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Don’t Cry Into Your Gruel, Oliver

There’s a very good and very disconcerting piece up by the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt today, about independant baseball academies in the Dominican Republic – some of which seem somewhat morally queasy, and others like flat-out Dickensian exploitation.

Recognizing that major league teams are offering multimillion-dollar contracts to some teenage prospects, the investors are either financing upstart Dominican trainers, known as buscones, or building their own academies. In exchange, the investors are guaranteed significant returns — sometimes as much as 50 percent of their players’ bonuses — when they sign with major league teams. Agents in the United States typically receive 5 percent.

The investors include Brian Shapiro, a New York hedge fund manager who, along with Reggie Jackson, tried to buy the Oakland Athletics several years ago; Steve Swindal, the former general partner of the Yankees; Abel Guerra, a former White House official under President George W. Bush; and Hans Hertell, a former United States ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Educators and Major League Baseball officials worry because there is no oversight of the investors’ academies, and they question why the investors want to be part of a system that takes teenagers out of school and has been involved in scandals over steroid use and players lying about their ages.

Even in cases where the academies are well-run and above-board, as Steve Swindal’s  is described as being, wealthy Americans “investing” in impoverished 14-year-olds as if they were stocks strikes me as pretty damn unsettling. And in cases where they’re not…

An hour and a half by car from Santo Domingo, at the end of a dirt road in the town of Don Gregorio, a piece of the Dominican baseball system can be found in a small house surrounded by concrete walls and metal fences topped with shiny barbed wire. The entrances are locked.

Inside is a pensión, a dormitory for about a dozen prospects as young as 14. They are trained by California Sports Management of Sacramento, a firm run by the agent Greg J. Maroni and financed by his father, Greg G. Maroni, a dentist who owns several fast-food franchises.

Although one coach supervises the dormitory at night, two other prospects had gone over the fence earlier this year, Mr. Paulino said in September. “It’s to make sure they don’t get out,” he said.

A few weeks later, though, the younger Mr. Maroni and Mr. Paulino said that Mr. Paulino’s characterization of the barbed wire was incorrect and that it had been installed to prevent break-ins.

Yeah, that’s not creepy at all.

As fellow SNYer Ted Berg noted:

Not entirely surprising, but it sort of puts a human face on a bunch of stuff you could pretty much figure out was going on if you ever really thought about it.

For every kid that makes it to the majors and finds success and financial security in the U.S., how many dozens or hundreds are left stranded without even a high school education once they’re no longer a promising investment? And to take up to 50% of a player’s bonus? This whole system makes my skin crawl. The article is well worth reading, but I do wish Schmidt had gotten the chance to talk to former prospects and/or current MLB players who’ve been through the system, because I’d very much like to hear their thoughts on this.


1 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 18, 2010 7:43 pm

I definitely respect the argument, but couldn't disagree more. These private academies are a good thing for the game baseball and the kids in the DR, but probably a bad thing for the finances of team owners. In some ways, I think these academies are related to the push to expand the Rule IV draft. I have a current blog posting up taking the exact opposite stance as Emma, but regardless of how you feel about these academies, baseball would be making a big mistake if it expanded the draft. Instead, it should be abolished altogether.

2 Will Weiss   ~  Nov 18, 2010 8:28 pm

[0] Good post, Emma, and a good article by Schmidt. I've studied this extensively, spent time in the DR and visited the Oakland A's academy in La Victoria, and also the Astros' academy in San Pedro de Macoris. My takeaway: the privately funded academies are not all that different from the academies established, owned and operated by MLB. The only difference is that these academies are not owned and operated by MLB.

[1] With all due respect to your stance, William, these private academies are good for growing the game in the DR, but they're the equivalent of the AAU and youth basketball here in the states. Less than 5% of the kids that enter the academies, receive signing bonuses, etc., ultimately reach the Major Leagues. I met a young man in my time down there who was a prospect in the Expos' system -- a shortstop -- who tore his rotator cuff in his second to last year in the Academy and was never heard from again. If kids don't receive a signing bonus by their last year in the academy, they're discarded. Yes, it's business, and a cruel one, but it's important to understand the effects on all sides.

Two books that will provide even more color on this (granted, they're outdated but they do provide insight): Away Games, by Marcos Breton; and Sugarball, by Alan M. Klein.

On another note, ever wonder why there's never a Dominican team in the Little League World Series? The 11, 12 and 13-year-olds being groomed for the academies are clearly the best players, but because of politics -- these kids are from impoverished areas and are not seen as proper ambassadors for the country -- they're not part of the team. It's the bourgeois kids on the national team. They're not as talented, and they lose.

3 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 18, 2010 9:03 pm

[2] Even if only 5% receive a bonus, that's: (1) still a significant number; and (2) doesn't mean the other 95% haven't benefitted from the schooling, nutrition, bed to sleep in, etc. I 100% agree that the private academies are the same as the MLB ones (that was one of my main points), but think it's wrong to suggest they mostly engage in exploitation.

I’ve also had the privilege of visiting DR on a few occasions and have a friend with a family member who once participated in a camp. In many areas of the country, the economic situation is so bad that the academies are still a haven for even those who aren’t signable.

I’d also recommend Breton’s Away Game. I don’t think it is outdated at all.

4 Raf   ~  Nov 18, 2010 11:50 pm

There was an exhibit at the BBHOF about the academies, they had a blurb on Mario Encarnacion, a player that had committed suicide while in Taipei.

5 Raf   ~  Nov 18, 2010 11:55 pm

[1] Who's making the push? I would think that the status quo would be the way teams would want it.

6 Will Weiss   ~  Nov 19, 2010 1:45 am

[3] I could go back and forth with you all day, William. I appreciate your intelligent and insightful posts and I'm sure we'd end up in circles. Your second point perfectly illustrates psychology of the economic power versus the third-world nation. We might see it that way, that we're giving those kids an opportunity, for however many years they're in the academy. It's true, for many it's the first time they're eating three meals a day or receiving any type of education, and all those things are positive. At the A's academy, the rep told us that the average player gained between 20 and 30 pounds of muscle in their first year.

That the kids who don't make it return to the life of poverty, in some cases emigrating to Puerto Rico or the US, or even working at the growing number of resorts down there, is proof of the exploitation. It's tantamount to hiring child laborers to work in the factories in the Free Trade Zone there. These kids belief there is no other shot for them to succeed, and most likely, there isn't.

7 RIYank   ~  Nov 19, 2010 8:50 am

I don't know enough details to have a firm judgment. But in a general way, I agree with William on this. Will, you say the fact that the kids in the academies who don't make it go back to poverty or emigrate is "proof of the exploitation." I don't buy that. Not everyone is going to succeed. The academies get nothing in return for training up the ultimately unsuccessful kids, the kids don't score economically, it's just a wash. But they aren't any worse off, either. So I don't see how that's exploitive.

These kids belief there is no other shot for them to succeed, and most likely, there isn’t.

Indeed. That strikes me as an extremely bad reason to oppose the academies! Unfortunately, this is the only shot these kids will ever have to climb out of poverty. So, let's make sure they don't get it?

The way I see it, in the long run a bunch of Dominican kids are going to make it big time in baseball, and a huge number are not. With the academies in place, at least (i) maybe a few more do make it, and (ii) some cash is getting sent back into the DR.

Obviously, it's not ideal. It's just better than the alternative.

8 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 19, 2010 10:21 am

[6] What's the alternative then? Again, I would imagine that emigrating to the U.S. or working in a resort (both made easier by even the little English learned in an academy) is still better than what otherwise would be the alternative. If there is real opportunity involved, I don't think you can call it exploitation. I am not suggesting this is charity either, but sometimes free enterprise can have a positive impact when two parties have their interests aligned. In this case, the investors and Dominican players can help each other out. The alternative for these children is to begin a live of manual labor (not many seem to be dropping out of school to join the academies) or be at the mercy of the MLB academies, which have a vested interest in keeping the bonuses low.

9 seamus   ~  Nov 19, 2010 11:08 am

[8] The fact that these kids will *probably* be exploited by others doesn't mean that this isn't exploitation.

10 williamnyy23   ~  Nov 19, 2010 1:16 pm

[9] Who said they will be exploited by others? Not having access to an education, shelter, food, etc. isn't the result of exploitation. It's a fact of life in rural areas of the Dominican Republic. Exploitation is engaging in a relationship that is designed to only benefit one part. In the case of academies, they either clother, feed and house children with baseball talent for a period of time and then receive no compensation, or they do the same and get 50% of a bonus, which also greatly benefits the player (and in many cases could represent more money they'd otherwise have seen in their lifetime).

Where exactly is the exploitation?

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