Mexico, Venezuela, and Japan all supply players to Major League Baseball, but no country accounts for nearly as many of them as the Dominican Republic. On Opening Day this year 83 Dominicans had jobs in the Bigs and many more appear on minor league rosters. In his new book Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice, Northeastern professor of Sociology-Anthropology Alan Klein examines the relationship between MLB and the game in the Dominican. He joined Bill Littlefield.
Highlights from Bill's Conversation with Alan Klein
BL: Let's start with some background about how young ballplayers in the Dominican Republic work their way toward trying to become the next Pedro Martinez or David Ortiz. Unlike players coming out of colleges or high schools in the U.S., they don't get drafted. They're represented by men called buscones--literally "finders." How does that process work?
AK: Well it's a process that's changed a lot over the past 20 years or so. Essentially at this point these young kids — 12, 13, 14 [years old] — are pretty much found in any empty lot you go to in any part of the country. And the person who's observing them and making decisions about their future are these people. They've been called buscones. I refer to them also as 'player developers' because they do a whole lot more than just simply find the players. And so if they sign this kid, they sign him with the understanding that they will develop him.
Now developing a kid may be as simple as just working him out daily, or, in the more sophisticated cases, buscones have complete academies where they bring them in. They feed them. They house them. They oftentimes pay for family members who are ill to receive medical treatment.
They basically take care of the entire family until that magic date when the kid turns 16.5. In the Dominican Republic that's called July 2 and that's an official point when a young player can be signed by a major league team. A buscone receives, by our standards, a rather substantial commission of 30 [to] 35 percent [of the signing bonus] is common these days.
BL: You suggest that the conflict and tension between the buscones and Major League Baseball "mirrors global relations between those with power and those without power." The most contentious example of that is the age at which Major League Baseball signs players I suppose. How did that rule come about?
AK: Initially there wasn't an age that was considered optimal. Back in the mid '80s a really important figure by the name of Ralph Avila who ran the Dodger Academy at Campo Las Palmas began to notice that his players just required a certain amount of time to mature. So they decided that signing 18-year-olds and then adding two or three more years was not really cost effective. It was better to get 16-year-olds, so they began to pay more for a 16-year-old and they began to pay less for an 18-year-old.
Getting back to that question about global relations, MLB was in a position to dictate the nature of the relationship, and it was the case that Dominicans accepted those decisions unquestioningly. And all of a sudden that changes at the turn of the century when buscones begin to develop a certain amount of power. And that's when the relationship becomes contested.
BL: Given those baseball facilities and the way in which number of Dominicans have assumed leadership positions not only in the Dominican Republic but in the front offices of Major League Baseball as well, why is it that, as you say, "MLB is still attempting to coerce Dominicans into compliance?"
AK: Well, you know, personally I think there's a healthy degree of tokenism at the highest levels. I don't truly feel that Dominicans are appreciated for what they can bring to an organization. I mean we love to see them on the field. We love to see them in front of a movie camera, but behind the camera, behind the scenes that's where the corridors of powers are and we're not going to give them power readily. There's a tendency to still view the Dominican Republic as a colonial outpost.
And as long as we have that colonial kind of mindset — I mean [former Mets General Manager] Omar Minaya was a great opportunity. It didn't work out in terms of winning championships, but what that team did in the short few years that he was general manager of the Mets was really kind of remarkable on the organizational level. And I think the Tampa Bay Rays do a great job, too, but there are limits to all that. So as an industry there are owners there that don't even know where their academy is in the Dominican Republic.
Bill's Thoughts On Dominican Baseball
For three decades, Alan Klein has been exploring the way Major League Baseball does business in the Dominican Republic.
He has watched as the executives of the game have sometimes operated like the U.S. Marines, uninvited and fatally sure of the righteousness of their flawed and ignorant mission. More recently, he has seen MLB back off a little as numbers of Dominicans have distinguished themselves at all levels of the ladder players must climb to achieve the success of Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, and scores of other Dominicans now prospering in the Bigs.
As an anthropologist, Klein is especially intrigued by the ways in which prospects on the island and the family members and trainers supporting them have slipped and slid around the most burdensome and arbitrary rules imposed on them by MLB, and by the attitudes generated by their ingenuity. As he explains, point of view is all. Behavior that strikes MLB's executives and general managers as "wily and scheming" seems merely "creative and open" – as well as logical and utterly necessary - to those representing the players. No wonder Klein has concluded that the relationship between Major League Baseball and the Dominicans to some extent "mirrors global relations between those with power and subalterns."
In one of the book's blurbs, The Nation's sports editor, Dave Zirin, writes that "if you don't understand the Dominican baseball pipeline in all its dimensions, then you can't say you understand baseball in the 21st century." He's right, and the triumph of Dominican Baseball is that Alan Klein makes the learning process energizing and compelling.
This segment aired on April 26, 2014.