The Cycle

I’m trying to hand the phone to my teammates and they’re looking at it like it’s a bomb. I go to toss it to one of them and he puts his hands up.

“No, no.”

I go to hand it to another guy and he shakes his head. I look around the room and all five guys are looking at me like I’m crazy.

I’m finally like, “Will somebody just order this freaking pizza?”

Nobody wanted to take the phone. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was my first night at extended spring training in Bradenton, Florida, after getting drafted. I had spent all day signing paperwork, so it was about 7 p.m. and the cafeteria was closed. I started walking to my car to go grab some fast food when I heard a familiar sound coming from one of the dorm rooms: Spanish with the Dominican accent. I popped in to introduce myself and started talking with the guys. One of them mentioned he was starving. I’m like, “Didn’t they feed you guys?” They explained to me that the last meal is at 5 p.m. and they always got hungry again at night. These were young minor leaguers making next to nothing. They didn’t have a car, so they had gotten really good at hoarding extra stuff from the cafeteria at dinner and taking it back to the dorm room — bananas, PB&J sandwiches, Snickers bars, whatever.

Since I was the new guy and I had just signed my first deal, I thought it would be nice for me to order pizza for everybody. This was 2001, so no online ordering. I found a place in the phone book and I was like, “Alright, I don’t know what toppings you guys like on your pizza, so you call it in and order whatever you want.”

That’s when the guys started looking at me funny. I dial the number and I’m trying to hand the phone off. Blank stares.

Finally, one of the guys said, all embarrassed, “Man, we don’t speak English. You better call or it’s going to take all six of us passing the phone around to know enough English words to order.”

That was a reminder of just how tough it is for Latin American players to overcome the language barrier and make it in Major League Baseball. If you’re reading this as an American with a good job, imagine you’re 17 years old again, just starting to chase your dream. Only you’re in China. You’re away from everyone you know. You have three years to prove to people you can make it in your job. Oh, and all your managers speak Chinese. They give you a room with three other Americans and the only thing in it is toilet paper.

And you don’t even speak enough of the language to be able to order a pizza.

I really enjoyed Andrew McCutchen’s piece about what it’s like to grow up as a low-income kid chasing his Major League dreams in America. It was really interesting to me that he looked at kids growing up in the Dominican with envy, because they were able to sign pro contracts at 16, and get the money their families so desperately need. It inspired me to talk about what it’s like on the other side of the coin.

I was extremely fortunate to grow up middle class in Santo Domingo, but I was in the minority. Most of the kids I grew up playing with were from extreme poverty. Their houses often had dirt floors. They couldn’t afford basic necessities like three meals a day, let alone baseball cleats. In the Dominican Republic, the whole dream of going to college, getting a good paying job and working for 40 years is just that — a dream. It’s not reality. In Third World countries, those options don’t exist for most people. You hear that sob story a lot though, right? You’re almost blind to it. And when those poor kids go on to sign a professional baseball contract, it’s like winning the lottery. The reality is a lot more complicated.

So here’s how it goes down if you’re a talented kid in the Dominican Republic: At age 12 or 13, you’ll be recruited to play at one of the many baseball academies across the country. “Academy” makes it sound like a school. Most of them are more like baseball farms. Your family signs a piece of paper for consent and you’re pulled out of school to go train at sparse facilities in the middle of nowhere. They’re not regulated. They’re private institutions run by guys called “buscones” — part trainers, part agents. You sleep in these big empty rooms filled with bunk beds. You do two things: You play baseball and you sleep. There are no books, no computers, maybe one old TV. Before you’re a teenager, your education is over. You are almost brainwashed to think of nothing but baseball.

If this sounds depressing, then you’re coming at it from a First World perspective. These kids wouldn’t have it any other way. They have one way out. They’re the lucky ones. They still have a small chance at a better life. By age 16, they’re eligible to be signed by a MLB franchise, as Andrew mentioned in his piece. For most guys, even the smallest signing bonus alone can change families’ entire lives, relatively speaking. A person with a four-year business degree who works as a bank manager in the Dominican might make $1,500 a month. As a minor league prospect, you can make $1,500 or more. Once you move to an official MLB training facility in the Dominican, your life improves. You sleep in a college dorm-style room with maybe four or five other guys instead of 10. There’s usually a computer lab with Internet and a video game system. You also start getting fed the right way. You get three square meals a day and proper weight training instruction, which in the DR means you’re better off than most kids your age.

But what those kids don’t get is an education. MLB has made major strides in the last 10 years in building facilities in my country, but every year, hundreds of prospects fizzle out of baseball and head back into the real world with nothing to show for the thousands of hours they’ve devoted to this game.

The statistics are eye-opening. Less than half  of those signed to academy contracts in the Dominican make it to America to play rookie ball. Only 25 percent make it to Class A. Only about 3 percent will ever take an at-bat in the Major Leagues.

This is the proposition presented to many Dominican families: Have your child give up school at age 12 for a 3 percent chance to play in the Majors. And they do it happily and willingly. Because there is no other choice. Can you imagine walking into a sixth grade PTA meeting and presenting that choice to American parents?

I can already hear the people on Twitter shouting, “So what? I’d beg for the opportunity to do that for free.”

And those people are totally right. Those kids feel the same way. In my 30 years playing baseball, I have never heard a single guy say, “You know what? That was unfair. Somebody forced me into this life. This isn’t what I wanted to do.”

It’s their only way out.

But here’s the difference between you and them: Most of those kids are released back into the world with a sixth grade education — something that is not just unthinkable but illegal in America. What are they supposed to do, go back to sixth grade at age 20? They don’t have any technical skills. They can’t be an electrician or a mechanic. They’ve spent 10 years of their life being only one thing: a baseball player.

Many leave the game broke because of the obligation to send money back home to help their parents, siblings, cousins — sometimes their entire family. A lot of times people forget that once these players signs a deal, their whole family looks to them as the provider. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 16-year-old kid to take on.

(Not to mention unregulated business arrangements with buscones, but that’s a more complex story.) Baseball gives them a way out but most of them don’t make it, and they’re spit back out into poverty. It’s a vicious cycle.

And that’s where most kids from the Dominican envy even the poorest American kids. In the DR, you can’t even get a job at McDonald’s without a high school diploma. While the real dream is to make it to the majors, a lot of these prospects eventually realize that they’re not going to get there, and then it’s survival mode — stick around the minor leagues long enough and apply for U.S. citizenship, or find a regular job in the U.S. that will still allow them to send enough U.S. dollars back home to change their family’s station in life.

There has to be a better way. While MLB has come a long, long way since the early 2000s, we can still do better. Teams should make it a priority to provide these kids with a structured education, or at the very least professional and language skills. Right now, some teams are trying, but there’s no standard across the board. The Arizona Diamondbacks recently started offering a program that allows prospects to obtain a high school diploma  while training at their Dominican academy. The important thing is that prospects who have been released by the team are also allowed to complete the program.

All 30 teams should offer similar free programs.

The easy thing to do is say that there’s simply no time. Any Major League baseball player will tell you that’s not the truth. If there’s a surplus of something in baseball, it’s down time. There’s only so much you can work out in a day, especially when you’re 16 or 17 years old. These kids spend eight hours a day playing and training at the academies, and then they spend the rest of their day on social media and playing videogames. Why not make the most of that time and require English classes or computer training so that when 97 percent of these kids wash out of the game, they have viable job skills to fall back on after baseball?

MLB as a whole could really stand to benefit from making education just as important as nutrition and strength training. I’m not just talking about from a PR or moral standpoint. It makes business sense, too.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I witnessed a Latin American player develop an unfair reputation strictly because of a language barrier or cultural differences. Now teams are really smart about employing assistant coaches in the minor leagues who speak Spanish, but the language barrier still causes problems. When I was coming up, as a bi-lingual player, I was constantly being called in to meetings with players to translate conversations between coaches and players. The simplest misunderstandings would take 10 minutes to explain.

Many times, I overheard managers saying that a player was lazy or stubborn, and I was blown away because I knew that baseball was everything to the guy. He just had no idea what he was being asked to do. He didn’t know the manager was telling him to take extra batting practice or do a drill a certain way, and then I’d step in and explain in Spanish and the player would be like, “Oh! Sorry, sorry. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow! Better tomorrow.”

Then everyone would be happy. But what would’ve happened if I had come into the room 10 minutes later and not stumbled onto that conversation? If the player wasn’t a top talent, he probably would’ve been branded as lazy or arrogant or been released.

The language barrier goes deeper than just on-the-field confusion. I’ve witnessed the inability to communicate result in guys being too scared to go to the training room when they’re injured out of fear that they’d get told on and be released. Minor issues would develop into career-ending injuries as guys played through pain, simply because they didn’t fully understand how the system worked.

MLB has made huge strides in the past decade to address the communication gap, but there’s still a huge opportunity here. If teams poured significant energy into creating a practical education system for those players at 16 and 17 years old, how many amazing careers would be saved? And how many millions of dollars for the teams? More importantly, think of the improvement in the quality of life for the hundreds of players each year who don’t make it.

This issue isn’t going away. With the recent developments in relations between Cuba and the United States, there are literally millions of Cuban children who will soon be presented with the same dream as Dominican kids. It’s up to us in Major League Baseball to look at those kids as human beings and not just prospects.

All of us in baseball have the same weakness: we become obsessed with numbers. There’s a tendency to look at players as a collection of digits behind decimal points. What’s this kid’s OBP against lefties? What’s his ceiling? Is he the next Ken Griffey Jr.? Is he the next … ?

These are children.

It should be just as important to teams that a 16-year-old Dominican kid can read a book as it is that he can read a sign from the third base coach.

Leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.