by Chris Lindsay
A little under two years ago, 18-year old Dominican shortstop Yewri Guillen died of a preventable viral or bacterial infection. You may remember that he was a prospect in the Washington Nationals organization, and that his death made some headlines. But there's a lot more to his story.
Ian Gordon with Mother Jones magazine has written a great article investigating the circumstances surrounding Guillen's death and the system by which young Dominican players enter the major leagues. It's an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. I had a chance to ask Gordon a few follow-up questions about the matter, and my conclusions are outlined below. I'll include the main points of the problem in my discussion, but if you haven't yet done so you should definitely read his article.
Yewri Guillen and the Dominican System
In some ways Guillen was a special case, but most Dominican prospects face similar risks. He had originally been signed by the Nationals back in 2009, but his contract was held up by suspicions about his real age. He continued to train at the Nationals' academy without being an official part of their system, until his contract was confirmed in 2011. Just before he was to have left for the US to play in the minor leagues, he fell ill. The academy did not offer him the treatment he needed, but instead sent him to his family home. His impoverished family struggled to find him private medical care, but finally got him admitted to a clinic several days later. By then it was too late and he died of his infection (the exact nature of that infection is in some dispute).
American baseball fans know that the Dominican Republic is a great producer of baseball talent. As of Opening Day 2012, Dominicans formed 11% of the players on MLB active rosters - the largest contingent of foreign-born players. And anyone who follows baseball can reel off a list of Dominican superstar players.
But young Dominican players seeking to reach the major leagues face daunting odds. First, they have to be good enough to stand out from the crowd of other players and attract the attention of scouts. Many train with private promoters known as buscones, who will take a share of their signing bonus if they sign with a team. Conditions in the academies run by buscones can be very spartan and dangerous, but as Guillen's example makes clear, the conditions in academies run by MLB teams are not great either.
In fact, Gordon reveals that just nine of the thirty major league teams have certified trainers in their Dominican academies. Guillen's coaches sent him home without treating his illness, but it's unlikely that they recognized the severity of his condition, and it's unclear whether anyone at the academy had the expertise to treat or diagnose his condition.
For the record, the nine teams that had certified trainers at their academies in 2012 were: ARI, BAL, CHC, CIN, MIL, NYM, PIT, TEX, and TOR. I don't see any particular pattern among those teams, but as this is an Orioles blog it's nice to see that they were among the nine. There might be plenty of other problems at the Orioles' DR academy, though.
The rough physical conditions at the academies are not the only problems facing Dominican prospects. There is intense pressure to succeed, and to succeed quickly, as teams prefer to recruit teenagers. American teenagers may go on to play baseball in college and enter the draft in their early twenties, but Dominican players generally must sign in their teens or be passed over. This of course has led to many cases of identity and age fraud, and abuse of performance- or physique-enhancing drugs.
Once in the minor leagues, the path to the major league level is still quite difficult, as minor leaguers of any nationality could attest. But Dominicans advance slower than their American counterparts through the ranks of the minor league system, a trend probably reflecting the culture shock they must undergo playing in a very different environment against more polished and professionally-trained players.
And if a Dominican prospect fails to land a contract or washes out of the minors, his future life can look pretty bleak. As a rule, the teenage players drop out of any school they had been attending in order to concentrate on baseball training. While American prospects have completed high school, the Dominicans, whose educational opportunities were much sparser to begin with, will be lucky if they have completed grade school.
How Could the System Be Improved?
Of course the root problem in all this is the extreme poverty in the Dominican Republic. Because baseball offers a small but real chance to escape their impoverishment, Dominican teenagers are willing to risk the long odds and put up with the rough conditions. In many cases, the appalling living conditions at the academies may represent a step up from their home lives.
MLB and the Nationals, while expressing their regret for Guillen's death, have maintained that there was no wrong-doing involved, and that the Nationals academy followed all the applicable regulations. As Gordon points out, that is true, but the regulations don't require much.
As baseball fans and as human beings, we should demand more. I asked Gordon what he thought would be the most important improvements to enact, and he gave me a very sensible list of reform priorities:
- Every team should have a certified athletic trainer at their academy.
- Every team should have a doctor working with the academy.
- Unsigned players (like Guillen) should not be able to live/play at the academies - at least not without health insurance.
- There should be an MLB-led effort to standardize the education provided at all academies.
- Regulating the buscones would be great (this would probably involve forming a buscon union).
One element of the equation that I thought was not covered in Gordon's article was the Dominican government. Ultimately they are responsible for the laws and well-being of their citizens. Obviously they have plenty of handicaps and with very limited resources they cannot do everything, but legally they have the power to regulate how teams and buscones can conduct business on their territory. It appears that at the moment they are a missing stakeholder, but I think they have the most potential to improve the situation.
I asked Gordon about the role of the government, and he told me that the Dominican government has aligned itself with MLB and generally keeps quiet on these issues. They are cooperating with MLB in the establishment of an educational program to help players released by teams (this is a great idea, of course, but is still in its infancy). No doubt the government is very pleased that MLB contributes millions of dollars to the Dominican economy, and doesn't want to see that threatened. But if that's their reasoning I think they severely underestimate their bargaining power. A few common-sense laws to require decent medical care, living conditions, and educational facilities at academies would not drive MLB out of the country, given the massive value of Dominican talent in baseball. And the government should be in a much better position than MLB to regulate the buscones.
Will There Be Improvement?
Obviously, this situation is very sad. But when you consider the parameters, it's not very surprising. The players are desperate to reach the major leagues and will put up with many hardships in order to get there. The government seems unwilling or unable to regulate the process. The buscones may feel some protective instinct for their players but are basically out to make money. And so are the teams.
Fans of a team may feel great affection and loyalty for that team, but in the end we have to remember that all of the major league teams are for-profit corporations. And the entity known as Major League Baseball is really just a cartel of these for-profit corporations, so it will not act against their interests. In principle the teams have a vested interest in the health and well-being of their prospects, but generally they will do whatever they can to keep their costs down.
A case in point: the 2011 collective bargaining agreement contains numerous provisions that are clearly intended to hold down salaries and bonuses for players, particularly new players. The limitation of signing bonuses on international free agents marks a sudden departure from past policy, and greatly reduces the amount of money that Dominican prospects can expect to receive. In turn, that will greatly reduce the amount of money that the buscones receive.
There has been plenty of speculation that the new limit will drive young people away from the game, as talented athletes turn to other, potentially more lucrative sports, along the lines of what happened in Puerto Rico after it was included in the MLB draft. This is certainly a possibility, but given the overall Dominican enthusiasm for baseball and the extreme poverty of many of the players, it seems rather far-fetched. In any case, we won't be able to see any such effect until several years from now. On the other hand, the new limits will certainly hurt the buscones. Some may shut down their operations altogether, while others may try to save a little money by trimming their expenses. This could result in even worse conditions at their academies.
Rafael Perez, the head of MLB's Dominican operations, told Gordon that teams were improving conditions on a voluntary basis, and that "people have a negative reaction when things are imposed." Certainly, people always complain about regulations that are imposed upon them, and sometimes with justice, but it's really the only sane response to chronic problems like this. Part of the reason why conditions at academies have not improved heretofore may have to do with competition between the teams. Why would Team A shell out extra money to improve its academy when Team B does not, considering that the extra expense will probably not noticeably improve the flow of talent the team receives from the academy? If all of the teams are required to bring their facilities up to a decent standard, they may complain about the burden but at least they would all incur similar costs.
It's hard to see much actual improvement since Guillen's death, and such improvement looks unlikely unless someone brings some pressure to bear on the teams. A widespread outcry from media and fans would certainly encourage the teams to get their act together, but there is really no substitute for regulation. If properly motivated, MLB could require that all its teams improve the conditions at their academies, and if MLB took the lead the government might be more willing to get involved.
It would also be nice to see some more activity by established major league players on this matter. Dominican stars like David Ortiz and Robinson Cano are heroes in their home country and in the US. I know many of them contribute to and organize charities to help poor people in the Dominican, but I think they could also be making more use of their celebrity to raise awareness of the issue and bring pressure to bear on MLB and the DR government.
The bottom line is that baseball can do better. Yewri Guillen was a great talent with his whole life ahead of him. He had a hard path ahead of him, and maybe he would never have reached the major leagues. But he certainly didn't need to die trying to get there.