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06/26/2015

Inside Houston Astros Visit in the DR

I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Astros academy. Up until I read the chapter assigned to us by April in Klein’s book I didn’t know anything about the history of the MLB academies in the DR. To see it in person was extremely eye-opening. The facility itself was pretty nice. I personally took note of the weight room and some of the exercise routines the guys do in the weight room as well as their pre-workout routine, which is done in English to my surprise. About 20 players are assigned to come in and workout with the strength and conditioning coach several times a week. I’d prefer 5-8 players in one session just to ensure they have proper form and technique. That way when they get to the U.S. they at least know the proper way to exercise. One of the most interesting things we were told is that these guys have a rigorous schedule. They have to be at the academy at 6 am, eat breakfast, stretch, have a light practice, play a game, shower, eat lunch and then go to class. That’s very intense schedule for anyone, let alone a teenage boy who needs adequate rest and sleep in order to grow and be healthy. Most of these kids haven’t been to school in six to eight years because they dropped out to play baseball. Now they’ve signed a professional contract or are in the process of getting signed and their employer want them to sit through school after a long day. How can you instill that motivation in them? How can you convey to them that an education is just as important as playing baseball? I hope in the next coming weeks I will learn about the impact MLB has on the path these players take from the Dominican Republic to the big league.

Week 2 Post: Cubans, Cricket, Jim Crow and Baseball

There is a saying that I tell people from time to time when talking about baseball by Leo Durocher. He said “Baseball is like church, many attend but few understand.” Within the sport of baseball people observe and listen but only a few understand the true strategies and intricacies involved in the game that make it so amazing. Ruck compares the spreading of baseball from the U.S. to Caribbean countries--most notably Cuba the Dominican Republic--to spreading Christianity. He uses a metaphor as the U.S. being Jesus and Cubans being the disciples that brought baseball to the Dominican Republic.

When Cuba was under Spanish rule Cubans played baseball instead of soccer to be defiant. Once Cuba was not under Spanish rule class, race and gender didn’t matter when it came to playing baseball. Ruck described it as mobility and freedom prevailing. Cubans began to play better than most white MLB teams who came from the U.S. to play them. The white baseball teams had mixed feelings about constantly being beaten by the Latino players. On one side they were upset, losing to Cubans was not part of the white man’s burden. The other side of that was “if you can’t beat them, join them.” White MLB owners wanted to sign Cubans to play for their organization but this by no means meant they were equal.

To say Cubans of African descent weren’t aware of racism before they arrived to the U.S. would be completely false. They knew of racism but it was not a legal institution in Cuba. The Afro-Cubans that did go to the states were faced with the startling truth that virtually everything they did would be formed around their ethnicity. Organizations tried to “sneak” Cubans in any way they could. Some of them passed as African-American and joined the Negro League and had stellar careers. Some tried to play for white organizations and passed as non-black but potentially white. I can’t imagine being a baseball player coming to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language very well and people despising me for a physical attribute I can’t control. The color line W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of was ever visible.

White and African-Americans didn’t know which side of the line they stood on. Are you black or are you Latino? You’re as so dark but you speak Spanish, hmmm….it really divided the nation. The players who didn’t have as hard of a time were the players that were visibly white or lighter skinned. In Playing America’s Game in the chapter entitled “Purest Bars of Castilian Soap” Cuban players had to disassociate themselves from their African ancestry in order to be accepted by white America. As Vic Power said, “What kind of country is this?” Everyone wants to have Vic’s confiedence to drive around in a convertible with white women or women with blonde wigs just to piss people off. Unfortunately not everyone has that same opportunity. If it wasn’t for Afro-Cuban inserting themselves into the Major Leagues, Dominicans would have faced a lot more resentment and grief than was anticipated. Integration was a process in baseball and everywhere else.

James uses the window to look at Matthew Bondman just as we look through our window to witness the impact baseball has on Dominicans. Bondman to James may have been the scum of the earth but for one at bat he was graceful and elegant with his cricket swing. While it is nice at times to stay in your little safe corner of the world and put a wall up, or in this case a window, to protect yourself from the wild and unknown, think again. Live a little, go out and see for yourself what life is like beyond this window. You may think you know but you have no idea until you’re living it.

I thought I could anticipate what it would be like to go to a different country and see how this society is structured. What I have found is that it is a lot more complex than I thought and nothing you can fully prepare for. This includes people self-identifying as something else than what they seem to be physically or giving 16 year old kids six-figure paychecks and having their entire family depend on them. So instead of looking out my window at these problems or into the unknown I will dive head-first into the Dominican baseball culture and try to unpack what it really means to play Dominican baseball on all levels, amateur and professional.

06/25/2015

"Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Baseball."--Movie Review for Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas

Screening the documentary Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas really uplifted my spirits after learning and observing the intricacies of the path Dominicans take to play professional baseball. This film did a good job of portraying what the road is like and not over-romanticizing it.

The film showed three different point of views which allowed the audience to gain some prospective. One was a young, skinny, confident, witty kid named Vlad who was probably a pre-teen. He said he dreamed of being a professional ball player and to give money back to his family. This made me think about what Sonya said at the MLB offices on Wednesday. She made it seem like if it wasn’t for MLB coming in and telling these kids how to use their signing bonuses they would just spend it frivolously. Vlad seems to have a good head on his shoulders and it was good to hear him say that’s actually a priority for him even at a young age.

 The second perspective was from this aspiring seventeen year old prospect who is hoping to get signed by a major league team. I’m glad the movie showed him not being successful in every tryout he had, I’m sure that happens more often than not. He had to live with his buscon for a month so he could train and get ready for his next tryout. He did nothing but have “breakfast, lunch, dinner and baseball.”

The last perspective which I thought was the most insightful and perhaps the most realistic was the guy who had everything going for him and falsified his birth certificate to try to say he was younger than he actually was. His cockiness was overwhelming about the talent he once had/still has. He went on to say how he outworks everyone on the field because he wants to be the best. It was very easy to not to like this guy, but one thing he said that can honestly sum up the game is that playing baseball is a luxury. While one can limit it to just being a game it can dominate your life but playing it all day, every day can take its toll on you especially when you have to provide for yourself.  He tried to hustle anyone that he could in order to eat and have money.

From a cultural standpoint I can see how the socio-economic structure from which these kids come from can lead them to think that the only way they can be successful is to become a major league player and pull their entire family out of poverty. When the mom of the seventeen year old finally signed his contract and she said how happy she was that her son paid her debt I was really taken back. Even if that was true I don’t think I would said that to a camera. The fact that your son gets to chase his dreams should be enough for you. The idea that he may possibly be paying your debts should be thought in the back of your mind. Maybe that’s another cultural difference in the Dominican Republic (or so I’ve noticed); people here are very upfront. They don’t sugarcoat anything.

This film did not sugarcoat the process in which the Dominican players go through from an early age until they get signed by a major league team. They showed the audience three perspectives which gave insight into how the process works as well as barriers players face cultural or ethical. 

MLB Office Visit

The process that players have to go through in order to be signed by a team is quite an extensive one, as we learned today at the MLB offices. Players first have to be registered to be drafted, which can take more than a month, and then they have to be investigated, which can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 5 months. What I found most interesting was the amount of players that have to be DNA tested to confirm how old they are, who their parents are, and that they’re not trading identities with a sibling. I kept thinking about how this would not go over well in the United States with American families. They would be up in arms over the amount of scrutiny that their son would have to go through. Whereas, here in the Dominican, families and players are completely fine with the process, as they feel it is necessary in order to make money.

Rudy Ramirez Visit

Seeing the players at Rudy Ramirez’s little league was something special. We saw how dedicated they were to the program as they worked out and practiced. The field they worked on was nothing more than a backstop with some makeshift dugouts and dirt in a pile where the pitcher’s mound goes. Listening to how little resources these guys had made me glad that I grew up where I had access to more than a handful of baseballs, gloves without holes in them, and athletic trainers that could ice my arm or tape sore joints. It kind of goes back to the saying “You don’t know how good you have it until you see somebody that doesn’t.” I certainly now appreciate the smaller things that I didn’t when I was growing up playing baseball. The love for the game that the guys have down here is certainly strong enough to work without the little things.

06/24/2015

The Man Behind the Curtain: MLB Santo Domingo Office Visit

This is the day all of us have been waiting for: To go MLB office in Santo Domingo. After seeing the little league levels, buscones to an extent and the Houston Astros academy it is due time we see el jefe (the boss). The office itself was pretty nice, lots of cool decorations. The conference rooms were named after Dominican hall of famers and they had a huge wall that said in several different languages that “here we speak baseball” which I thought was very awesome. As we sat in the Pedro Martinez conference room we listened to four people from four different departments.

The first woman was part of a department that was responsible for educating the community. They also tried to get kids in poor areas interested in school and instill hope in them to play professional baseball one day. She also helped players who are signed, part of a clubhouse and/or get released. Once a player is released they try to help them pick up the pieces of their lives and figure out their next move whatever that may be. They cannot find guaranteed jobs for these guys. Personally I think more could be done in these communities and I don’t think MLB needs to do it necessarily. I think they should hire another company to teach these kids if education was that important to them. Apparently it’s not super high on the list because some major league academies in the DR like the Pittsburgh Pirates actually have their prospects receive a diploma while other academies have no clear-set education goal.

The second woman was from the department that verifies the identity of players. Players have to submit the correct paperwork--which includes things like birth certificates, etc.--in order to sign on July 2nd. There are many hiccups that can occur including falsifying a birth certificate or kids claiming to be one of their older brothers. According to this woman it can take up to as little as three to four weeks or as long as eight months. That seems to be a dicey job, I wouldn’t want to do that. The third person was a man from registration who talked about the process in which prospects get put in the system. Not riveting stuff but good to know. The last guy was part of the RBI program and talked about trying to encourage kids to play baseball in the inner city in the DR.

All in all I’m glad we went and I’m glad we went with Dr. Raj and Dr. April because they asked a lot of thought-provoking questions that made us question how effectively MLB is practicing what they preach. Some of this stuff sounds good in theory and some of it is a load of crap. Over the course of the next five weeks it’s our job to uncover and unpack what the problems are and how to possible fix them. Baseball deserves better than that.

 

 

Whatever it takes

While we chatted with the little league director Rudy Ramirez, we saw practice end for a training school for older players. A couple of the players wandered over to us, speaking unaccented English, which drew our attention. The players introduced themselves – they were 16 and 20, both from the east coast of the U.S. Both were Dominican and had come here to work with a buscón and stay with extended family, hoping to be signed here.

The dream of most Dominican ballplayers is to leave the island for the U.S., leaving their poverty behind. These two players, on the other hand, were traveling against the current, playing on a field overtaken by weeds in a neighborhood mostly wrought by poverty. The fact that a player would choose to come to the DR from the U.S. for a better chance to be signed tells several things about their perception of the MLB pipeline.

1. There's more opportunity in the DR to get signed, and better player development. The former may well be true, as they can avoid the U.S. draft and try to get signed to start at an academy at a lower level than the Rookie league in the US. As for the latter, player development has been allowed to occur here without being coupled with education. In the U.S., students must play through high school and sometimes college to get scouted and drafted, while here they can leave school and focus on training. While player development on the field may be superior here, especially for those who have little money, full personal development including education is often deemphasized.
2. They will stand out among their colleagues as more mentally and culturally ready play in the U.S. As native English speakers who grew up in the U.S., they should have no trouble adjusting back to the culture and language of their hometown.
3. The sacrifice of leaving friends and family, as well as manicured baseball fields, is worth the chance to get signed. This statement fits in perfectly with MLB's idea that with sacrifice and hard work, anyone can make it to the big leagues. Accordingly, these players' sacrifice should pay off in the long run, as long as they keep working harder and stay mentally tough. However, even in the DR, the chance of being signed and succeeding is so low that these players may not yet understand the unlikelihood of reaching this dream.IMG_8432

Without knowing the backstories of these players, it's impossible to know the value of the sacrifices they have made to come to the Dominican Republic, nor the likelihood of them paying off. What is clear, however, is that the portrayal of success in Dominican baseball has become strong enough to lure the players who have already reached the dreams of so many of their new teammates: to leave the island and play ball in the U.S.

More than half mental

Yogi Berra once said that 90% of the game is half mental. According to officials at the Major League Baseball offices in the Dominican Republic, it's 95% mental and only 5% physical. By feeding them this figure, MLB encourages young players to think that anything is possible – if they get develop the right mental outset, they can reach the major leagues. However, this is far from the reality: only an extremely small percentage of those who are signed by a major league team will ever reach the majors, and those signed already constitute a tiny portion of boys with dreams.


MLB has inserted itself into some education systems in the Dominican Republic, offering workshops or sex ed classes where they deem them "necessary." But with the tagline that anyone can succeed at playing professional baseball, boys are encouraged to drop everything in favor of pursuing their unlikely dream. MLB then provides an optional program for released players, where they can take classes or learn life skills in an attempt to find themselves a new future. The coordinator of education at MLB related that at that point, most players don't want an education, and are not accepting the opportunities that MLB has created for them. But when a player has been in his own potentially for baseball success for long, it's no wonder that he's hesitant to take his education seriously. The propagation of the idea that baseball can be the end of poverty is the problem, not the solution. A better solution would be a bit of realism: focus on your education while you have the chance, because you're probably not going to make it in the baseball world.


MLB's low-effort attempt to increase education for players is more hurtful than helpful. MLB has more than enough money to dedicate to a larger education program, in which they insist that players must have completed a certain level of education before they can sign with a team. If they're not willing to put in enough money to create a fully-formed system of education for their players and prospects, then they're better off staying out of it. Maybe they could throw some of their money at the Dominican public education system to improve it from start to finish, instead of entering only where they deem it "necessary."

Columbust

        The Colonial Zone is full of contradictions. An historic neighborhood in the first city in the New World, it serves to attract tourists and preserve original sites and landmarks, while quietly marking the beginning of the end of the native Taíno people on the island. I spoke with my host mom about her thoughts on lauding Columbus's arrival to the island, and she likened it to a stranger arriving at your house, stealing your things, killing your family, and then asking for thanks.

        And yet the Colonial Zone is a draw for tourists, sold as the beginning of the storied history of the Dominican Republic, as if Columbus's arrival and subsequent development were the first civilization on the island. While the Zona may seem on the surface to be a seat of Dominican pride, below the surface may rest a deep-seated resentment for early mistreatment of locals. Perhaps this resentment has been strengthened over time with further mistreatment of locals in the form of military occupations of a country that has had to declare its independence four times.

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A monument to Columbus in the central park of the Zona Colonial

 

 

A trinity in Consuelo

        Mark Kurlansky paints the job of cane cutting in San Pedro de Macorís as bordering on abusive: long hours, sweltering heat, and exceedingly low pay. When the cane mill was running in Consuelo, baseball, cane wages, and the health of the town seemed innately interconnected, and only with the reduction of shifts from 12 to 8 hours did cane cutters really have time to play ball after work.

        But staring at the destroyed buildings of the cane mill juxtaposed with the success of the ImpACTA Kids Foundation baseball complex, it seems that baseball has been able to extract itself from this trinity. The town has suffered from extreme poverty since the mill was closed ten years ago, with the lack of honest jobs in town inviting a growing business of drugs and prostitution. Baseball, meanwhile, is thriving on donations and support from major leaguers. More than ever, it seems that baseball is the hope of Consuelo, and its only thriving export – until another industry (such as the textile factory being built in the ruins of the cane mill) brings jobs back to Consuelo, the town is stuck relying on the dreams of its best young peloteros. 

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The ruins of the Consuelo sugar mill