SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The only thing more congested than the traffic on this island republic is the market for young ballplayers--a fact Sammy Sosa does not have to tout on his billboards here or TV tourist promotions because major league clubs have long been aware of it.
How hot has the Dominican talent hotbed become recently, however?
It is as if Columbus landed here again and discovered the New World.
Or as San Diego Padre scouting director Brad Sloan put it during a recent pilgrimage:
"The only place with more talent than the Dominican is California, and that's only because the population is larger in California. The Dominican is ahead of Florida and Texas."
The beat heard here is not only that of the merengue, it is that of scouts foraging the bushes, contributing to a climate that Cleveland Indian General Manager John Hart compared to the "Wild West" and "the last great scouting outpost."
A combination of increased aggressiveness on the part of U.S. clubs seeking less expensive talent and eagerness on the part of young--and often innocent--Dominican players who idolize Sosa and other Dominican major leaguers and view baseball as an economic escape has also contributed to a climate of potential exploitation and rules violations to the extent that the commissioner's office is considering opening an administrative branch in the Dominican Republic, having already initiated changes in the process by which ages are verified.
The case of Dodger third baseman Adrian Beltre, who has asked the commissioner's office to declare him a free agent because he was signed before the legal minimum of 16 and the Dodgers falsified documents in the process, has drawn attention to an atmosphere in which players, clubs, parents, scouts and agents have often acted separately or with complicity to violate policy.
Scott Boras, who represents Beltre, calls it a "corrupt system" in which players are often deprived of representation, knowledge of the rules and an accurate idea of their market value. Juan Ortiz, who is the Dominican government's commissioner of baseball under sports minister Juan Marichal, put it in the context of the Beltre case, cited the Dodgers' outstanding reputation in the Dominican Republic and said:
"If the Dodgers are guilty, it's not only the Dodgers, it's everyone who is cheating."
Ortiz, of course, isn't naive. He knows there has been cheating. Enough Dominican signings have been voided to prove it.
He acknowledged that falsifying ages has been an active business but believes new guidelines and verification methods will improve the situation.
The irony, he said, is that "older Dominican players used to lie and say they were younger, and now younger players lie to say they are older--and it's all basically a matter of economics."
The middle class has options and can send their sons to advanced schooling--often in the United States--but the poor tend to view baseball as the only economic salvation.
Not that all of this is an overnight development.
The Dominican Republic has been producing quality players for more than 25 years and the little community of San Pedro de Macoris has long been recognized as the birthplace of shortstops--but now every major league club has an academy or program of significant nature in the Dominican Republic, and even Japan's Hiroshima Carp have an academy.
Amid rising costs and a drain of U.S. talent to other sports, the international market, from Asia to Aruba, has "become vital to the survival of major league baseball," said Omar Minaya, assistant general manager of the New York Mets, and the Latin American influence is strongest of all.
There are 16 academies in Venezuela, three belonging to the Indians, who also have two in the Dominican Republic. There were 159 Latin Americans on opening day rosters in 1999--about twice as many as 20 years ago--and the top five vote getters in balloting for the American League's most-valuable-player award were Latin Americans, as was the World Series MVP, Mariano Rivera.
Of those 159 on April rosters, 66 were from the Dominican, a republic of about eight million people with an annual per capita income of less than $1,000 and a passion for baseball. It is the true national pastime here, an important part of the economy and that potential outlet for the poor--a major motivational factor for young players.
Forget Pokemon. There are 100 little leagues in the Dominican Republic, and barefooted, barehanded youngsters are still found playing in rock- and weed-strewn fields with sugar cane as bats and rolled-up tape or socks as balls--a long way in miles from the $5-million mansion the idolized Sosa recently built here but not in spirit.