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Dominguez Gets Into Import Business : Valley Artist Has Become Agent for Baseball Stars Defecting From Cuba

June 25, 1993|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gus Dominguez, the artist, never pictured this.

For seven years, he drew sketches from blueprints that aerospace engineers brought into his office.

Then he started his own consulting firm, acting as a free-lance art director on advertising projects for several large corporations.

Now he has entered another business, one which Dominguez says allows him to blend his promotional flair with his primary personal interest.

He is a baseball agent.

Try to connect the dots on that one.

With partners Steve Schneider, a Beverly Hills-based arbitration attorney, and Ron Cey, former third baseman for the Dodgers, Dominguez has formed Total Sports International. The fledgling agency advises 11 baseball players--eight of whom were selected in this month's amateur draft.

Dominguez, 34, is a Cuban immigrant who pitched in high school and college in the San Fernando Valley before arm problems ended his playing days. He may only be a rookie in his new vocation, but he quickly could become an impact player.

TSI already has a well-developed Cuban connection, starting with its first client, St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Rene Arocha. With the potential of more Cuban players coming to the United States, either by defecting or being sold to U.S. teams by their government, Dominguez's group seems poised for a rapid rise.

Arocha, a former Cuban national team member and a celebrated defector, receives partial credit for founding TSI. When he slipped away from his Cuban teammates at the Miami International Airport in July, 1991, Dominguez was among the first people he met.

Dominguez happened to be in the area on a tour promoting a new candy bar named after Jose Canseco, the Cuban-born, then-Oakland A's slugger who lives in Miami.

Arocha said a friendship was struck almost immediately.

"I saw his sincerity and how much he wanted to help," Arocha said from his home in St. Louis, with his American wife, Vivian, translating. "His interest got to me. I trusted him."

Dominguez said his knowledge of Cuban athletes and his respect for their plight helped form the foundation for his relationship with Arocha.

"I do not see them as Communists and part of the Cuban propaganda machine," Dominguez said. "I see them as Cubans first and baseball players second. That is it. Sports and politics do not mix well."

Arocha, who, like Canseco, was born in the Havana suburb of Regla, was invited to Oakland to meet A's representatives and see a game. A few days later in Los Angeles, arrangements were made for the 27-year-old right-hander to meet with one of baseball's high-powered sports agents.

However, the agent canceled the appointment at the last minute, saying more important business needed his attention.

Arocha was furious.

So, too, was Dominguez--until Arocha surprised him with a sudden question. "Say, why don't you help me?" he inquired.

After a mild attempt to explain that he lacked the requisite experience, Dominguez agreed to try.

"You do the best you can," Arocha told Dominguez. "We will learn together."

Dominguez's first step was to solicit advice from agents and people already established in baseball. His initial challenge was to persuade the commissioner's office to grant Arocha free agency, which would allow him to sign a contract with the club of his choice.

Instead, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent scheduled a special lottery for September, 1991. Teams interested in negotiating with Arocha were required to participate in a drawing. The winner of the lottery held rights to Arocha until the following June's draft.

St. Louis won the lottery, and it took only two weeks for Arocha to sign a contract. Then 25, and with a need to establish himself quickly, he had little negotiating leverage.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Dominguez said, "Under the circumstances, with his age and the timetable we were on, we got a fair amount. Rene was happy with it, and we were happy with it."

Arocha's deal has been a Cardinals' steal.

After a winter of pitching in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Arocha was assigned last spring to Louisville, the Cardinals' triple-A affiliate in the American Assn. He spent all of last season with Louisville, finishing with a 12-7 record, 2.70 earned-run average, and was voted the league's most valuable pitcher.

For the Cardinals this season, one in which he is earning the major league minimum of $109,000, Arocha is 6-2 with a 3.07 ERA, tied for 10th-best among National League starters.

"We are talking about a guy who is not your typical rookie," Dominguez said. "To him, pitching in front of 50,000 is nothing. He is used to crowds like that. There is no pressure. In Cuba, players ride home on the same bus as the fans. \o7 That \f7 is pressure. If you pitch a bad game, they are going to get you for it."

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