the U.S. taking in a sporting prodigy at age 14, training them and attempting to turn them into a star. Some make it, some don't, but it's worth taking a shot.
“We can go into a country and get talent out of it, and help their family,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s exploiting them. It’s helping them find a way to help their families and to better themselves.
“And I think we all would (take that chance).”