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Diamonds in the Rough

After Ignoring the Dominican Republic for the Last Decade, Angels Have Jumped Back Onto the Island With Their Own Academy

March 28, 2001|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic — While 40 players in the Angels' baseball academy go through their daily boot camp-like regimen of drills and games, the pobrecitos, the poor boys, angle for odd jobs in hopes of earning a plate of leftovers, a baseball or a few pesos.

The players can't help but notice kids such as Jonas DeLeon, a shirtless, shoeless 10-year-old with a mischievous grin and inquisitive eyes. After cleaning cleats for an hour, the miniature Doc Gooden look-alike is rewarded with some chicken, rice and beans, courtesy of a third baseman.

"When I see them, it hurts my heart," said Angel pitching prospect Daniel Arias, thumping his chest with a fist. "When I see them around, it makes me play stronger because I want to be able to help them. . . . I want to succeed for them too."

The little boys motivate the big boys here because in these kids, the Angel prospects, who range in age from 16 to 21, see themselves.

Most of the players grew up the same as Jonas, with little money and dreams of being the next Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez, national icons who fuel baseball's fervor on this small island of 8 million people that churns out big leaguers like sugar cane.

Here, there is more than a passion for baseball. There is a hunger, a feeling among young men and boys that the sport is the best path toward prosperity.

That's why the Angels, after virtually neglecting this talent-rich region for more than a decade, have immersed themselves in Latin America in the last year and a half. By pumping millions into their development budget and upgrading their Dominican facility, which houses players from throughout the region, they hope to land a superstar such as Vladimir Guerrero or Raul Mondesi, or a rising prospect such as Ramon Ortiz. All at a fraction of the cost it would take to sign a player from the U.S.

For roughly what the Angels spent to sign first-round pick Joe Torres, a Florida high school pitcher who received $2.08 million last June, they can fund the entire Latin American program for a year, including salaries for scouts, academy operating expenses and player signings.

In recent years, some Latin players have found better representation and commanded huge bonuses, but most sign for less than $20,000, bargain prices for teams looking to contain costs.

Critics worry that baseball is exploiting Latin players, most of whom aren't eligible for the annual amateur draft. But in countries such as the Dominican, where the per-capita income is $1,600, a $5,000 bonus can constitute several years' income, and players jump at the chance to make far more in the U.S.

"Baseball was everything for me as a kid--it was all I ever thought about and dreamed about," said Junior Guzman, a catcher in the Angels' academy. "It's a big opportunity to play here, but the biggest opportunity is to be able to play in the U.S. and in the big leagues, because then you can take care of your family for life."

It doesn't matter that 90-95% of foreign-born players are released while still in the minors. From the time kids can whack a wad of tape with a stick, their goal is to play in las grandes ligas--the big leagues.

"Boys don't play baseball here just for recreation," said Rafael Lora, 35, a coffee bean farmer from the northern city of San Francisco de Macoris. "They play it for survival."

Bargain Hunters

Scouts sift through this baseball-happy island as if they were mining for gold, and for good reason.

Many of the game's brightest stars are from Latin America. Of the 839 players (750 active and 89 disabled) on major league opening-day rosters last season, 175 were from Latin America and the Caribbean, 71 of them, or 8 1/2%, from the Dominican.

The competition for players has grown so fierce that every big league club--and Japan's Hiroshima Carp--has an academy or program in the Dominican.

Concerned about exploitation of players and rules violations among U.S. clubs pursuing less-expensive Latin talent, major league baseball is considering a worldwide draft, and recently opened an office in the Dominican.

Latin players have become part of American baseball's fiber, but only 63 have played for the Angels in their 40-year World Series-less history.

Of those, the club signed or drafted only 22, none of whom became stars.

And while the Dodgers were busy gaining a foothold in the region, and grooming such players as Mondesi, brothers Pedro and Ramon Martinez and Adrian Beltre at their sprawling, resort-like academy, the Angels went 10 years without a home-grown Latin player on their big league roster. After Urbano Lugo and Gus Polidor in 1988 there was a void until Puerto Rican catcher Bengie Molina came along in 1998.

Jose Gomez, a former Angel scout who ran the Angels' Dominican summer league team for several years in the 1990s, recalls asking then-general manager Mike Port for $20,000 to renovate the field in 1991.

"He said the Angels didn't have any money," Gomez said. "Then they gave Chuck Finley $18 million [in a four-year deal]."

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