Santo Domingo — Twelve-year-old Salvador knows very well what he wants to be when he grows up: a baseball player, and play in the Major League Baseball.
Like many Dominicans, Salvador (whose name we have changed for legal reasons as he is a minor) has been practicing baseball since he learned to walk, and trains every day in a bid to fulfill his dream.
He has a coach and attends a private academy where, in addition to training, he receives schooling, meals, healthcare, clothing and footwear, all under an agreement that stipulates the forfeit of a percentage of his possible future contract, anticipating that, if he is lucky, in about three or four years’ time he will be signed by a Major League Baseball team.
Baseball in the Dominican Republic, beyond being the national sport and entertaining a large segment of the population, is a major income generator. In the first six months of 2022, the signing of 398 local players generated a total of $73,177,900.
And last year, during the 2021 signing period, from January 15 to December 15, 420 Dominican players were signed by MLB teams, for a total of $83,507,699, according to MLB data on the Caribbean country provided to Bloomberg Línea.
After the United States, the Dominican Republic is the second-biggest country of origin in terms of supplying players to MLB, with 99 active players, followed by Venezuela, with 67 active players.
A cradle of ballplayers
Aware of the Dominican baseball talent, all 30 MLB clubs have training academies and operations in the Caribbean country, with around 7,000 prospects registered annually during each signing period, of which approximately 4,000 are Dominican players.
Some of the local players who have signed the biggest contracts in recent years are Fernando Tatis Jr, Wander Franco, Juan Soto, Marcell Ozuna, Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Ketel Marte and José Ramirez.
Fewer than 5%
Obtaining a signing as a prospect is one step that brings players closer to the Major Leagues, but fewer than 5% of players actually make it into a team. According to MLB data, between the 2012 and 2016 signing periods, a total of 2,294 Dominican players were signed and, of those, 110 entered an MLB team, which corresponds to approximately 4.7% of the total prospects.
This means that more than 95% were released and remain without a contract.
Faced with this reality, local senator Santiago Zorrilla has submitted a bill that would regulate the practice of baseball by minors and the contracting of professional players.
However, the bill was “struck out in the first inning”, since the time for its to be debated expired during the last legislature, and it has been presented again, with the legislators promoting it hoping to hit it a ‘home run’ with its approval by the country’s Congress.
The initiative contemplates the mandatory placement of 30% of the fee in a trust fund, setting a minimum age of 13 to begin training at the academy, and the prohibition of the administration and supply of substances that aim to improve physique and athletic performance.
Senator Santiago Zorrilla told Bloomberg Línea that the bill seeks to ensure economic and physical protection for the minors who aspire to become MLB players.
“In the event that the child does not make it to the Major League, because he was injured or released, with 30% of his contract he can have access to funds,” Zorrilla said, adding that 70% of the funds from the contract can be channeled to trainers and family members, while 30% of the trust would correspond to the minor.
The opposing ‘team’
For coach Anthony Cabrera of MC Baseball academy, however, things are not that simple, since there are many expenses that are incurred for years.
“We as coaches incur a lot of expenses that people can’t imagine. Right now a baseball costs [around $11.30], which are imported because they are not manufactured here,” he said.
He added that the cost of feeding the pupils, which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, protein and other supplies, for between two or three years, is also costly.
He said the academy currently has 45 children and on food alone spends the equivalent of around $5,660 monthly.
And while the academy is affiliated with MLB under an agreement as part of its Trainer Partnership Program, and provides “from time to time”, it is not enough for the number of children.
To be part of the MLB program, trainers must meet certain MLB quality standards, including player registration and testing for banned substances, among other requirements.
Cabrera says he agrees with the formalization of the academies, as proposed in the bill, but not with the part concerning 30% of the trust fund, but rather that the figure should be between 10% and 15%, while stressing “that it is still a lot”.
He also questions why the proponents of the bill “only want to regulate baseball, if there are other sports played in the country?”
Likewise, former MLB player Yordany Ramirez agrees that training a boy and getting him on track to being signed is a costly process and sometimes without reward, since not all players achieve a contract, pointing out that , on occasion, out of a group of 15 or 20 young players, only one or two manage to get signed.
Yordany, who played for the San Diego Padres (2001-2007) and the Houston Astros (2007-2013) and locally for 11 years with the Licey team, has been coaching for eight years and says that he has now seen the fruits of his labor, after millions of dollars in investments, for the 27 children that he has in the academy.
He stressed that, if it is passed, the proposed law would discourage the practice of baseball, and explained that most retired players become coaches of academies or baseball programs, although more as social work, while the job does offer the same benefits as any other career.
He also pointed out the different socio-economic conditions of the children in the academy.
“There is a child whose mother is in prison and his father cannot support him, another was abandoned by his parents and we provide for him. Sometimes it’s not all about money, it’s about the satisfaction that these young people will be someone in the future,” he said.
“It’s an incredible feeling when one of these young boys achieves his first goal, the first step that an agreement takes. From there, we continue helping them to reach the Major League,” the former professional baseball player added.
He recalls that his process was different, because when he started playing at the age of 14 his parents supplied him with everything, and he was signed at the age of 16, “back then the signing was easier, it is more demanding now,” he said.
The Dominican Republic’s National Federation of Professional Ballplayers (Fenapepro) and the Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League (Lidom) did not respond to Bloomberg Línea’s requests for comment regarding the bill.
What the MLB says
Yerik Pérez, representative of Major League Baseball in the country, pointed out that the MLB is in the process of evaluating the bill, and does not yet have a position on the matter.
One of the points raised by those promoting the bill is that baseball practice demands a lot of time, and as a result many of the boys neglect their studies.
Pérez explained that the teams offer a wide range of educational programs. “For example, every year hundreds of young signed players have the opportunity to conclude their high school studies at the academies, since our organizations offer formal education aimed at completing their studies.”
The MLB representative in the Dominican Republic explained that the academies offer vocational workshops through the National Institute of Technical Professional Training (INFOTEP), as well as English and computer classes.
Additionally, during the course of each year, the MLB Player Programs department is in charge of developing and executing several programs and workshops with important topics for the orientation and training of the players.
The courses include a player transition program and one called “Ahead in the Count,” which share guidelines and tools for players to perform properly on and off the field, while the Life Skills program fosters the importance of interpersonal relationships, emotional well-being, and family and community health, and the Safe Driving course addresses the topic of responsible driving and orients players on traffic laws and best practices when driving.
The Living Responsibly module teaches players the importance of their decisions, discipline and good manners, while Financial Well-Being consists of training young people in financial topics, such as how to manage money correctly, how to build their wealth, how to invest safely and correctly, and the importance of saving, among topics.