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On the internationalization of baseball

Baseball is and always will be a quintessentially American sport, but there's no denying that other countries have increasingly contributed talent to the game at the major-league level. The Orioles typify this trend: by my count, eight players on their 25-man active roster (32%) were born outside of the United States. Here they are, listed next to their nation of origin:

Aruba (1): Sidney Ponson
Canada (1): Erik Bedard
Cuba (1): Rafael Palmeiro
Dominican Republic (2): José Bautista; Miguel Tejada
Mexico (1): Rodrigo López
Venezuela (2): Jorge Julio; Melvin Mora

Three more hail from the Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the U.S.: Javy López, Luis López, and Luis Matos. So eleven players (44% of the roster) come from outside the 50 states. Their places of origin include six different nations and one territory. I haven't researched the composition of other teams, but I'm guessing that the Orioles have one of the most ethnically diverse rosters in the majors.

One could quibble about the lack of players from the Eastern Hemisphere, where baseball is still struggling to grow its presence beyond a few established countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. Aside from those nations, the game of baseball is still concentrated mainly in North America and the Caribbean region. Despite all the recent talk of a World Cup for baseball, at this stage such a tournament would be little more than a Pan-American competition with a few extra invites for Pacific Rim nations and a couple of European countries. In many parts of the world, baseball is overshadowed by its British ancestor, cricket. Baseball is intensely popular in parts of the Western Hemisphere, but it is far from being a truly global sport.

Over the last half-century, basketball has overtaken baseball as America's most widely exported sport. Even before Yao Ming and the recent explosion of interest in the NBA from China, there were professional basketball leagues of rapidly improving quality in Asia, Europe, and South America. The use of NBA players in the Olympics starting in 1992 made the sport's superstars accessible on the world stage, capturing the imagination of millions of people outside the U.S. The elevated level of play of the Dream Teams also spurred other countries to get better much faster than they would have otherwise.

Baseball, on the other hand, has never sent its best players to an international tournament like the Olympics, and this second-class treatment has not created much excitement for baseball worldwide. Because the Olympics and other tournaments conflict with the major-league season, most countries have sent teams of amateur and minor-league players to international competition. MLB would love to have a Yao-like player step in and instantly attract a new demographic to the sport, but it shouldn't hold its breath. If basketball's success is any indication, though, MLB and other ambassadors of the game can and should do a much better job of promoting baseball around the world.

But there is a darker side to the internationalization of the game. ESPN.com reporter Tom Farrey explores some shady issues in an investigative series for ESPN's "Outside the Lines" called "Dominican Gold Crush." This series of stories about the baseball training grounds in the Dominican Republic turns the microscope on exploitative baseball instructors, identity fraud, illegal drug and supplement use, abbreviated schooling, and a factory-like atmosphere where baseball is more work than fun. Farrey exposes the profit-taking, corner-cutting, and hoodwinking that goes on when so much money is involved. (The big payoff of a professional contract can change the fate of a player's family or even his hometown. Just ask Tejada, who has used his money to rebuild his hometown of Bani after it was damaged by a hurricane.)

Such incisive coverage of social and cultural issues is all too rare in sports journalism. Farrey does more than just dig up dirt; he also reveals how MLB and the Dominican government are addressing the problems. The reader leaves with a hopeful feeling that progress is being made, albeit slowly.

My executive summary:

  • Farrey shines a wide and harsh light on the practices of "buscones" (Spanish for "finders"), the freelance baseball instructors and pseudo-agents in the Dominican Republic who teach baseball skills to kids, but in return demand high percentages of any signing bonuses the kids may receive from professional teams. At least one buscón has demanded a portion of all of his players' future earnings; one of his alleged clients, Raúl Mondesí, is appealing the matter in the Dominican courts. Some buscones have also received "finder's fees" or other side payments from major league clubs for directing prospects to their team. These fees are now banned by MLB, and the Dominican government is constructing more regulations to protect players from being exploited by greedy buscones.
  • To increase their attractiveness as prospects, some players attempt to use false identities to pass themselves off as younger (and hence more "projectable"). However, MLB has intensified its verification of player ages and relaxed the age restrictions on rookie-league rosters, so identity fraud may be losing steam.
  • As reported in the Washington Post a year ago, competitiveness has led some prospects to try to improve their performance through the use of risky and illegal drugs and supplements. The deaths of two Dominican youths have been linked to their injecting themselves with nutrient cocktails originally designed for livestock and sold in pet stores. MLB recently decided to institute steroid testing in the country's summer league, and is considering drug testing for all signees as a condition of signing.
  • Lack of economic opportunity in the D.R. has caused boys to focus inordinately on baseball at the expense of their education. Many drop out of school to pursue their dream, leaving them unprepared for other professions should their talent and efforts fall short of the professional level—an all too likely outcome. Even players who are signed by major-league teams rarely finish school because they are snapped up shortly after they turn 16, the minimum legal signing age for foreign players. Their situation mirrors the illusion held by poor inner-city kids in the U.S., notably explored in the documentary Hoop Dreams, that one can escape poverty through the highly improbable route of sports stardom. MLB and the Scouts Association of the D.R. have distributed brochures urging kids to stay in school.
  • The tendency of MLB scouts to fixate on "tools" has led Dominican trainers to decrease the amount of time spent playing actual baseball games as they spend more time developing specific baseball talents such as hitting, throwing, and fielding. MLB has tried to move the balance back towards playing games.

One of the buscones named in the story, Enrique Soto, mentored Tejada before he signed with the Athletics in 1993. Tejada has not mentioned any ill will toward Soto that I know of, but some of the allegations made in the story (most of which date recently, long after Tejada) reflect badly on Soto.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 3, 2004 1:28 PM.

The previous post in this blog was B.J. Ryan: relief ace?.

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