San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, according to a 1986 United Press International report, was the “pot at the end of the rainbow” for baseball scouts. The city of 123,000 had produced 270 major leaguers over the past 15 years, including 21 on rosters for the 1986 season.
“They’re hungry,” Dodger vice-president Al Campanis told UPI reporter Aurelio Rojas. “They have fairly good builds. They want to get fame and acclaim and money to eat and in that country that means being an entertainer, prize fighting or baseball.”
The year prior, then-White Sox manager Tony La Russa discussed the rise of Latin American talent with Peter Gammons, then with the Boston Globe. “It’s in a Latin kid’s blood,” La Russa said. “That’s why I believe that if you give a young Latin player the time to fully adjust to the culture — on and off the field — you’ll have someone who’s easier to manage than the American stars.”
Mickey Mahler, then with the Expos in the second-to-last season of an eight-year career, told Gammons, “Let’s face it: The odds are stacked against those kids being the next Pedro Guerrero or George Bell. They have to overcome the language, the culture, the quotas, the prejudices. But the kids back home are watching MTV, dabbling in computers or playing soccer or basketball, and look at the impact Latins now have.”
Howie Haak, a Pirates scout famous for his role in opening the major league talent pipeline to Latin America, was more blunt. “Latin America is still the best breeding ground outside [the United States]. When was the best time for developing white players in this country? In the Depression. Well, in the Dominican and parts of some other countries, they’re living in their own depression.”
“Now everyone’s down there.” Haak said. “They’ve figured out that’s where the talent — especially the cheap talent — is.” Later in his career, Haak found himself in hot water after he said the Pirates needed to trade for white players because “we’re not going to be able to play nine blacks.”
On Wednesday, the Huffington Post published an infographic titled “Major League Baseball No More Black Than It Was In The 1950s.” The focus of the infographic is the decline in the proportion of African American players, down from a peak near 20 percent in the 1980s to under 10 percent this season. But a look at the chart shows another trend: as the proportion of African Americans starts to decline in the mid-1980s — just as San Pedro de Macoris earned its “pot of gold” descriptor — the proportion of Latino players in the major leagues begins to skyrocket.
Now, Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of MLB’s workforce. Although the proportion of whites in the game has fallen as well, the African-Americans exiting the game have been almost one-for-one replaced with Latino players, as well as a small proportion of Asian players.
In 2003, Major League Baseball took action to try and reverse the diminishing proportion of African-Americans in baseball. MLB announced it was building the first youth baseball academy in the United States, a $3 million facility to be located in Compton, California. The facility would act as something of an extension to the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and act as option for African-American parents to get their children involved in baseball at a young age.
Larry Hisle, an African-American outfielder who spent 14 years in the major leagues, was managing youth baseball programs for the Milwaukee Brewers at the time. “Having an academy will provided a confined environment where you can really preach to them what they need to hear and teach them what they need to learn,” Hisle told Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt. “We need it because African-American young males aren’t playing baseball.”
Haudricourt also cites Brewers shortstop Royce Clayton, who pointed to socioeconomic factors pushing African-Americans towards basketball and away from baseball, most notably — as also shown in the HuffPo infographic — the cost of equipment for baseball. Additionally, Clayton noted baseball as “something that requires parents or a mentor or somebody of that nature to take you to the ballpark, provide transportation.”
As the current data shows, the Compton academy has had little effect in the short-term. Perhaps it simply needs more time. But there has not been a surge in African-American minor leaguers or college players since 2003, and there is no sign of the trend reversing. As Haudricourt then wrote:
“African-American players in the major leagues find it ironic that it took MLB this long to fund a baseball academy in the states. MLB, along with individual clubs, established academies in Latin American countries long ago, contributing to the increase in numbers of players from those areas.
One reason is it’s much cheaper to develop Latin players. Teams can sign them at age 16, let them play in the academies for a few years, then bring them to the States. American-born players must be drafted and aren’t eligible until they are high school seniors.”
And thus, there is little incentive for MLB teams to pour money or coaching resources into the kids playing at the Compton academy or in the RBI programs. Not when they can put that money into players tied to their organizations at younger ages in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere across Latin America. And not as long as they can exploit the depression-like conditions of Latin American countries and the “hunger,” as Campanis put it, that accompanies those conditions.
Thursday, Baseball America’s Ben Badler published a report on a concerning trend in baseball scouting in Latin America, particularly in the Dominican Republic. The piece was titled “Scouting Children: Why MLB Has Teams Competing For 14-Year-Olds.”
Badler tells the story of an agent watching a 13-year-old Dominican player on a school day taking infield on a professional diamond. The agent says, “He looks like he could be a guy,” a real prospect. For the low cost of a few thousand dollars to a middle school-aged player’s family and youth coach, Badler continues, an agent can buy anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the player’s future signing bonus.
“It’s crazy,” another NL international director said. “We’re looking at guys who are 14 and a half, 15 years old. The July 2 market is crazy enough, now it’s becoming like a baby in a mother’s womb. It’s pre-birth. We’re doing pre-birth stuff now. There’s some pretty interesting guys in the 2015 group, but we’re talking about freshmen in high school. These are JV players. It’s crazy. We’re going to find out that a lot of teams that signed guys for $100,000 or $150,000 are better than guys teams are signing for millions of dollars.”
This treatment of children as commodities, as Parkes wrote yesterday is nothing new, and is particularly gross. Some scouts are apparently uncomfortable with the way things are going. “We’re doing pre-birth stuff now” was the scathing analogy from one National League director of international scouting. Another succinctly asked, “Is this fucking ridiculous, or what?” But the constant from the scouts Badler talked to was this: “You have to be here.”
Nothing has changed since the days of Howie Haak. Post-Depression white players aren’t motivated enough, content to watch their MTV and stare at their computers rather than commit to the high-risk, high-effort, low-pay career that is amateur athletics. African-American players are lost to football and basketball, sports willing to throw more money and coaching resources at players in the amateur market. The Dominican Republic, still mired in the same depression as when Haak arrived roughly half a century ago, is baseball’s cheapest source of talent, the pot at the end of the rainbow. The result, past and present, is deplorable labor conditions and children sold and brokered across the island at younger and younger ages. But those players remain hungry, and as long as they remain hungry, Major League Baseball and its scouts will be there.