BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic – When they built their baseball complex a short drive from downtown Santo Domingo, a thrill-a-minute ride east along the shoreline on Autopista Las Americas, the New York Mets sought to preserve the area's native sensibility.
So just beyond the warning tracks, and at the ends of paths that lead away from the grounds, and brushing against the walls of the charming two-story dorms and classrooms, papaya and mango trees still stand against bracing sea winds. Palms line the walks. Shade soothes the batting cages.
According to Rafael Perez, who as director of the Mets' international operations led the efforts to design and construct the academy and now heads Major League Baseball's Dominican office, the idea was to create a facility that would impose on neither the land nor its people.
As if baseball, in any form, could. Not here, where the game splashes against their souls like the ocean against their beaches.
Beside a highway off-ramp during rush hour, a young boy gallops into the street after a stray foul ball. A cab driver taps his brake for what seems like the first time in miles, allowing the boy and the tattered pelota safe passage. The driver does not gesture with his hands or threaten with his horn, as even the slightest delays are met previously. Baseball has the right of way.
At the window of a tiny café whose television is angled just so, three men stand on the sidewalk and follow the Caribbean World Series, the last innings of Escogido of the Dominican Republic against Aragua of Venezuela, a game miles away whose crowd noise might be just out of earshot. The ballpark is a third empty, in part because ticket prices are out of reach for too many in Santo Domingo, but the games go on, and the men drink beer from green bottles and watch, because baseball here does not recognize economic privilege.
It is the essence of the land and its people, and a sport that is less pastime than heartbeat, and why Perez set out to build not simply a baseball academy, but a place that fit into all of it.
In a way, that's exactly what led 50 boys – both local and Venezuelan, and all soon to be eligible to sign with a major league team – to Perez's former grounds Friday and Saturday.
Seeking order and transparency to a sometimes corrupt and shady system of identifying, tracking, evaluating, selling and signing young Dominican ballplayers, Major League Baseball held its first Venezuela-Dominican Republic showcase before some 200 scouts from its 30 teams. This was at the Mets' academy, a few miles off the highway, on the left side of a winding road, just past the Philadelphia Phillies' complex.
Dominicans in red, Venezuelans in blue, 15- and 16-year-olds ran sprints, performed fielding drills, took batting practice and then played three games, two on Saturday. On two mild winter days, through a hard wind and the occasional rain shower, the kids played, the scouts measured, the parents cheered and the so-called buscones – local slang for trainers/agents – kept an eye on it all.
"This," said one trainer, "was a good idea."
Rather than sling an international draft at the many concerns about illegal ballplayer peddling in the Dominican, including the regular misrepresentations of age and identity, MLB is for the moment opting for softer solutions – notions such as cooperation between the game and the trainers, between trainers and the teams, and between the young ballplayers and the lives they seek.
"The draft is what killed baseball in Puerto Rico," a buscon said.
And that is the hammer baseball seemingly holds: Keep operating like criminals, keep turning your nation's children into steroid-sodden mysteries who carry the names of cousins, and everybody goes out of business but baseball. That the draft in Puerto Rico is only a small part of the chilling of the game on that island is meaningless. Dominicans, especially the ones who run the underground baseball trade, believe it to be true.
"Baseball doesn't want a draft here because of fraud or steroids," said the buscon. "They want a draft because it would save them money. Teams wouldn't have to pay so much in bonuses. Our kids would lose all their leverage. Here, they can't go to college or play in the U.S. summer leagues or play independent ball. If they didn't sign, where would they go?"
MLB officials on the ground here – senior vice president of baseball operations Kim Ng among them – insisted the showcase was not a prelude to a draft. Rather, it was designed to put prospects in front of major league teams, to eliminate some of the darker elements in the life cycle of the Dominican prospect, and to educate the prospects and their families about where it can become damaging. Rather than swing a wrecking ball, baseball planted flowers.
The program happened to come along at a time of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that (for some) tightened and capped international spending. It also arrived shortly after two prominent MLB players from the Dominican – Miami's Leo Nunez and Cleveland's Fausto Carmona – were found to have lied about their ages and identities years ago. They are on their clubs' restricted lists, so drawing no salary while settling their legal dilemmas.
Ng granted that when MLB moved in, beginning two years ago with Sandy Alderson's perceived heavy hand, "People found that suspicious."
But, she added, "This is just an area that for many years was not well supervised. With the amount of money pouring into Latin America, it makes sense we should try to bring some structure. Bringing a more structured presence to the country is beneficial to everyone."
Many buscones, of course, got rich without the structure, as did many Dominican boys, and what follows MLB intrusion is a certain amount of resistance. For all the emotional attachment Dominicans have to baseball, it's also a way out, and a very real way out for kids with loose arms and broad shoulders and quick hands and feet. The system as it operated for more than 50 years may have been badly broken and sometimes sinister, but it also bought houses, and in them electricity and running water and groceries.
Going on 600 major leaguers have come from the Dominican Republic, and while that's a tiny percentage over a half-century in a nation of 10 million people, it's plenty enough to see promise in the arm of a 15-year-old whose fastball clocks at 88 mph.
Rafael Perez, who was born in Santo Domingo, attended a U.S. college on the same type of athletic grant that funded the likes of Jose Bautista, and played in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization, understands that.
"We cannot hide the truth of the poverty," he said.
He then looked across the field at what could prove to be a groundbreaking ballgame.
"It's a bright light," he said, "to a better future."
A few scouts in attendance grumbled at what they called "pool" scouting, where they sat shoulder to shoulder with competing scouts rather than pounding the dirt roads, hustling for the next Vladimir Guerrero or scheming for the next David Ortiz. But, most appreciated a few hours off their feet and the chance to see real Dominican and Venezuelan prospects in a game atmosphere, amounting to more information and a couple days out from under the whims of the buscones.
"I still like the fact you can go out there and sign a player at any time," said Omar Minaya, the former Mets general manager and current senior vice president of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres. "But this is progress. There's more clarity. Clarity for the teams. Clarity for the players. And clarity for the trainers."
Beyond the Venezuela-Dominican Republic showcase, MLB has created a tournament – El Tourno Supremo – for the country's top prospects. In order to sign, players must be registered with the MLB Scouting Bureau. In turn, the bureau and a department of investigators vet the birth certificates provided by the players, a process that might include visits to a player's town, neighborhood, school, even the hospital in which they were born.
MLB also warns the families of the ills of steroid use, and of the bonus skimming that seemed epidemic, and all that lurks out there for their boys, too young to know any better and too skilled to lose it all to a single bad decision.
It won't ever be perfect. There won't be a time when everyone is satisfied.
But, you know, when Perez shaped this baseball academy and its acreage, the place that four years later invited in these young men, there were gaps. So, he planted other trees, groves of them – canepas, grapefruits, bananas and oranges.
Now, in the late mornings, when the boys are wrung out from their workouts but not quite to lunch, they feed on the fruits in the fields, their snacks drizzled in honey for energy.
With forethought, and a lighter touch, and a notion as to what works in this part of the world and what doesn't, he didn't level the land, but asked it to grow alongside the baseball and sustain the people on it.
There can't be anything wrong with that, can there?