Back In The Game: Part 3

Our continuing look at the Phillies Dominican Summer League efforts continues with a look back at how the program started and where it stands today. This installment also takes a look at the role that Ruben Amaro, Sr. played in helping to build the program.

It's a bumpy ride over unpaved roads to get to the Oakland A's Dominican complex, where the Phillies are having an away game.

After a quick warm-up the players take their positions. About a dozen spectators have gathered alongside the dugouts to watch.

With all the nicknames assigned to players, it can be hard to figure out whom the teammates are cheering.

"Do you hear what they call him?" Amador laughs, nodding to 17-year-old pitcher Joaquin Santamaria. "Pollo loco [crazy chicken]. They say he got nothing up here," he says, pointing to his temple. When left fielder Rudney Balentean steps to the plate, he hits a line drive hard toward left field. But it gets cut short, smacking unexpectedly inside the third baseman's glove. Balentean returns to the dugout fuming. "Easy. Nothing you can do, brother," Amador smiles. "You hit it hard."

Amador — who grew up in Santo Domingo, signed with the Phillies in 1993 and parlayed his minor-league experience into a coaching career — isn't worried about his team winning or losing. He just wants players to get experience so they can learn how to think and react in game settings.

"Dominicans don't know much about baseball, so you start them at bottom. It's like teaching a baby how to walk, because in this country we don't play organized baseball," says Amador.

Pitching coach Cesar Mejia likes to call his curriculum the "pitcher construction program" instead of "pitcher development program." "When they come here, they don't know how to throw the ball. So how can you teach them how to pitch? If they don't know the basics, how are you going to develop these guys? I have to start from the basics."

This can be especially frustrating given the academy's strategy to make pitchers—who sign faster and for more money—out of every player who can throw hard. Of the 30 active players on the roster, half are pitchers.

Mejia points out a player nicknamed "Asesino" whose wild pitches are getting the best of him. "He's killing me every day. He took two to three years off my life," Mejia laughs.

Although players can seem extremely rudimentary, they have up to four years in the league to prove their potential.

"If you show us you're ready before three years, that's fine," Amador tells the players. "But if you don't show any improvement—if you don't work hard—then it's hard for me to send you to the U.S."

Last year three players made it to the States for spring training.

"When I had the program, we didn't sign anyone for less than $5,000," says Ruben Amaro Sr., on the phone from his home in Weston, Florida.

"Five thousand dollars at that time was a lot of money. They were signing players for $400. I told Dallas Green — who was the director of the minor leagues and scouting at that time — I can't do that. I have to force everyone in Latin America to wait for the Phillies."

Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Amaro Sr. was part of the first wave of Latin players in Major League Baseball, signing with the Cardinals in 1958, but spending the majority of his playing career (1960 to 1965) with the Phillies.

After retiring in 1969 Amaro went back to work for the Phillies as coordinator of scouting from 1971 to 1979, looking for players in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Amaro was responsible for the Phillies' first Latin American boom.

More important, he helped change the economics of the scouting game.

"I told Dallas that I didn't want to go to Latin America and offer scouts $200 to $300 a month. Gasoline has always been expensive down there, except in Venezuela. I said, ‘If you don't give me a budget, it's going to be very difficult.'"

Amaro was given $40,000 to hire four guys he says had a passion for discovering new talent. He made sure their contracts included a new set of tires every two years and $5,000 to upgrade their vehicles. "If you don't have good wheels, you can't scout," he explains.

With Amaro in charge, the Phillies became the first team not to bring Dominican players to the States until medical exams were approved, outstanding dental work was completed and their bodies had adjusted to having three meals a day. This was especially important for the players from the Dominican Republic, where the standard of living is lower than it is in Mexico, Venezuela or Puerto Rico.

Amaro says scouting was easier back in his day. Major League Baseball was a smaller business, scouts had more freedom to sign players, and there was less pressure to snap up potential prospects before the bidding wars began.

"We could follow a player for six months," says Amaro. "Now if you wait too long you need a lot of money to compete with the Yankees."

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