Though Dominicans started trickling into the major leagues in the '50s, it wasn't until the Dodgers named Rafael Avila, a former semi-pro player from Cuba, their Latin America scout and sent him to the Dominican Republic in 1970 that Major League Baseball began to realize the small nation's potential.
Reaching into his pocket, Avila established the first baseball academy in the D.R., and the rest of baseball followed. Avila's passion for the Dominican Republic was both visionary and genuine. Last year he told ESPN, "I was born in Cuba, and I'm a U.S. citizen. But in the bottom of my heart I'm Dominican."
Today 29 of the 30 major-league clubs have instructional teams in the Dominican Summer League, playing at a level between high school and rookie ball. Five clubs — the Yankees, Blue Jays, Nationals, White Sox and the Athletics — have two teams. The Dominican Summer League has become one of the most productive minor-league systems, producing more than 250 big-league players to date.
Trailing the pack, the Phillies didn't open their first Dominican academy until 1996. (The original site was in the central town of La Vega, but was relocated to Via Mella in 2001.)
But Mike Arbuckle, assistant general manager in charge of player development, says the Phillies have caught up with the other franchises by being more aggressive in the Dominican Republic. "If we're just talking about production of Dominican players — guys either on our roster or with other clubs who may have been involved in trades — we're certainly in the upper half," he says. "As far as the quality of our facility there, we're probably in the upper third." Although the Phillies have had strong Dominican Summer League seasons the last few years, their success hasn't translated into a bounty of hot prospects.
"We've ended up with more pitching than position players [in our Dominican league]," Arbuckle explains. "And the last two or three years when we were trying to go for it here and make a trade for an established big-leaguer, in many cases they were Latin kids that ended up going in those deals."
The only player who started in the Dominican Summer League on the Phillies' major-league roster is Carlos Ruiz, a Panamanian.
When the Phillies sign a young Dominican player, they're gambling on talent in its crudest form. Whether a 16-year-old will grow the inches, gain the weight, develop the preferred body type, and pick up the skills and discipline necessary to play in the major leagues 10 years down the line is a crapshoot — especially when the player can barely read or write, and doesn't speak English. Visitors to the Dominican Republic are often awed by the children's resourcefulness in creating their own baseball equipment: branches and broomsticks for bats, homemade gloves fashioned from cardboard scraps, and rocks rolled into socks as balls. Often these are the very kids who end up in the academies.
Haitian pitcher Reginal Simon's mother moved to the Dominican to work in the sugar cane fields, where conditions and pay are so poor it's thought to be modern-day slavery. Teammate Juan Sosa used to shine shoes in the street as a child. When young players reach 11 or 12, many of those who were in school drop out to chase the baseball dream.
That dream almost always begins with a buscón, (or "scalper," as it's usually translated), infamous and often unscrupulous entrepreneurs who head up community-league baseball programs and act as the players' private agents, managers and coaches — hoping to eventually deliver them to the major league instructional academies.
They train the players six days a week, providing them with equipment, a place to sleep, meals and sometimes protein supplements. (They've also been accused of providing doctored birth certificates and steroids.) In return for their personal investment they claim anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the signing bonus — which can range from $3,000 to $3 million — when a player is accepted into an academy.
Carlos Valenzuela was 14 years old and living in a poor rural area about 4 miles outside the city of Azua when a buscón discovered him and enrolled him in a baseball program in Baní, about 30 miles away. After a year playing baseball full-time, Valenzuela realized the major league scouts were interested in him, so he put his whole heart into the game, hoping it would eventually lift his family out of poverty.
When the July 2 mid-year draft rolled around — the period when the younger, more expensive players are signed — Valenzuela's hopes were high. The scouts saw in him as a power-hitting shortstop with tremendous back strength, quick hands and an above average arm. The Yankees wanted him — maybe for as much as $400,000. But after signing too many "July 2 babies" before him, their budget was dry.
Valenzuela waited out the days following July 2, when teams shop around, bonuses drop and players get more desperate. On July 5 he got a call from his manager saying the Phillies were offering $200,000, one of their biggest offers this year. "I said yes because my family is very poor," says Valenzuela, wearing a green and white plastic rosary around his neck. "I don't want to wait more time being unsigned."
To celebrate, his mother made orange juice. "Now is when you have to really make it happen and go to the big leagues," she told him.
Wilfredo Tejada, the Phillies' head scout in the Dominican Republic, gave Valenzuela his standard signing talk.
"Once you sign a baseball contract, you have to be loyal to it — that's the first thing. After that, take care of your body," Tejada said. "Don't forget about your friends. They've always been there for you when you were poor. Now you'll have more friends because you have money, but be sure who your real friends are. Also take care of your money. You don't know what will happen, and the majority of players don't make it to the big leagues."
Valenzuela is confident. "I can achieve anything. That's my attitude; no fear," he says. "I have no choice. Just baseball and everything that comes with baseball."
We would like to thank the editors of Philadelphia Weekly for allowing us to bring this story to our readers. Special thanks to writer Kate Kilpatrick and photographer Cheryl Serpentine.