Realities Behind America’s Favorite Pastime: The Dominican Republic’s Cheap Labor Bazaar for the Major Leagues

• Many strive, while few manage to make it to the Big Leagues. The impossible dream of having millions of dollars flow from Major League Baseball (MLB).

After the April 4th start of the 2010 Major League Baseball (MLB) season, fans once again have been filling ballparks and clinging to the often passionate hope that this season will end with their favorite team ending up as World Series champions. However, beyond batting averages and home-run statistics of America’s favorite sluggers and fastball pitchers, often lie the startling facts of life and alarming tales that undergird the economic fundamentals of baseball and explain the evolution of the MLB’s demographics.

When looking at the demographics of professional baseball, one might wonder how many woeful tales lie behind the increasing number of success stories for players who hail from the Dominican Republic. For every successful player, how many personal tragedies occur as only a small percentage of the potential players make it onto even the minor league rosters? Major League Baseball invests upwards of $76 million in the Dominican Republic, of which $15 million is used in the operation of local, official MLB baseball academies, which frequently can be million-dollar “training facilities” that mirror the lavish resorts found on the island. Twenty-eight of the thirty major league baseball teams own academies in the Dominican Republic, where new talent can legally qualify for admission to an academy as early as age 14. Here, the long road begins where the anointed are groomed to become the next Sammy Sosa or Vladimir Guerrero. Nevertheless, beyond the spotlight that falls on the one or two select players who make it are the hundreds of other prospects who will find themselves rejected. Most of the latter are likely to be returned to a life of poverty, with only the increasingly distant memories of chasing a dream that will never be captured.

Globalization and the incredibly magnetic and financial appeal of American baseball have created direct links between the Dominican Republic’s cheap labor market of brilliant and talented teenage Dominican baseball players and Major League teams. These links mimic the more prosaic forms of exploitation when it comes to outside producers taking advantage of the cheap labor upon which the island’s sugar and textile industries are based. In the PBS Documentary, Stealing Home, Joe Kehoskie, a sports agent who has worked extensively in baseball’s Latin American markets, states, “Traditionally in the Latin Market, I would say players sign for about 5 to 10 cents on the dollar compared to their U.S. counterparts.” Here, we will investigate the systematic practices that are to be found in the Dominican Republic, where one can witness controversial policies followed by the United States’ Major League Baseball, including the implicit human rights violations being tolerated, as well as the reforms being demanded that would promote for a child’s fundamental right to an education under international law.

Stars, Stripes and a Diamond

Baseball originated and spread throughout the Dominican Republic as a result of the growing U.S. military and economic influence on the island which began in 1902, when Santo Domingo effectively became Washington’s de facto financial protectorate. Due to a rise in U.S. influence in Caribbean territories such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, baseball became something of a colonial totem. U.S. efforts to maintain its omnipresent authority were informally complemented by spreading the game as a matter of cultural hegemony, while simultaneously easing political tensions that had begun to turn up in the middle of the century. In 1961, when the U.S. announced a trade embargo against Cuba at the height of the Cold War, the local supply of Dominican baseball talent began to be wooed by the MLB.

A professional career in baseball was widely seen as one of the few ways of escaping poverty. Whether this was more myth than reality, many baseball owners and managers, like Ralph Ávila, would stress this claim as holy writ. Ávila, an entrepreneur who operated the first Los Angeles Dodgers academy in the D.R., has claimed that, “baseball is the best way out of poverty for most of these kids and families… Numbers show the dream within reach.” While the U.S. public may enjoy these “rags to riches” stories, those pointing to the fate of Dominican baseball players is masking the reality of the cold, calculating business of baseball. The goal of MLB representatives seems to be to make low cost investments in Dominican players in the hope that molding them into professional players will handsomely pay off.

Sugar Industry

Aside from the fact that the academies offer to develop the talents of young men instead of cultivating and shipping more traditional export commodities, the Dominican sport academies are almost caricatures of the adjacent giant sugar plantations, where, in a similar manner, raw materials are harvested, refined and sent abroad. The facilities of the MLB academies are marketed as if they were tropical resorts intent on magically transforming raw talent into world-renowned athletes. General managers have been known to joke that they would rather get, “Twenty Dominicans at $5,000 a piece rather than 2 Americans at 50,000 each.” Such frivolous remarks may remain close to the truth, as Dominican players are seen as dispensable commodities that can be harvested through the academies or later disposed off once their utility has been used up.

Textile Industry as a Model

The perception of foreign labor sources as disposable commodities to be consumed by the baseball industry is, to a large extent, patterned after the U.S.-backed textile industry. While of course far different in recruits, it is equally exploitative, an important economic fact of life since textile assembly plants dominate the island’s manufacturing sector. Under the neoliberal policies of the Reagan administration, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) was codified and implemented, almost immediately fueling the development of offshore garment assembly and production in that country. The D.R. soon enough became the largest supplier of clothing to the U.S. in the world. By 1992, 23 free trade zones had sprouted throughout the island. But, textile proved to be an unstable anchor over the next decade, the Dominican gross national product had declined every consecutive year, as did the per capita income, which dropped by 22%.

The CBI, along with the recently enacted Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), failed to curb illegal immigration to the U.S. and did not help the welfare of the country all that much, though it created new jobs. For its part, it is as if the MLB decided to create its own free trade arrangements under the pretext of providing irresistible opportunities that offered Dominican boys a chance to free themselves from the shackles of poverty through the alchemy of baseball academies. But like the chimerical hopes now being created by CAFTA, the MLB has left many with what has turned out to be only an illusion of being on the path toward baseball stardom.

Beyond the Veneer of Academies: Education Pushed to the Outfield

Dominican baseball academies sound like the real deal for many local boys and their families. But soon, and not unsurprisingly, after the first academies were created, not too much time had passed before a considerable number of boys began dropping out of their traditional island schools in order to pursue their dream of playing in the MLB. Of course, this would allow for them to break out of the cycle of poverty. And why shouldn’t they? These baseball academies were offering housing, food, running water and electricity, as well as an “education.” Mainly, English language lessons and a host of resources to help players assimilate to a future American life which they probably would never experience.

In contrast, baseball does not constitute anything like such a compelling last resort in the U.S. as it does in the D.R. Even after being rejected, American players have other opportunities available, including a wide array of support systems and somewhat associated alternative job options, and are assured the right to at least a high school education. On the island, baseball offers a false illusion of upward social mobility. Realistically, only one in forty applicants actually will make it to an academy, and far less than 1% will eventually play in the Major Leagues. Instead, the vast majority are destined to return to a worse situation than they initially were in after missing years of former schooling and being prepared with more unrealistic expectations and useless guidance.

Unfortunately, an effective conventional education has not proven to be one of the Dominican government’s priorities. In 2002, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed an effort to significantly reduce poverty on the island. This resulted in a severe economic and structural adjustment and the need to prioritize the use of public funds at the expense of public services, especially education.

Despite the fact that the island’s General Law of Education 66/97, passed in 1997, declares a universal right for Dominicans to a free education with the goal of forming free-thinking and productive citizens, statistics are not in accordance with the purview of the law. According to the NationMaster, an assemblage of data collected from the UN, CIA World Factbook, and Economic Co-operation and Development, the Dominican Republic’s public spending on education was ranked at 139 out of 161 countries, based on this total as a percentage of the government’s budget. At 9.7% of the government’s expenditure priorities in 2005, education is far from being enough of a priority in the Dominican Republic to make a fundamental difference in the manner in which lives are being led. In addition, the public expenditure per student expressed (total government spending on primary level education divided by number of students) as a percent of per capital GDP for primary education was 2.8%, while the rate for secondary level education was 4.9%.

MLB makes no fixed commitment to invest in education programs, and island countries argue that it should at least be held accountable for the quality of the classes offered at their academies; the “education” opportunities provided at academies offers the players with instructors to prepare them for communicating in English with future teammates, as well as familiarizing themselves with everyday life in the U.S. The classes now being offered do not follow an approved curriculum, nor do they provide players with anything like the skills necessary to survive and be able to effectively function in life after baseball. Essentially, the English language classes and U.S. society and culture classes are as much for the benefit of the MLB as they are for the players because by the end of the process, those eventually chosen have been exposed to life in America.

Whether blame should be placed on the MLB or be directed to the Dominican government, under international law, children must be afforded to the right to a basic education. Essentially in this process, the boys are scouted to be used as child labor. They are provided with a bonus, which in almost every case is used to support their families. According to UNICEF, the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which the Dominican Republic signed on August 8, 1990, reflects, “the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate a full range of human rights– civil, cultural, economic, and political and social rights.” In agreeing to this convention, as well as the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (UNDRC) and the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education (UNCADE), the Dominican government together with the MLB has the obligation to ensure Dominican children are educated. Critics maintain that the U.S. government should take a more hard-line stance with the MLB and obligate the organization to significantly improve the educational standards at the institutions.

The Buscones and Accusations that have Come to Light

MLB academies have fostered the development of buscones, street agents who are not regulated by any institution; some of whom have developed their own baseball academies, often with few standards. Despite the MLB’s earnest pledges that they will overlook their connections with the buscones, the latter work as well-organized and influential operators who effectively serve their own narrow interests as much as for the benefit of the many highly skilled players for whom they are responsible. Far too often, buscones, who unlike the MLB do not have substantial funding at their disposal, fail to provide adequate living standards at their academies and are at times are unwilling or unable to properly look after the welfare of their players.

In recent years, academies, both MLB and those operated by the buscones, have come under growing scrutiny for supplying performance-enhancing drugs to their players as well as for violations of other provisions of Major League Rule 3(a)(1)(B). This seventeen-year-old rule states that players cannot be signed up until six months before they have reached their seventeenth birthday. In addition to this, teams have been known to fudge the ages of their recruits in order to hide potential stars, some of whom are as young as 14 years old, in remote locations in order to deter other clubs from offering better deals. Since the buscón-run academies are basically unregulated, Ángel Vargas, the President of the Venezuelan Baseball Players Association and the General Secretary of the Caribbean Baseball Players Confederation, stated that players as young as 13 are instructed to perform the physical and demanding workouts normally ascribed to 16 and 17-year-olders. The MLB should recognize and regulate its relationship with the buscón-run academies where children’s fundamental rights are being violated.

Many of the institutions in which the youthful athletes find themselves enrolled, as a matter of course, give players painkillers in lieu of a balanced, nutritious diet. In the New York Times article, “Dominican Baseball Handlers Stir Issues of Exploiting Youths,” a buscón, Victor Baez, summed up the reason why he injects his players with painkillers: “I can’t afford to give them meat.” Buscones routinely are known to skim players out on their bonuses, and selfishly pocket the periodic remuneration that is supposed to be going to the players. Dominican baseball commissioner Porfirio Veras Mercedes spoke about the negative role played by buscones, “They put our country in a bad light because people get the impression the country is involved in those kinds of dealings, even though it’s only individuals.”

MLB’s Special Exemption

The all-American game of baseball at its best has come to represent the quintessential game of hard work and perseverance that reflects the pillars of American culture. Contrary to this positive image, MLB teams are engaging in harmful practices in foreign countries in order to develop a crop of talented players, but on the cheap. Yet, because the MLB is a multinational and many-sided corporation, it may be difficult to enforce applicable international and municipal law. Additionally, due to baseball’s standing as America’s favorite pastime, the MLB has achieved preferential legal treatment by the courts and Congress. Beginning with the Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (1922) the Supreme Court has continued to rule that the “business of baseball” is exempt from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act because, as Justice Landis put it, “Any blows at…baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.” Since the MLB is a monopoly, the anti-trust exemption and the U.S. government’s casual attitude toward the industries, combined with the mixture of profit and competition, create a façade that critics insist masks the abuses and inequalities committed in the sport as a matter of routine. Consequently, this status conceals its controversial inimical transgressions and provides the MLB with impunity for its questionable human rights performance in its Dominican Republic operations.

Three Strikes and Proposed Reform Needed

Attention needs to be directed to the U.S. government’s casual attitude toward the MLB. The MLB’s anti-trust exemption upholds the unique and privileged status of an elite group of immensely rich businessmen who operate in the name of America’s favorite pastime. Since 1989, there have been 44 attempts to repeal the anti-trust exemption from the MLB. All of them have failed, which represents a victory for Washington’s determination to keep baseball on a pedestal through effective Congressional lobbying and favorable Supreme Court rulings. Since former President George W. Bush had also been a Texas Rangers owner, his failure to take an enlightened stand on the issue surprised no one.

In the article, “Children Left Behind: The Effect of Major League Baseball on Education in the Dominican Republic,” Adam Wasch suggests that while international law is difficult to impose against non-state actors, under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) many claims have been brought against U.S. multinational corporations. Of course, the plaintiff must present evidence to establish that a claim violates the “law of nations” and must establish whether the federal court will extend liability to a non-state actor, in this case the MLB. Lawsuits brought against Nike and its sweatshop facilities, as well as John Roe I v. Bridgestone Corp – a case that addresses an “extreme” violation of international child law in the rubber plantations of Liberia, have brought attention to human rights violations against children by major corporations.

With regard to ATCA’s claims, Christopher Kern, whose article on international law and the corporation described how depriving a child of an education only “recycles poverty and hopelessness by turning today’s generation of child labor into tomorrow’s sick, unemployed, uneducated, and unproductive adults.” If accusations of human rights violations as a result of MLB practices were to be brought forth, the Latin American recruitment system of youthful athletes could be improved and the public would be forced to rethink questionable attitudes about practices of the MLB. Whether it be through the above suggestions, the unionizing of Latin American players to ensure that their rights are protected, or suggesting that the MLB draft an international code of recruiting that provides protections for Latin American youthful recruits, it has become apparent that action is required in order to make certain that the MLB must be held accountable for its inability to protect children’s rights.

Conclusion

The superior-inferior dichotomy, along with the reality that the MLB’s overwhelming interest is its quest for profit and scouting for the cheapest talent has allowed multinational businesses to take advantage of the Dominican Republic and by doing so, has jeopardized that country’s most important attribute, its youth. Despite the fact that the MLB has been recruiting Latin American players since 1944, it was only during the summer of 2001 that the Baseball Commissioner’s office finally translated minor league contracts into Spanish. The socio-economic situation in the Dominican Republic has only facilitated the infiltration of the MLB’s influence, particularly when it comes to the specific negative demographics regarding boys, through the vehicle of baseball academies that all too often have not well served these youths’ most basic of interests.