Thursday, June 7, 2012

Beyond the Box Score: The Trials & Tribulations of a Dominican Prospect

The pressure to make it to the Majors is something that you & I can never even begin to understand.  Whether you’re a highly touted prep player that is privy to the finest instructors money can buy or a hungry, young Dominican with hand-me-down equipment, a lot is on their shoulders.  As opposed to the former, the latter prospects have even more pressure because with the conditions that some of these kids come from; making it big is a way to pull their families out of poverty.  If they don’t make it playing baseball, there are not too many options for these kids. 

Not only do they have to deal with immense family pressure, there is also the issue of the rather unscrupulous behavior of Buscons.  With dreams of riches in Major League Baseball, these kids will do whatever it takes to make it.  Steroids are legal for purchase in the Dominican Republic, age falsification is rampant, and there have even been incidents where some have taken money from prospects’ signing bonuses.  It is bad enough that these kids have so much riding on them getting signed to professional contracts, these buscons are supposed to be trusted advisers.  Instead of grooming these young prospects, they are taking advantage of their desperation.  These “street agents” smell blood in the water every season and will attack with little remorse.

Now it would be extremely unfair of me to say that all of these buscones are the same, but recruiting and signing prospects in the Dominican is a shadier process then NCAA recruiting.  Charleston RiverDogs’ Right Fielder, Kelvin De Leon, was a victim, and ended up giving up a big chunk of his signing bonus to two men that he felt were looking out for his best interests.  Carlos Rios, former Director of Latin American scouting, and Ramon Valdivia, the Dominican scouting director, tricked De Leon into paying them $100,000 of his bonus.  He had no idea what was happening, and how could he?  At his age, I would have thought that it was perfectly normal as well.  Both men have long since been let go from their positions but the continuing problem of agents, buscons, and a who’s who of shady people that have no business being in these kids’ ear about what’s best for them, continue on in the Dominican. 

There is nothing wrong with agents trying to make money off of signing talented prospects because they see big bucks in their future.  There is protocol though, and swindling naïve young ballplayers out of their hard earned money is reprehensible.  To steal from people that desperately need that money…there just isn’t a word in the English dictionary to describe how terrible that is.  De Leon signed for $1.1Million in 2007, and yeah that is a lot of money.  But when you are looking to take care of your family as well as improve your own life while playing abroad, that can dwindle quicker than one would think.  The real life long security blanket is when he is finally about to ink that multi-year, big money contract.  He has a long road ahead of him but the good news for De Leon is that he definitely has the talent.  He will be as good as he wants to be because he possesses the physical tools to be an impact Major League player.  This kid is hungry, having success in the South Atlantic League, and I would not bet against him.

It’s almost an entire page into this article and I didn’t even get onto the topic I originally planned on tackling.  There is immense pressure on these prospects to perform, I was trying to help paint a bit of even a hint of what these kids have to deal with, and that’s before they even get onto the field.  The strong will excel in the Dominican Summer League and if they prove that they can hang with the cream of the crop on the island, they will usually get promoted to one of the short season rookie level leagues the following season.
Top American baseball prospects get more exposure to a certain grind that I feel is overlooked when it comes to a player’s development.  Many of them travel alone to showcases and tournaments, which allows these players to get used to being away from home.  The same goes for college prospects, who are used to being away from home for four years.  I’m usually not one that harps on intangibles but used to being away from your family for an extended period of time is something that will help a prospect progress or flame out in Low-A ball.  Two years ago, Redlands East Valley pitcher Griffin Murphy’s father trained him to travel alone to showcases, and Murphy himself stated that by being able to fend for himself, helped him develop maturity and the ability to cope with being on his own.

Dominican ballplayers aren’t privy to this crucial part of developing as a person.  People tend to forget that these are teenage kids not only away from their families for the first time, but they are also abroad playing with players from all over the world.  They are not baseball machines with an on and off button.  You have to factor the human element in sports; it is an even more important detail when dealing with 16-17 year old kids from another country.  The kids they play against on a regular basis are direct competition to them ascending the minor league ranks, and they are usually just as good, more often than not, are even better.  The lucky ones who are promoted to the States are usually the big fish in a little pond with their respective teams.  Not only are they dealing much better competition, but they are also dealing with exposure to a different culture.  A lot of these prospects don’t speak English and rely on interpreters to assist them.  It has to be a lonely feeling because while they are away from their loved ones, they also can’t completely fend for themselves unless they learn the language.  That is easier said than done.
Why am I bringing all of this up?  I’m trying to help everyone understand that it’s not just baseball that these prospects from the Dominican have to deal with. I can never put myself in their shoes, and I won’t even pretend like I can.  What I can try to do is understand where they are coming from, what they have to deal with, and help educate everyone else on the subject by writing about them. I couldn’t imagine dealing with what these kids do at their young age and for that, they have my respect. 

             Twitter: @trevwolff

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