Exploitation of Young Baseball Players Is Under Scrutiny in the DR – but Are North Americans Paying Attention?

If you follow social justice-minded national baseball writers on social media, you might occasionally run across the opinion that MLB’s international free agent signing process is “gross” and takes advantage of youth. However, it seems that most of the research about the history of baseball in Latin America and its current impact there is being left to the academic sector. Meanwhile, journalists in countries like the Dominican Republic, the largest source of non-US-born players, are investigating how the business of baseball is exploiting youth in their nation. The reason why I believe these reports haven’t gotten much attention in North America is because they are written in Spanish, even though media personalities like Héctor Gómez and whistleblowers like Nick Francona are trying to raise awareness.

As Spanish-English translation is my “day job”, I have decided to summarize some of these reports on this site in order to do my part to increase awareness of these issues. This is a summary that includes some additional analysis of my own, not a full translation.

“Jugada Sucia”, Diario Libre (Dominican Republic)

This report is broken down into three sections: one discussing verbal agreements made with young players before they are old enough to officially sign an MLB contract, as well as doping; another discussing steroid use that has led to deaths of players; and finally, one discussing the consequences for youth of abandoning school to pursue baseball full-time if they are unable to make it to MLB.

Section One:

  • It is illegal to sell Boldenone and Methandienone (anabolic steroids), but they are sold to athletes on a clandestine basis.
  • According to MLB rules, players who are not under contract with an MLB or MiLB club not resident in the USA, Puerto Rico or Canada and not subject to academic rules can sign contracts if they are at least 17 years old or will turn 17 before the end of the season for which they have signed (or before September 1 of that season). This means the minimum age is 16. However, it is becoming common for teams to make verbal agreements with trainers developing young players to acquire under-16 players by paying off the trainer to “tie down” the player to sign with the team when he is of age. These agreements are not broken because it would cause a breakdown of the mutual relationship of trust between the trainers and MLB scouts. These deals are referred to as preacuerdos, or pre-agreements.

Section Two:

  • It is commonplace for young players to take Winstrol (Stanozolol) and Caballín (a horse steroid), among other performance-enhancing substances, in order to develop their bodies ahead of the normal timeframe. Although these are controlled substances, they are easily purchased by the public at pharmacies and veterinary practices.
  • An average of US$1 million in steroids are imported to the DR every year.
  • An analysis of MiLB suspensions show ongoing use of performance-enhancing substances and 30% of the 595 players suspended between 2012 and 2018 were Dominicans. (I had suspected as much based on my own reviews of recent PED suspensions.)
  • Diario Libre spoke to the families of several young players who had died. Most of them had been doping before their deaths.
  • “Julián”, a teammate of Lino Rafael Ortíz, one of the deceased players, confirmed he saw teammates injecting Diamino, an animal dietary supplement, even in the dugout. (Ortíz died in 2001 and use of the veterinary drugs was reported in the Chicago Tribune in 2003, yet this practice continues to this day.) Julián was also encouraged to dope in order to increase his pitching velocity, but he stopped after having a poor reaction that caused him to pass out during practice.
  • One of the issues with using animal medications is that a cc of veterinary medication has a much higher strength than a cc of the same medication when used on a cow or horse.
  • While sale of certain veterinary medicines requires a prescription, vitamins and supplements like Diamino are not on the list of medicines requiring a prescription.

Section Three:

  • This section discusses the story of “Luis”, a 13 year-old who is training at the Academia MVP baseball academy in Santo Domingo Este.
  • He spends most of the day training while study time is relegated to Saturdays from 2-6 PM.
  • Luis says that prior to attending the baseball academy, he almost never missed school, but has recently missed class because it takes his focus away from his training on Mondays.
  • Another fellow academy student says he only studies on Sundays and feels forced because he would prefer to be resting on the weekends when he isn’t training.
  • According to a prior analysis by Diario Libre, only 4% of Dominican players signed between 2004 and 2009 reached MLB.
  • Miguel Batista, a former MLB player, is a critic of how this system is affecting Dominican society. He says there is an issue of many illiterate players in MLB, but it’s difficult to handle this problem because you can’t really tell a guy who is making millions of dollars that he has to go to back to school with 13 and 14 year-olds. He adds Dominican society is being damaged because youth are being taken out of school at the age of 11 and 12 to try to become professional baseball players and very few of them will make it to MLB.
  • Former Dominican Minister of Education Carlos Amarante Baret has stated even players who reach MLB lack tools that make them better men because their comprehensive instruction is being neglected. He announced an initiative to develop programs with MLB teams to allow youth to continue in their studies. Diario Libre requested information from current Ministry of Education officials about these programs, as well as current information about students abandoning school to pursue baseball, but did not receive a response.
  • At the Dominican Ministry of Labor, which is tasked with ensuring work does not prevent an adolescent worker from attending school regularly, the officials state they do not have jurisdiction to intervene in the baseball academy system because sports are considered to be training and not a job. Therefore, there is no employer-employee relationship over which the Ministry would have jurisdiction.
  • The Dominican Ministry of Sport and the MLB Commissioner’s Office in the Dominican Republic do agree that regulation is needed concerning school attendance. The Minister of Sport expects to reach a three-party agreement between the Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Education and MLB about a requirement for programs to allow for players to continue studying at school, and train in safe conditions, in order for players to be able to sign from those programs.
  • Jorge Pérez-Díaz, a MLB senior vice president and special legal advisor, notes that all 30 MLB teams have a presence in the DR and offer education programs at their academies. 26 teams offer programs to help players graduate with a bachillerato certificate (similar to high school diploma), and two other teams are in the process of building facilities in order to offer these programs. (However, this doesn’t address the gap in education between the time young players leave school to train at local baseball academies and sign with MLB teams, joining the MLB baseball academies.)

Z101Digital

A report by José Luis Montilla of Z101Digital in the Dominican Republic brought up similar issues as the ones discussed in the Diario Libre report but also mentioned proposed changes to the Dominican baseball system.

  • An independent baseball trainer spoke to Z101 under conditions of anonymity. He stated that he has a 15 year-old player considered to be “getting old.”
  • A former MiLB player and scout Urbano Quintana discussed how 13 and 14 year-old prospects are observed and tied down with a verbal agreement, and the prospect signing class for 2021 is ready to go at this point in time. The prospects who sign in July of this year will have made their commitments years in advance. Quintana agreed 13 and 14 year-olds likely lack the education needed to make a living if they are not successful in MLB.
  • The anonymous trainer who spoke with Z101 offered his own proposal to improve the current system in the DR which is similar to the NCAA system in existence in the United States: young athletes would enter an educational institution with a scholarship to study and train in baseball and would then be able to sign a contract after completing a certain educational level or reaching a certain age. This type of system does not currently exist in the Dominican Republic. (The NCAA system in the United States has received criticism because players in high-level programs do not receive payment for their efforts while sports like men’s football and basketball are major sources of revenue for the universities. Athletes who end up with career-ending injuries before pursuing a professional career are often unable to finish their degrees because athletic programs have more interest in ensuring “student-athletes” remain eligible to compete but are less concerned with whether the “student-athletes” are able to graduate.) 

I can see why the NCAA system would be considered as preferable to the current system in the Dominican Republic given that the current system serves the interests of MLB teams and not the interests of Dominican society. The Dominican Republic does not have a university sports system or a posting system like the one in Nippon Professional Baseball. Based on my reading, I expect creation of a new system would require collaboration by multiple government agencies in the DR as well as Major League Baseball.

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