14 April 2014

Reviewing Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice

The core of business is profitability.  The art of business is achieving that profitability.  As with all art, its legitimacy is highly dependent on the point of view.  The United States has increasingly become a consumer culture that has been progressively been removed from seeing how exactly their sausage, banana, or iPhone are made.  The further that distance is, the more reality becomes distorted.  We do not exactly lose our sense of humanity and environmental stewardship as we grow distant from creation.  However, we do tend to grow selective in the set of facts, notions, and misgivings that we surround ourselves to sustain our world view.

It is in this complex board of emotions, facts, and rationalization where Alan Klein's Dominican Baseball is found.  The book intends to fill a void in how the Dominican is discussed by sports columnists in the United States.  It does note that the system in place does have a number of corrupt buscones or amateur trainers (a topic that is heavily over publicized in our media), but that the corruption of a few does not represent the rest.  That this group (perhaps a 1,000 strong) is very well predominantly upright, moral, and filled with good intentions and support.  That this group is contrasted by the large monstrosity of Major League Baseball and how that entity tries to control talent on the island and artificially decrease money flowing into the island (currently around 75 MM per year).  A monstrosity that ignores most aspects of a player (even ignoring the vitally important need for integration into American culture) while simply focusing on baseball and a somewhat authoritarian control.  These topics are rarely discussed and quickly forgotten (how many remember the Mother Jones piece last year showing evidence of disregard for health issues at baseball academies?).

In doing so, the book is one of contemplative advocacy, but very much firmly planted in advocacy.  It is also very much firmly planted in the world of socio-economics to the point where you really need to pay attention in the first couple chapters to truly appreciate what the author is bringing forward: a rather damning appraisal of how Major League Baseball treats the Dominican Republic.  As such, one does notice obvious flaws in the discussion.  For instance:
In 2002, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Jonathan Corporan, a seventeen year old Domincan pitcher, for $930,000...What the Dodgers saw in Corporan was a wonderful combination of size (he is six foot two) and velocity (he threw regularly in the low 90s). ...increased vigilance stirred questions about his identity, and soon the U.S. Embassy had enough evidence to determine fraud had been committed.  Overnight, seventeen year old Corporan turned into twenty one year old Reyes Soto. ...the Dodgers decided to resign him for $150,000. ...Jeff Shugal, the Dodgers' head of international scouting wryly commented, "He was the same guy we thought was Jonathan Corporan. He just wasn't Jonathan Corporan." ...
Why, if his skills remained the same, would a seventeen year old be so much more valuable than a twenty one year old?
Being followers of this site, perhaps baseball in general, you should immediately see how absurd that conclusion is.  Soto was not docked almost 800k for lying, he was docked that amount because he turned into a rather mundane prospect overnight.  A seventeen year old kid has promise.  At 6'2", Soto had good size, but not prototypical size.  One could imagine that a teenager getting better nutrition might be able to add a couple inches and be more prototypical in stature.  A low 90s fastball for a right hander will simply get you through the door and the hope is that maybe a few more ticks will be added to that ball or perhaps his secondary offerings will become better with more experience.  At twenty one year old, you expect a player has reached his known physical shape and that his secondary offerings are highly unlikely to improve a considerable degree.  There is simply less to project and that is why a prospect can go from an elite 1.8 MM bonus (in 2013 money) to a third/fourth tier 290k bonus (in 2013 money).

That misunderstanding of baseball should not sully the central thesis of this book.  That central thesis, at least to this reader, is that the Dominican Republic was a minimally diverse economy that was somewhat self reliant and had an element of baseball associated with it.  Now, the country is much less diverse with fewer people growing their own food and the population largely depending on a highly competitive tourist trade (my own inference) and Major League Baseball (the book's discussion).  With a humanistic view, the book suggests that the country should have say over their own natural resource (prospects) without being overly heavy handed by the United States' Sphere of Influence.

However, my view on the book in general is one that is somewhat lying in wait for a tragedy amongst all the tragedies within.  The preface opens the book with a victory.  Astin Jacobo Jr., one of the preminent buscons and one you should be familiar with through Pelotero, is expressing a great deal of jubilation.  He and a rag tag group of like minded Dominicans (the language adorned to them carries a hint of romanticism) are able to convince 153 out of 154 Dominican players to sign a protest over the international draft.  The issue for these players is not a monetary one, but one of National pride.  Jacobo exclaims, "We beat them!"  However, as the reader, we have the gift of being removed from the situation and the emotions that are stirred for those deeply entrenched in this as a livelihood.  We know the power baseball has.  We know baseball players eventually care more for their own wallet than they do for the kids back home experiencing something they think they had to deal with in making it to the Majors.  We know that the draft is coming and that international amateurs will be increasingly exploited without the safety nets afforded to the also exploited domestic amateurs.

Well, maybe we do not know this.  It is a generally good assumption.  The powerful tend to obliterate the downtrodden few.  Successful revolutions tend to revolve around the powerful being upended by the downtrodden many.  As such, it is hard to see how the Dominican can take control over their home grown resource.  As such, it is hard to see how the Dominican economy can be made more robust to prevent this incredibly difficult pass/fail economic program revolving around baseball.  Of course, if MLB ever bothered to think about it, economic prosperity in the Domincan would not be good for them.  As the book on Venezuelan baseball so succinctly titled its book, Venezuela Bust, Baseball Boom, a low probability ticket to the Majors is worth a lot more when so many are in poverty.

In summary, do not take Dominican Baseball as the end all in the discussion on this issue.  It is part of the discussion and it is a part that is often overlooked.  The book is not without its prejudices, which is something that should be noted.  However, their presence really should not prevent you from fully considering what is presented here and realizing that monopolies and capitalism have dark sides.  As such, it is one of the several volumes that should grace your book shelf in order to make you competent in discussing international baseball.


Dominican Baseball by Alan Klein
Temple University Press
200 pages

No comments: