The international gameby Jonathan Helfgott
January 03, 2008
This article is an excerpt from the 2008 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, on sale at your local bookstore.
To the avid baseball fan, it comes as no surprise that the quintessentially “American” game of baseball has a vibrant and thriving tradition outside of our country’s borders. Fans have been cheering for guys named Ramirez, Martinez and Rodriguez for decades without thinking twice about the origins of their favorite players. The story of Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American player inducted into the Hall of Fame and an internationally recognized humanitarian, warms the hearts of baseball fans and serves as a reminder of the power of sport to give rise not just to icons, but to heroes.
Yet despite the widespread knowledge of the existence of an international aspect to the game of baseball, very few people know anything about the game outside of the United States. Unlike professional soccer, where the game is played on multiple grand stages across Europe and nationalism gives the sport one of its most compelling subtexts, baseball has one stage for all the world’s elite talent. At least in this country, that seems to satisfy all but the most hardcore fans.
The World Baseball Classic in 2006 marked the first time baseball’s widespread international appeal was brought to the forefront as a compelling narrative. Though concerns persist about how the March tournament affected players’ readiness for the upcoming season, the event was a rousing success. Casual fans learned that they actually play baseball in places like Australia and South Africa.
Peter Moylan, a pharmaceutical representative from Sydney, got the opportunity to resurrect his career and enjoyed a successful season in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen a year later. The world got to see the Cuban national team face off against the best players from other countries rather than simply dominating teams full of overmatched youngsters in international competition. Above all though, the origins of major league baseball talent were displayed before a large American audience for the first time.
Two full seasons removed from the inaugural WBC, the game has continued its rapid international growth, and players are popping up in minor league farm systems from places that would shock the casual observer. This article will examine the growth of the international game, what it means for the sport’s future, and how it affects the countries where the game’s significance stretches far beyond which team will win the “World” Series each year.
Laissez faire economics and international scouting
To understand the world of international baseball scouting, one must first understand the system that brings players from their home countries to chase the dream of playing major league baseball. Amateur ballplayers from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico all have to go through a draft process that affords them considerable protection under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. The agreement requires that players graduate high school before signing, sets strict rules for the acquisitions of agents, and caps the percentage of a player’s signing bonus that an agent can demand for his services.
In contrast, the only restriction on signing international talent is that the player must turn 17 before the end of the season in which he is signed. Without guarantees of equal access or oversight of the actions of trainers and agents, the international scouting game is somewhat of an economic free for all.
The Dominican Republic: international baseball’s standard-bearer
While Venezuela and Cuba both placed players at the game’s highest level before Ozzie Virgil became the first Dominican to crack a major league roster in 1958, the Dominican Republic (along with Puerto Rico, which has since moved to the Rule 4 draft) is where MLB’s international scouting divisions developed the international academy system.
To say that Dominicans are passionate about the game of baseball is a little like saying the Grand Canyon is a decent sized hole in the ground. Fifty fans at a rookie-level Dominican Summer League game make as much noise as a crowd of thousands in the United States—assisted in part by noisemakers, drums, trumpets and the corrugated tin roofs of the fan seating sections.
In the Dominican Republic, the nation’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Listin Diario, routinely publishes the names of youth league MVPs, occasionally publishing the names of players as young as seven. In August 2006, while I was living in Santo Domingo, the paper ran an article complete with color photo about an 8-year-old named Juan Carlos Custodio who threw a no-hitter in a small private league’s semifinal game.
The attention paid to players at such an early age may seem excessive, but the reality is that the road to the major leagues for the average Latin American player begins around the age of seven. For kids in large cities like Santo Domingo, the first step is to find a local trainer who will agree to accept them into a program. For the next nine years, the most committed players drill for hours on end. Some go to school, most do not. The system makes no demands either way.
For all of that training, it is extremely rare for a child in an organized training program to actually play complete games. Kids in the big cities have to play in the middle of streets, and rural areas lack proper fields. Equipment is a luxury, and the elite private training programs are more concerned with drills and developing athleticism than staging games.
"The problem with these kids is that they never play baseball," Milwaukee Brewers’ Latin American Coordinator Fernando Arango said. "They only practice."
As for the training programs themselves, there is a huge degree of disparity. Flavio Ortega, the lone trainer in the small town of Monte Criste on the Haitian border, works with anyone who comes by. His field was built by the city and a pack of goats keeps it free of weeds. It is not easy for a trainer in such a remote location to draw scouts, so he spends a lot of time ferrying players to larger facilities in Santiago and Santo Domingo. He is a beloved figure in town, and nearly everyone you meet seems to have trained with him at one point or another.
José Medina, who shares a field with another trainer behind Santo Domingo’s Estadio Olímpico, has a similar outlook. An independent organization (the Associación Independiente de Programas de Beísbol) assigns kids to Medina and he trains them six days a week. Through his membership in the Associación Independiente, he agrees to take only 10% of any signing bonuses his players might earn.
Medina, whose most successful pupil is Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Fausto Carmona, is unlikely to negotiate more than one or two contracts a year. However, he is quick to point out that the work has other rewards. "The kids know that I won’t train them if they don’t attend school," he told me one day during a break from training. "And even if they don’t sign, at least they are here and not on the streets."
Wealthier, more prestigious trainers called buscones (literal translation: seeker) develop relationships with agents in the United States and offer a much larger range of services to attract the best athletes in the country. Their players are housed, fed and given gym memberships. Their lives are closely monitored, every aspect of their training supervised, and the expectation is that their bonuses will be higher when it comes time to sign.
Generally, kids do not sign contracts with prominent buscones until around age 12. To find athletes with the potential to sign large bonuses, the buscones employ people whose job is to scour the countryside for promising talent. On any given day, it is common to see a dozen such individuals prowling the grounds near programs like the ones run by Ortega and Medina, looking to lure the best athletes away. Because of this, in certain circles the word buscón is treated the same as the word ladrón, meaning thief.
The buscones, who expect to make a significant amount of money from the players they represent, have different priorities than those of low-level trainers like Ortega and Medina. In a system with zero oversight, corruption flourishes. In the best-case scenario, the buscones feed their players well, properly represent them, and negotiate fair market value contracts in exchange for a cut no less than 30%.
Hector “Eliud” Acevedo, who runs a private training program with his father out of the University of Santo Domingo, was quick to defend the higher fees his program charges its players. "Honestly, I think [a 30% cut] is fair," Acevedo told me. "We invest a lot of money in our players. When they don’t sign, we ask nothing from them and we lose our investment. To make a living, we have to take a big cut from the players who sign."
While the ethics of the buscón system under the best conditions can be debated, it clearly has major flaws. Major league scouts routinely pay buscones to give them exclusive access to players they like. Rumors float through Latin American baseball circles about which buscones pump their kids full of steroids or change identification papers to falsify ages, which ones have been shot for stealing clients, and worst of all, which ones force kids to perform sexual favors in return for training and representation.
"It’s a mess," said José Escarramán, president of the Associación Independiente, who dreams of a day when all private trainers will be forced to follow the same regulations. "We can pass laws, but they do nothing. Dominicans are not used to following rules."
Clearly, the simple act of signing a contract is a huge ordeal for an international player. Once he has navigated this process though, he finds himself facing a whole new set of challenges.
The odds of any player signed to a professional contract making the major leagues are slim. Those odds go down considerably for players signed at the age of 16—an age when it is virtually impossible to tell which promising kid will mature into a man capable of throwing or hitting a 95 mph fastball. The vast majority of them don’t make it.
"[The players who get released] come home and do nothing," Escarramán said. "They have no education, no skills, and they come home depressed. Maybe one in 100 of these kids will make the major leagues. I think Major League Baseball needs to help us find a way to deal with the other 99. The first step is increasing the signing age from 16 to 18. At least then kids can graduate from high school before they sign."
Jaime Torres, an agent whose work representing Cuban defectors (including major leaguers José Contreras and Yuniesky Betancourt) brings him to the Dominican Republic often, expressed a similar opinion. "These kids have such huge egos," Torres said. "When they get their first contract, they buy cars and fancy clothes and walk around their home towns saying ‘estoy firmado’ [I’m signed]. When they get released, they feel like they have failed and can never go home. You hear stories of kids trying to kill themselves after they get released. It is a bad situation."
Though reforming such a flawed system seems like a daunting task, the last decade has seen a number of positive strides. The Associación Independiente de Programas de Beísbol succeeded in passing a law capping the fees of trainers and buscones at 10%. At this point, enforcement is nearly impossible. Many trainers have not heard of the law, and scouts and buscones alike laugh at the idea that it will ever be applied successfully.
Nevertheless, attempts at oversight are a positive step. The influx of agents like Scott Boras into the Dominican game, while doing little to fix the problems with the buscón system, has driven the international market closer to the standards set by the Rule 4 amateur draft.
On the MLB side, teams are beginning to realize the importance of education in their Latin American academies to prepare their players for life in the United States. All teams offer some form of English instruction, though most do not require that their players attend. The New York Yankees hire private educators to teach a four-course program that all players must attend and the Cleveland Indians pay to send their kids to a private school near their academy in Boca Chica on the country’s Southern coast.
In the United States, colleges and four-year universities are working to establish connections with local trainers to bring Latin American players over on student visas. None of these developments provide a definitive solution to the problem, but the system is much better now than it was even 10 years ago.
"It usually feels like we are not accomplishing much, but really I am happy," Escarramán told me after informing me that he had secured a spot for a Santo Domingo player at Miami-Dade Community College. For now, small steps will have to do.
Exporting the System: Baseball in Australia
While the Dominican Republic largely established the rules by which the international scouting game is played, the recent history of scouting in Australia is an interesting counterpoint.
The sport has existed in Australia for over a century. For decades, cricket players used baseball as a way to stay in shape during the offseason. Operating on a club system sustained by government land grants and the work of small groups of devotees, baseball has survived as a niche sport in an extremely lighthearted and nurturing environment.
Only in the past 15 years or so have major league scouts realized Australia’s potential as a source of major league talent. A relatively wealthy country, Australian baseball players do not face the same challenges as Latin American players for whom baseball is their one shot at wealth. However, Australians are subject to the same regulations, or lack thereof, as players in any other country not covered by the rules of the amateur draft.
When scouts began discovering Australian talent, they pounced on an opportunity to acquire players who had little concept of their worth. "In the mid-90s, I saw a lot of players who were getting used and abused," Australian player agent Trevor Jarrett explains. "I have a lot of friends who are scouts, but the truth is the scouting profession encourages a lot of dishonesty. It is a scout’s job to sign good players for as little as possible. I decided it was time for someone to step in and act on players’ behalves."
Jarrett was not the first agent to negotiate a lucrative contract for an Australian baseball player. That title goes to Scott Boras, who represented infielder Glenn Williams in 1993 and negotiated a $1 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. In representing the vast majority of Australian signings in the past decade, however, Jarrett has been instrumental in driving up the price for Australian talent.
Jarrett runs an open business, posting his standard contract on his website for all potential clients to examine. He describes his negotiating method
succinctly. "When I get an offer, I call every scout I know and tell them about it. If they want my player, they’ll beat the offer," he said. "Teams don’t like it when I do that, but it works well."
Jarrett’s methods are an interesting example of how a little openness can dramatically alter the nature of a process that thrives on secrecy. Australian baseball itself has hit a bit of a lull after a dramatic rise in the mid-90s. In 1988 a group of entrepreneurs started a professional league that featured several players from the American minor leagues. The league brought baseball to Australia on a level never seen before, and it stayed afloat for 10 seasons before eventually going bankrupt in 1999.
Though the league died out, many credit it with the measurable increase in Australians playing affiliated baseball. "The league was huge for Australian interest in baseball," Joe Clarke, author of the book The History of Australian baseball told me. "All of the players who are close to the major leagues now, guys like Chris Snelling and Justin Huber, they all grew up watching the Australian Baseball League. If baseball is going to really take off, we need something like that again."
While nothing has been officially confirmed, Major League Baseball appears ready to fund a revival of an Australian professional league to be played during our winter. Rumors abound that the league is set to open as early as the winter of 2008. With international investment, the prospect of a successful Australian professional baseball league and another renaissance for the game down under appear greatly improved.
Europe and South Africa: New Frontiers
While the past few decades of international scouting have been first and foremost an attempt to integrate the entire baseball playing world into the Major League system, the past decade has seen new efforts by MLB to spark and cultivate interest in the game where little existed previously. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Europe and Africa—most notably South Africa.
In 1995, Major League Baseball opened an office in London. This office is responsible for the game’s development in both Europe and Africa, which pretty accurately reflects the relative strength of the game in the western half of the Eastern Hemisphere. Though the overall European and African presence in affiliated baseball remains small, the number of players who have signed out of the Major League Baseball European Academy has increased every year since the academy’s inception in 2005—from three that year to seven in 2006 to nine this past year.
"Holland still is producing the most professional-ready players, [but] the Czechs, Italians and even the Germans are quickly gaining ground," Jason Holoway, manager of game development for MLB’s European office explained. "The Dutch have a semi-professional league which is at least of the quality of good university baseball, maybe even the low minors."
In European competition, the Dutch league shares its supremacy with the semi-pro Italian league. The two countries have traded championships in the two largest European tournaments every year since 1968.
The Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins are currently the teams most actively scouting European talent, and as players like Florida’s Rick Vanden Hurk and Seattle’s Gregory Halman continue to demonstrate major league tools, European representation in affiliated baseball should increase dramatically.
While Major League Baseball’s efforts in Europe are already bearing fruit, South Africa is the real gold mine. "Nowhere in Europe or the rest of Africa has the game spread as quickly as it has in South Africa," Holowaty said. "The elite levels in Holland and Italy are a little better right now, but according to our numbers, there are over 300,000 kids playing baseball in South Africa right now. That is more than all of Europe combined."
The explosion of baseball in South Africa is a result of the combined efforts of Major League Baseball and the South African government, which has long considered sports an integral part of raising the nation’s international profile. Major League Baseball and the South African Baseball Union have installed organized baseball in roughly 1,300 of the country’s 28,000 schools, primarily in poorer neighborhoods where the children are overwhelmingly black and colored (not a slur, but rather an ethnic identity officially recognized by the South African census).
Like Australia, baseball has long existed in South Africa as a club sport played by a small minority of the nation’s citizens. Nick Dempsey, the first South African player to play in the minor leagues, learned about the game from his grandfather, who discovered it while in a POW camp with Americans in World War II.
Roderick Siljeur, South African baseball’s youth commissioner, came to the game a different way: "The local cricket club cost 15 rand a year," Siljeur said. "Baseball only cost 2 rand a year, so I grew up playing baseball."
Though baseball has had a presence for decades, the explosion of baseball in South African schools could not exist without the efforts of Major League Baseball. MLB began investing resources into South African baseball in the early ‘90s through something called the Pitch Hit and Run program.
Holowaty estimated that over the past 12 years or so, MLB had spent over $10 million dollars on various development tools in South Africa. The sheer numbers make baseball officials optimistic that many South African players will eventually make their way to the major leagues. "This will eventually be a huge source of talent," Holowaty said. "There is so much athleticism and passion in this country. [South Africa] will not be a huge resource in the next two years, but it will be eventually."
The future of South African baseball is up in the air. As Holowaty acknowledges, "…there are no agents in this country." Major League Baseball is first and foremost a business, and "up to now, the South Africans who have signed have come very cheap."
As of now, though, baseball is unquestionably a positive influence in the lives of many South African children. "Our motto for a long time has been simply, ‘Let the Children Play,’ Bennett said. "With everything that has happened in this country, just let the children play. We are not concerned with producing millionaire baseball players."
In 2009, the South African Department of Sport will open the first national sports academy, which will house elite athletes in 19 officially targeted sports, including baseball. The academy will house 30 baseball players and provide them with state of the art training facilities as well as a free boarding school education. In his enthusiasm over the growth of baseball in South Africa, Bennett boasted that Alan Klein, author of the book Sugarball: The American Dream, the Dominican Game is on record with a prediction that South Africa will be "the next Dominican Republic."
Those familiar with the way scouting has operated in that country might find that an odd thing to be proud of. In any case, the growth of baseball in South Africa—particularly the character of that growth—will be one of the most fascinating developments in the global game in the next few decades.
Back to Latin America: What Will Happen to Cuba?
Baseball is casting a wider net than ever before to draw talent from all over the world and change the face of the game. However, the country with the longest and most storied baseball tradition outside of the United States is the one most likely to profoundly change the game at the major league level in the next few years.
Scouts and analysts have long debated the effect of a potential "opening up" of the Cuban baseball market for years. Long thought to be host to the greatest living ballplayers never to don a major league uniform, the merely modest successes of Cuban league standouts like José Contreras and Liván Hernández has left some doubting the greatness of Cuban baseball. When discussing Cuban league veterans making immediate transitions to the major leagues, such doubts are warranted.
However, if Cuba were to truly open up, if its 16-year-olds were eligible to sign professional contracts and major league teams allowed to open academies on the island, there is little reason to doubt that Cuba’s influence will be at least as profound as that of the Dominican Republic. Cuba has a larger population than the D.R. (over 11 million citizens to the Dominican Republic’s 8 million), and while other sports like basketball have begun to captivate the interest of young Dominicans, Cubans play baseball to the virtual exclusion of every other sport.
As Cuban baseball historian Peter Bjarkmann points out, "The young athletes [in Cuba] also have enjoyed better nutrition and health care [than young Dominicans], and are far better educated. They all read and write, and some of the Cuban Leaguers work on graduate degrees in sports management in the offseason."
While the immediate impact on baseball of Cuba’s hypothetical re-entry into the international economy cannot be entirely known, it is a near certainty that the introduction of an entire nation into the universe of potential major league baseball players will make the talent pool far stronger than it has ever been.
Baseball has never been exclusively America’s game. Only recently has the game’s highest level reflected the sport’s broad appeal beyond American borders. The World Baseball Classic has spurred the development of a new professional baseball league in Israel, the possible revival of the Australian Baseball League, and increased interest in professional leagues in Europe, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, not to mention MLB’s recent flood of investment into developing baseball in China.
It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in the near future where fewer than half of the players in the majors will be of American origin, a prospect that would have seemed ludicrous 20 years ago. As baseball continues into this era of unparalleled expansion, communities in the countries affected by the sport’s growth will face the difficult task of protecting the interests of child athletes from a system largely stacked against them.
Major League Baseball’s role is clear. As with any industry, its goal is to maximize profits and minimize costs, and that will not change anytime soon. Some have speculated on the possibility of an international draft, which would be a crucial step towards standardizing the process of talent acquisition but which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Extension of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association representation to minor league talent would be an even larger step in the right direction, but it is considerably less practical.
The different social, economic and infrastructural conditions in the nations that will begin to contribute talent to the major leagues opens the door to a wide variety of possibilities for the game moving forward. The greatest hope for those who have seen this process occur unregulated is that these countries will move quickly to protect players’ interests, "letting the children play" as much as possible.
Jonathan Helfgott was rewarded for his life-long obsession with baseball by receiving a Thomas J. Watson fellowship in 2006 for his project Baseball's Globalization: Economics, Culture and Sport. The fellowship sent him around the world for a year investigating the inner workings of the international baseball industry.