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Back in the Game

Phillies_cover

Back in the Game

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (AUG. 15, 2007)
BY KATE KILPATRICK//PHOTOS BY CHERYL SERPENTINE

SANTO DOMINGO, D.R.—A subway construction project has turned the Avenida Máximo Gómez into a dusty, congested, humid whirlpool of car horns, exhaust fumes and human enterprise.

A swarm of motorbikes swerves between bumpers, dodging uprooted chunks of roadway that are spilling into the lanes. Merengue horns and reggaeton
bass blare from car radios as desperate young entrepreneurs emerge from all directions to hawk phone cards, cell phone chargers and leopard-print steering wheel covers.
Heading north to the city’s outskirts, the road ends and traffic veers left onto the Carretera Yamasa, where the grime-coated pandemonium yields to grassy patches spotted with wooden homes painted in faded pastel shades of turquoise, pink and canary yellow.

The trusty colmados (grocery shops) and cabanas (sex motels) start to drift off the panorama, and the countryside turns lush and green. Palm trees shoot up high, surrounded by fields of overgrown weeds, clusters of banana trees and stretches of sugar cane.

Poking out from the shrubs is a sign marking the Complejo J.R. Juniors, home to the youngest players in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
Inside, between the complex’s two manicured fields, young uniformed players with names like “PAULINO,” “SOTO,” “ALVAREZ”, “CASTILLO” and “CASTRO” stitched across their backs take their licks in the batting cages. The rhythmic crack of bats is interrupted only by instructions from the hitting coach and field coordinator Manny Amador.

Keep your front leg straight, he tells them in Spanish. If a house is falling, you need a straight beam to prop it up. So don’t bend your knee or chase the ball. Wait for the ball to come to you.

The boys—ranging in age from 16 to 20—take the instructions seriously. Listen and learn, and they just might be the next Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero or David Ortiz. Mess up, and they’ll be released, sent home, and maybe have to find a job hustling prepaid phone cards instead.

phillies_valenzuelaIt’s approximately 1,518 miles from the stadium in Via Mella, Dominican Republic, to Citizens Bank Park at Broad and Pattison, where Phils assistant
GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has his office.

Amaro, in the midst of trade deadline talks, is taking time from his busy morning to discuss the Phillies’ Latin legacy.

It’s a subject he knows firsthand. He played for the Phillies, and his father Ruben Amaro Sr., a shortstop for the Phillies in the ’60s and the team’s first Latin American coordinator, was responsible for signing such Dominican legends as Julio Franco, George Bell and Juan Samuel in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

But Amaro Jr. says the Phillies’ interest in spending and scouting in Latin America waned in the ’80s.

“We went through an era in the late ’80s and early ’90s when our involvement in Latin America diminished quite a bit,” Amaro Jr. explains. “There were five to 10 years when we stopped any involvement in Latin America. The feeling was that it wasn’t financially viable. It set us back quite a bit.”

Amaro Jr. says the energy and passion for baseball that once existed in the United States is now surpassed by Latin countries. “With Dominicans, there may be even greater passion because of their socioeconomic situation,” he says.
The Dominican Republic (“the Dominican” or simply “the D.R.”)—a Caribbean nation of 9.4 million, shares the island of Hispaniola (between Puerto Rico and Cuba) with Haiti. The average annual Dominican income is $2,400. But it’s typically much less for the families of baseball players, who tend to weigh in at the bottom of the country’s socioeconomic scale.

The Dominican is also sometimes called the “Republic of Baseball”—a patronizing assessment of the culture-rich country as little more than a baseball factory efficient in producing an extraordinary number of poor young players with “quick hands,” a “plus arm” or a “pop in the back,” valuable raw skills that can be stripmined on the cheap and exported to the U.S. minor-league system to be manufactured into big-league star power.

phillie_benchMore than 400 Dominican baseball players have reached the major leagues since Ozzie Virgil debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1956.

Ninety-eight Dominicans are playing Major League Baseball this year alone, and nearly a third of all players in the minor leagues, come from the Dominican Republic. San Pedro de Marcorís, a sugar cane-filled coastal town east of Santo Domingo, and the birthplace of Sammy Sosa, produces more Major League Baseball players per capita than anywhere in the world.

Though Dominicans started trickling into the major leagues in the ’50s, it wasn’t until the Dodgers named Rafael Avila, a former semi-pro player from Cuba, their Latin America scout and sent him to the Dominican Republic in 1970 that Major League Baseball began to realize the small nation’s potential.

Reaching into his pocket, Avila established the first baseball academy in the D.R., and the rest of baseball followed. Avila’s passion for the Dominican Republic was both visionary and genuine. Last year he told ESPN, “I was born in Cuba, and I’m a U.S. citizen. But in the bottom of my heart I’m Dominican.”

Today 29 of the 30 major-league clubs have instructional teams in the Dominican Summer League, playing at a level between high school and rookie ball. Five clubs—the Yankees, Blue Jays, Nationals, White Sox and the Athletics—have two teams. The Dominican Summer League has become one of most productive minor-league systems, producing more than 250 big-league players to date.

Trailing the pack, the Phillies didn’t open their first Dominican academy until 1996. (The original site was in the central town of La Vega, but was relocated
to Via Mella in 2001.)

But Mike Arbuckle, assistant general manager in charge of player development, says the Phillies have caught up with the other franchises by being more aggressive in the Dominican Republic.

“If we’re just talking about production of Dominican players—guys either on our roster or with other clubs who may have been involved in trades—we’re certainly in the upper half,” he says. “As far as the quality of our facility there, we’re probably in the upper third.”

Although the Phillies have had strong Dominican Summer League seasons the last few years, their success hasn’t translated into a bounty of hot prospects.

“We’ve ended up with more pitching than position players [in our Dominican league],” Arbuckle explains. “And the last two or three years when we were trying to go for it here and make a trade for an established big-leaguer, in many cases they were Latin kids that ended up going in those deals.”

The only player who started in the Dominican Summer League on the Phillies’ major-league roster is Carlos Ruiz, a Panamanian.

phillies_batterWhen the Phillies sign a young Dominican player, they’re gambling on talent in its crudest form.

Whether a 16-year-old will grow the inches, gain the weight, develop the preferred body type, and pick up the skills and discipline necessary to play in the major leagues 10 years down the line is a crapshoot—especially when the player can barely read or write, and doesn’t speak English.

Visitors to the Dominican Republic are often awed by the children’s resourcefulness in creating their own baseball equipment: branches and broomsticks for bats, homemade gloves fashioned from cardboard scraps, and rocks rolled into socks as balls. Often these are the very kids who end up in the academies.

Haitian pitcher Reginal Simon’s mother moved to the Dominican to work in the sugar cane fields, where conditions and pay are so poor it’s thought to be modern-day slavery. Teammate Juan Sosa used to shine shoes in the street as a child. When young players reach 11 or 12, many of those who were in school drop out to chase the baseball dream.

That dream almost always begins with a buscón, (or “scalper,” as it’s usually translated), infamous and often unscrupulous entrepreneurs who head up community-league baseball programs and act as the players’ private agents, managers and coaches—hoping to eventually deliver them to the major-league instructional academies.

They train the players six days a week, providing them with equipment, a place to sleep, meals and sometimes protein supplements. (They’ve also been accused of providing doctored birth certificates and steroids.) In return for their personal investment they claim anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the signing bonus—which can range from $3,000 to $3 million—when a player is accepted into an academy.

Carlos Valenzuela was 14 years old and living in a poor rural area about 4 miles outside the city of Azua when a buscón discovered him and enrolled him in a baseball program in Baní, about 30 miles away. After a year playing baseball full-time, Valenzuela realized the major-league scouts were interested in him, so he put his whole heart into the game, hoping it would eventually lift his family out of poverty.

When the July 2 midyear draft rolled around—the period when the younger, more expensive players are signed—Valenzuela’s hopes were high. The scouts saw in him a power-hitting shortstop with tremendous back strength, quick hands and an above-average arm. The Yankees wanted him—maybe for as much as $1 million. But after signing too many “July 2 babies” before him, their budget was dry.phillies_flags1

Valenzuela waited out the days following July 2, when teams shop around, bonuses drop and players get more desperate. On July 5 he got a call from his manager saying the Phillies were offering $200,000, one of their biggest offers this year.

“I said yes because my family is very poor,” says Valenzuela, wearing a green-and-white plastic rosary around his neck. “I don’t want to wait more time being unsigned.”

To celebrate, his mother made orange juice. “Now is when you have to really make it happen and go to the big leagues,” she told him.

Wilfredo Tejada, the Phillies’ head scout in the Dominican Republic, gave Valenzuela his standard signing talk.

“Once you sign a baseball contract, you have to be loyal to it—that’s the first thing. After that, take care of your body,” Tejada said. “Don’t forget about your friends. They’ve always been there for you when you were poor. Now you’ll have more friends because you have money, but be sure who your real friends are. Also take care of your money. You don’t know what will happen, and the majority of players don’t make it to the big leagues.”

Valenzuela is confident. “I can achieve anything. That’s my attitude—no fear,” he says. “I have no choice. Just baseball and everything that comes with baseball.”

It’s a bumpy ride over unpaved roads to get to the Oakland A’s Dominican complex, where the Phillies are having an away game.

After a quick warmup the players take their positions. About a dozen spectators have gathered alongside the dugouts to watch.

With all the nicknames assigned to players, it can be hard to figure out whom the teammates are cheering.

“Do you hear what they call him?” Amador laughs, nodding to 17-year-old pitcher Joaquin Santamaria. “Pollo loco [crazy chicken]. They say he got nothing up here,” he says, pointing to his temple.

phillies_batsWhen left fielder Rudney Balentean steps to the plate, he hits a line drive hard toward left field. But it gets cut short, smacking unexpectedly inside the third baseman’s glove. Balentean returns to the dugout fuming.

“Easy. Nothing you can do, brother,” Amador smiles. “You hit it hard.”

Amador—who grew up in Santo Domingo, signed with the Phillies in 1993 and parlayed his minor-league experience into a coaching career—isn’t worried
about his team winning or losing. He just wants players to get experience so they can learn how to think and react in game settings.

“Dominicans don’t know much about baseball, so you start them at bottom. It’s like teaching a baby how to walk, because in this country we don’t play organized baseball,” says Amador.

Pitching coach Cesar Mejia likes to call his curriculum the “pitcher construction program” instead of “pitcher development program.” “When they come here, they don’t know how to throw the ball. So how can you teach them how to pitch? If they don’t know the basics, how are you going to develop these guys? I have to start from the basics.”

This can be especially frustrating given the academy’s strategy to make pitchers—who sign faster and for more money—out of every player who can throw hard. Of the 30 active players on the roster, half are pitchers.

Mejia points out a player nicknamed “Asesino” whose wild pitches are getting the best of him. “He’s killing me every day. He took two to three years off my life,” Mejia laughs.

Although players can seem extremely rudimentary, they have up to four years in the league to prove their potential.

“If you show us you’re ready before three years, that’s fine,” Amador tells the players. “But if you don’t show any improvement—if you don’t work hard—then it’s hard for me to send you to the U.S.”

Last year three players made it to the States for spring training.phillies_lineup

“When I had the program, we didn’t sign anyone for less than $5,000,” says Ruben Amaro Sr., on the phone from his home in Weston, Fla.

“Five thousand dollars at that time was a lot of money. They were signing players for $400. I told Dallas Green—who was the director of the minor leagues and scouting at that time—I can’t do that. I have to force everyone in Latin America to wait for the Phillies.”

Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Amaro Sr. was part of the first wave of Latin players in Major League Baseball, signing with the Cardinals in 1958, but spending
the majority of his playing career (1960 to 1965) with the Phillies.

After retiring in 1969 Amaro went back to work for the Phillies as coordinator of scouting from 1971 to 1979, looking for players in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Amaro was responsible for the Phillies’ first Latin American boom.

More important, he helped change the economics of the scouting game.

“I told Dallas that I didn’t want to go to Latin America and offer scouts $200 to $300 a month. Gasoline has always been expensive down there, except in Venezuela. I said, ‘If you don’t give me a budget, it’s going to be very difficult.’”

Amaro was given $40,000 to hire four guys he says had a passion for discovering new talent. He made sure their contracts
included a new set of tires every two years and $5,000 to upgrade their vehicles. “If you don’t have good wheels, you can’t scout,” he explains.

With Amaro in charge, the Phillies became the first team not to bring Dominican players to the States until medical exams were approved, outstanding dental work was completed and their bodies had adjusted to having three meals a day. This was especially important for the players from the Dominican Republic, where the standard of living is lower than it is in Mexico, Venezuela or Puerto Rico.

Amaro says scouting was easier back in his day. Major League Baseball was a smaller business, scouts had more freedom to sign players, and there was less pressure to snap up potential prospects before the bidding wars began.

“We could follow a player for six months,” says Amaro. “Now if you wait too long you need a lot of money to compete with the Yankees.”phillies_tallshort

Sitting in a sports bar inside a luxury casino hotel along Santo Domingo’s malecón, Sal Artiaga, the Phillies’ director of Latin American operations, and Steve Noworyta, director of the Phillies’ minor-league teams, have just flown in to observe a few of their Dominican players.

Artiaga—along with Rafael Avila, Freddy Jana and others—helped found the Dominican Summer League in 1985. Artiaga expresses a longtime passion for helping Latin players advance in baseball.

“Sometimes when they get to the States they feel like they made it to the big league, and that’s just the bottom step,” he says.

Artiaga runs an English-language and American culturization program for all Latin players who make it to the minors. He’s authored several English-instruction texts that many clubs give their Latin players.

“From March to June [during spring training] it’s amazing how much they pick up,” says Artiaga. “Before, the Latin players never really grew because the language was holding them back. Now they excel.

“Carlos Lee—who just signed a contract with Houston for $100 million—what a [learning] sponge he was. And Pedro Martinez … I remember when he was in Great Falls saying to me, ‘I’m going to learn English.’ He had a burning desire and drive.”

Although players accepted into the academy attend English class twice a week, the vocabulary they pick up is very basic.

“The English classes are a joke,” says Dave Zirin, author of the new book Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports. “They’re not even doing right by the players who are going to be bonus babies.”

Zirin says the Phillies and other teams have an obligation to Dominican prospects that goes beyond the $210 players receive every two weeks. “Anybody who’s good enough to get into the academy should be guaranteed an education when they get out,” he says. “You have to end the system where 99 percent of the people who get in end up leaving with fewer prospects than when they started.”

“It’s not easy to come from the Dominican Republic and get to the big league,” says Eude Brito, a left-handed pitcher. Brito was signed by the Phillies in 1998 for $6,000, and made it to the major leagues for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but was sent back down to Triple-A the following year. “Baseball is a business. You’re here today; you don’t know where you’ll be tomorrow.”

When U.S. players get released, they have at least a high school diploma, and increasingly more have college degrees to fall back on. In the Dominican Republic players are scouted years before they’re old enough to even begin high school.

A few teams have begun to assume some educational responsibility for their Dominican prospects. At the Yankees’ academy, players have a four-subject class schedule each afternoon after practice or games. The Indians have gone a step further, paying for the kids to attend private school. Meanwhile the Mets, under Dominican GM Omar Minaya, are equipping their new academy with classrooms and computer labs, and offering courses in plumbing and electrical work.

phillies_clappingBut without any outside pressure on Major League Baseball to do right by their most disadvantaged prospects, progress will be slow.

What’s needed, Zirin says, is a collective effort from the players’ union (which represents only major-leaguers), as well as from Dominican-born baseball stars like Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez.

“They’re social democracies on two legs,” says Zirin, referring to the big-league stars who return to the D.R. and pour huge sums from their baseball earnings into their communities. But Zirin believes they could also use their clout to lobby for rights for the younger generation of Dominican players.

“If players from Dominican Republic ever were to organize,” he says, “it would be a very important pipeline.” One that would benefit both the bonus babies and the fillers—those players signed for a few thousand dollars simply to fill holes in the roster.

“With baseball you need context,” says Zirin. “You need 19 other players to know if a player has talent. So if you’re good enough to make the academy, you’re inherently helping the Phillies. You’re giving them the context for discovering the next great player. Since you’re helping the Phillies, you have to ask: What are the Phillies doing to help you?”

After their win against Oakland, the players stop for chicharrones before getting back on the bus.

Two locals set up a stand on a nearby bleacher, scooping handfuls of the deep-fried pork rinds from enormous paper bags onto mini Styrofoam trays as the players surround them hungrily.

For 50 pesos ($1.50), they serve a half-dozen perfectly crisp chicharrones along with two lumps of dense, stringy yucca and a lime wedge. It’s a reminder of the informal economy the Phillies indirectly support in the Dominican Republic, regardless of baseball’s socioeconomic flaws.

Aboard the bus a speaker tied to poles plays reggaeton as the players, dancing and clapping to the music, celebrate their win. It’s one of the few unscripted moments of a day that started, like every other day, with a 6 a.m. gym workout, 7 a.m. breakfast (eggs, plantains, salami, orange juice), 8 a.m. individual work, 9 a.m. batting practice and on and on until it’s time to retire for the night. After dinner they get a little time to play pool, watch telenovelas or just sit around and talk about their families, their girlfriends or their favorite baseball players until landing in their bunk beds for the niphillies_chicharrones1ght.

Leandro Castro says he likes David Ortiz because he’s humble and friendly with his teammates. Carlos Valenzuela prefers Jose Reyes, because he’s a shortstop like himself.

Vladimir Guerrero is Juan Sosa’s favorite.

“I like the way he throws the ball from the outfield,” says Sosa. “And how he’s very natural, very Dominican. He represents.”

None of these favorite players are Philadelphia Phillies. But Sosa says he’d prefer to play for the Phils just the same.

He’s heard good things about Philadelphia. He’s heard there are nice hotels and the people treat you well. “My coach in Bani told me the girls are very open-minded,” he’s quick to add, “and they go crazy when they see a baseball player.”

Kate Kilpatrick is PW’s senior arts and entertainment editor.

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