DRSEA INFORMER: Dominican Gold Rush
- Updated: August 3, 2010
The stampede for baseball talent in the Dominican Republic never ceases to amaze me as Major League Baseball and its teams spend $100 million a year to identify and develop talent where there is 98 percent collateral damage. It is like planting 100 apples trees, but picking the fruit from only two, and yet, the orchard is considered a good business venture.
Actually, Dominican baseball is predicated upon picking unripe fruit, signing 16-year-old green apples to professional contracts, while at the same time MLB requires players in the United States to complete high school or turn 18 before signing. Further, if a U.S. prospect chooses to attend college, he must complete his junior year or turn 21 to be draft eligible.
Why then is there a rush to sign Dominicans at 16, but Americans are required to ripen at least two more years? Add to that the fact that unlike the National Basketball Association or the National Football League, drafted baseball players very seldom make an immediate impact, instead spending years in the minors to further perfect their skills. Rarely does any player make it to the majors while still a teenager.
Those in the know tell me that baseball’s talent prognosticators estimate that it takes at least five years to develop talent prepared to play at the major league level, meaning an 18-year-old from Kalamazoo will be at least 23 before he is a MLB rookie.
I am told that the same formula does not apply in the Dominican Republic, where players don’t have the advantage of a well established development system like in the United States where there is Little League, Babe Ruth, Pony League, American Legion, school teams and a host of other organized competition. While there are leagues in the Dominican Republic, they are not always easily accessible, and the training offered is generally not as sophisticated.
That is why everyone is in such a hurry to pluck unripened fruit off the Dominican baseball tree. Conventional wisdom is that the sooner the fruit is picked, the sooner the ripening process begins, and the sooner the fruit can develop its full flavor. While they are very talented, Dominican players do not experience the same baseball pipelines as their American counterparts and need more seasoning, more time to develop, more time to become major league ready, according to the experts. So, it is considered advantageous to grab them as early as possible; “Teams would take them at 14 if they could,” one insider told me.
That gold rush for talent undoubtedly is what created many of the problems plaguing Dominican baseball today. Players lie about their ages to make them more attractive to teams and take steroids to become bigger, faster and stronger than normally developed 16-year-olds. And buscones, the talent scouts who search for and deliver prospects to teams, are more than willing to cheat to get their young clients signed so they can siphon off huge portions of their bonuses.
Among the possibilities being considered in the reform movement now taking place in Dominican baseball are raising the signing age to 18 and subjecting players to an international draft. I don’t think either is a good idea; that would upset the Dominican baseball ecosystem. There is unilateral agreement that the system has problems, but raising the signing age or adopting an international draft would destroy Dominican baseball, the good with the bad.
Given the acknowledged lack of a quality public education in the Dominican Republic, a multitude of young boys drops out of school to pursue the dream of baseball. Many of these 16-year-old prospects receive discipline, direction and purpose though baseball that they would not otherwise obtain. Baseball could better serve them by providing educational opportunities as well; the DRSEA’s goal is to be one of the educational options available to Dominican baseball players.
I also think that one of the flaws in the current system is the devaluation of players 19 years old and above. These players are considered over the hill, but lie about their age to regain consideration, which many of them receive. Last year, baseball teams voided more than $15 million in signing bonuses after age discrepancies were discovered.
It seems to me that some of the age fraud could be avoided if this so-called over-the-hill gang could get a legitimate shot at the stardom all Dominican baseball players crave. Logic dictates that if a 19-year-old believes he still has a chance to reach his dream, he will be less likely to lie about his age.
Sure, you would still be getting what many consider a diamond in the rough who faces the same developmental timetable as a 16-year-old, but the upside is a more mature, more focused 19-year-old man as opposed to a 16-year-old boy.
Why not have baseball teams in the Dominican Republic offer a combine similar to what the National Football League uses to evaluate talent prior to its annual draft, but only for those players 19 and over? Once, twice a year bring this Geritol generation to a location for workouts to assess their skills; make those workouts open to all teams who can then select promising players directly or via a special draft. These players can easily be identified by the baseball’s expanded Scouting Bureau that now covers all of Latin America.
Baseball has already taken several steps in addressing age and identity fraud, including the use of fingerprinting of young Dominican prospects as was first advocated in the DRSEA INFORMER a year ago. Giving those over 19 one last shot at the gold can only help eliminate their need to lie about when they were born.