Baseball in the Dominican Republic is a wasteland of crime and drugs. Big money turned one of the game's richest and proudest cultures into a festering pond of sleaze. For years, hustlers and pimps have taken advantage of impoverished and undereducated children while Major League Baseball allowed the entire racket to continue. Corruption metastasized. No one tried to stop it.
Early Thursday morning, MLB executive Sandy Alderson met with a group of Dominican baseball powerbrokers at the office of the nation's minister of sports. Alderson is 62 years old and doesn't speak Spanish, and the men in the room still eagerly anticipated his words. The message Alderson planned on delivering was straightforward, and it was going to scare the living hell out of them: He is ready to fix Dominican baseball, and he hopes everyone else is, too, because it's happening.
When Alderson accepted an offer to become commissioner Bud Selig's new point man on the island nation of 10 million that has grown into the largest supplier of MLB talent outside the United States, he did not realize the depth of the problems. Identity fraud is rampant. Teenagers are injected with steroids meant for horses. The FBI investigated claims of team employees skimming money from signing bonuses paid to 16-year-olds. Hundreds of kids sign contracts every year, and each is prey for a Dominican baseball behemoth built on lies.
Alderson met with scouts, Dominican officials and buscones – the Latin American talent brokers – for three hours Thursday. Prior to the meeting, the figure Alderson cut – a veritable Bill Hickok to this Wild, Wild Caribbean – worried some in the room who believed he would mess with their money. Others feared the repercussions of the international draft Selig said he wants to implement. Everyone was curious how someone with Alderson's background – Marine in Vietnam, Harvard Law, Oakland Athletics general manager, MLB vice president, San Diego Padres president – could come into such an unwieldy mess and possibly remedy it.
His stock answer about Dominican baseball's current state of affairs isn't so much an answer but a statement of fact: "The system as it currently exists can't continue."
And whether his mission succeeds or fails, Alderson will make sure of one thing: Very soon, Dominican baseball will look nothing like it does today.
Alderson talks like a lawyer, slowly and carefully, his words finished with a crisp enunciation and proper emphasis. His tone destroys any language barrier.
"Everyone's really afraid of him," said Edgar Mercedes, one of the buscones – slang for trainers – who are baseball's version of commodities traders. They traffic in raw, teenage baseball players. While Mercedes is thought to be one of the ethical ones – hand-picked by Alderson to serve as a buscon representative on the informal advisory panel that met Thursday – dozens of bad seeds litter Dominican ballfields, happy to change a boy's name or pump him with performance-enhancing drugs to secure a larger signing bonus.
Baseball's acceptance of the buscon system is easily explainable: For decades, the sport mined the Dominican Republic for embarrassingly cheap labor, offering poverty-stricken families a few thousand dollars in exchange for their talented children. The buscon took his 25 percent cut for training the player and the rest was supposed to go to the family while the kid pursued a career. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the kid made the big leagues. Usually he didn't.
Teams' investments were low-risk, low-overhead gambles. No one was going to actively change a system in which clubs acquired talent for pennies on the dollar, even if it involved crooked middlemen whose existence left the sport in its current position.
Signing bonuses spiked when teams exploited inefficiencies in the market. Last year, between the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American outposts, teams paid nearly $82 million for international players. Two years ago, Oakland gave one of Mercedes' kids, Michael Ynoa, a $4.25 million bonus. Baseball was no longer a pastime; it was an industry, an export, a business, and best of all for those who fancied themselves trainers, it was – and remains – almost completely unregulated.
"If one guy's got five players under contract and he's practicing in the middle of the highway, he calls himself a buscon," Mercedes said. "It's out of control. It's not fair to the kids or us.
"If you have a family sign the rights of the kids over to you, welcome to the club. It shouldn't be that easy. That's where all these shady characters keep coming in. We've got to keep these guys out of the game."
When the money grew, the system became unpalatable to both sides. MLB was giving teenagers seven-figure bonuses while getting pilloried publicly for the corruption. The legitimate buscones worried their businesses would implode upon intervention. Alderson wants to satisfy both sides, and that will take time, effort and money. When baseball hired him, it promised the sorts of resources the previous regime in MLB's Dominican office lacked. As he enacts the first phase of his plan, he'll need all the manpower he can get.
Before implementing systemic changes, Alderson said he wants to stabilize the current situation. The first issue is age and identity fraud. It's especially prevalent among 17- and 18-year-olds who buscones try to pass off as 16. The highest bonuses are reserved for the youngest, most projectable kids, and the difference is stark. As a 20-year-old in 2006, Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo would have garnered interest from no team. He posed as a 16-year-old named Esmailyn Gonzalez and fetched a $1.4 million bonus from Washington.
Equal on Alderson's agenda is steroid use. The percentage of positive tests coming out of the Dominican Summer League – a clearinghouse for teenagers – far exceeds that in the United States. The idea that buscones take prospects and shoot them up with the intention of receiving a bigger bonus isn't merely stomach-turning; it's real, and it's endemic, and the system in which buscones recruit kids at 11 and 12 years old, house them, feed them and teach them only encourages such abuses.
So does teams ignoring the charges. Last year, a 16-year-old pitcher named Rafael DePaula was red-flagged by the MLB Department of Investigations as an identity-fraud case and suspended for a year. Multiple teams are interested in signing him this year for more than $1 million. San Francisco voided the $1.3 million contract of 16-year-old Duanel Jones following a positive drug test. San Diego is expected to sign him soon for $900,000.
Changing baseball in the Dominican Republic is as much about overhauling teams' attitudes toward Latin America as it is cleaning up the place. While the corruption in Venezuela – the second-biggest talent-producing Latin American country – remains impenetrable due to president Hugo Chavez's policies, Dominican baseball officials say they want to fix their problems. The majority of buscones, Mercedes said, prefer the harsher drug testing Alderson plans, welcome a greater presence from the MLB Department of Investigations and hope the government follows through on its promise to help prosecute baseball-related crimes. Baseball hired Jorge Perez-Diaz, the former attorney general of Puerto Rico, to navigate legal issues.
Once the initial phase of Alderson's plan is complete – most of the changes are expected to happen by July 2, 2011, the first day of that year's international signing period – he'll move onto bigger and bolder initiatives. Alderson hopes to start a massive database, tracking kids from 12 years old and even younger with fingerprinting. Combining that with a Reviving Baseball in Inner City-type program would, in theory, help protect kids from rogue buscones and start a system through which Dominican youth can ascend.
"It's trying to convince people of what the mission here is and that my goal is really a constructive one," Alderson said. "I'm here to preserve what baseball and the Dominican Republic have while, at the same time, eliminating those problems that cast baseball, and the Dominican Republic itself, in a negative way. Baseball is the international identity of the Dominican Republic. It's important for them, and I think they agree with this, that their reputation is as positive as possible."
Outside of the Ambassador Hotel in Santo Domingo last week, hundreds of people gathered behind yellow barricades. Most of them were boys, 12 or 13 or 14, there at the behest of their buscones. They protested peacefully, well aware that inside the hotel Alderson was promising a group of scouts that he wasn't going to kneecap them right there.
If any one issue signifies the work Alderson must undertake to make stability in Dominican baseball a reality, it's the prospect of an international draft – the most frightening scenario possible for the country's baseball culture. Baseball employs thousands in the Dominican Republic. The popular theory is that a draft would neuter signing bonuses and destroy Dominican baseball like it did in Puerto Rico, which hasn't been the same since joining the draft in 1990.
"If we don't clean up the abuses, I think there's a very strong likelihood there will be a draft," Alderson said. "People will throw up their hands and consider it the solution to intractable problems. Often, the issue of a draft is driven more emotionally by a reaction to abuses than it is about any sort of logical extension of the existing system.
"I'm not looking to reduce the number of players signed. I'm not looking to reduce the size of signing bonuses. I'm not looking to introduce a draft down here, which is the gorilla in the room for many people."
Problem is, Alderson works as a proxy to Selig, who, along with union executive director Michael Weiner, has encouraged the idea of an international draft. The Dominicans see Alderson invading their country, their business, their livelihood, all with a new set of rules, and they start to revolt.
One of Alderson's first initiatives was for the Major League Scouting Bureau to help prepare reports on amateurs. The plan: MLB-approved scouts give the impartial observations necessary to stem the skimming problems, in which, for example, a team official would tell his clubs that a $200,000-level player ought to be paid $250,000. The official would then split the extra $50,000 with the buscon or keep the entire rake himself. It was classic Dominican baseball business: crooked, shifty and unseemly. Chicago White Sox director of player personnel David Wilder was caught coming back from the Dominican Republic with a reported $40,000 in cash. He was fired, as was Washington special assistant Jose Rijo, who faced skimming allegations along with former Nationals GM Jim Bowden.
The Scouting Bureau arrived recently to look at top prospects around the country. Rather than comply, some buscones have refused to showcase their players, according to a report in El Dia newspaper.
"Everyone's in a panic mode," Mercedes said. "People are just saying he's using us to bring in the draft. It's just the first step to implement the draft.
"A draft is too drastic. It's not going to correct what needs correcting. Why don't we try correcting before we fix? Why don't we change the tires instead of buying a new vehicle? Let's take these steps. If they don't work, then let's discuss it."
For those who try to make an honest living amid the chaos, there are too many things going on, too much smoke for there not to be fire, and that's what the protests and paranoia come down to: They don't know Sandy Alderson from Sandy Koufax, and they don't trust him, not yet at least.
"I do believe that many groups involved in this system view me as an adversary, and I can understand that," Alderson said. "Human nature is such that people don't like change. They don't like uncertainty. When there's an absence of information or confidence in where things are going, that unease becomes heightened. I certainly understand how many people feel. "On the other hand, all I can do is try to explain what I'm trying to accomplish and do it in as collaborative a manner as possible and do it over a period of time. Words are words."
And rather than have them coming through another person, Alderson is determined to learn Spanish. Once he finishes the semester teaching a sports marketing course at the University of California-Berkeley, he'll spend plenty more time in the Dominican Republic this summer, juggling the intricacies of overhauling a sporting culture embedded for decades and trying to master the language that is sure to consume him for years.
This is no in-and-out project and has no nickel-in-the-dam solution. Baseball is throwing a salvo, its first and probably its last, and the meeting Thursday was a warning to all the hustlers and pimps who think they can continue to steal money and innocence.
Finally, mercifully, someone's trying to stop it.
- Sandy Alderson
- Major League Baseball
- Dominican Summer League