Tapping In to an Economy of Sale
Thursday, December 21, 2006
PIZARRETE, Dominican Republic -- The face of the Washington Nationals' presence in Latin America dodges gaping potholes on rock-strewn roads in his gleaming Cadillac Escalade. He lives with his family of eight in a rusting, corrugated tin shack with sheets for doors between the rooms, keeps a pig on a rope steps from his front stoop and has a father who says the $1.4 million signing bonus his 17-year-old son received has changed the family's life un poco -- a little.
"My life's been the same," said Esmailyn Gonzalez, still wearing his Nationals warmup jersey hours after a workout earlier this week. "The only thing is, we're just a lot more comfortable."
Here, with the La Roche mountains as a backdrop beyond the nearby sugar cane fields and a stove that's nothing more than an overturned barrel with a fire atop it, comfort is relative, hope abundant and Gonzalez potentially the next poor Dominican kid to make it in baseball. His story is both wildly unexpected and oddly typical in this country of about 9 million people, where baseball has long been the most obvious way to pull families from poverty to luxury.
"That's what I want," Gonzalez said in Spanish, flashing the white teeth that have Nationals officials calling him "Smiley." "Better for my family."
Gonzalez, a shortstop, is in such a position to provide all this -- including renovating a new home some 2 1/2 miles away, where men lay tile and grin at their teenage employer's arrival -- as a direct result of the renegade system in which major league teams procure Dominican players. The system became so unwieldy that, six years ago, Major League Baseball established an office in Santo Domingo, the capital, to help provide structure, a commodity that has proved hard to obtain.
"Officially, we do not have jurisdiction over these people," said Ronaldo Peralta, the director of MLB's Latin American office. "There is only so much we can do."
Foreign teenagers aren't subject to MLB's annual draft, which includes only American high schoolers and college kids. Rather, they are all but auctioned off to teams by street agents known locally as buscones, a derivative of the Spanish for "to find" or "to seek." The process, which Nationals President Stan Kasten has likened to doing business in "the wild, wild West," involves Dominican baseball men -- part coaches, part providers, part hustlers, part financial advisers -- identifying and cultivating talent, preparing the players for tryouts and then selling them in the July following their 16th birthdays to the highest-bidding major league teams. Depending on the arrangement, the buscones end up with anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the signing bonuses -- except in the countless instances in which they rip off an illiterate and unsuspecting family.
"We do a good job for baseball," said Basilio Vizcaino, Gonzalez's 42-year-old street agent and a former minor league player for the Oakland Athletics. "The players are better prepared when they sign. And then, [the clubs] also don't have any other options."
It is a reality into which major league franchises delve in order to tap the Latin American market, which has become essential to assembling a potent roster. In 2006, more than one in 10 players on Opening Day were Dominican. The Nationals, though, are just reentering the market after a nearly three-year period of dormancy, and the signing of Gonzalez is their way of announcing their newfound aggression.
"We're here to play," scouting director Dana Brown said.
They will play, however, in a system that is fraught with peril, with buscones whispering to a kid that they can get them a paycheck immediately if they leave another agent, sometimes telling a family they'll take, say, 20 percent of the signing bonus while writing a contract that gives them 50 percent. Still, major league team officials say there is no getting around it.
"I hate to say it, I hate to admit it: It really do work in [the players'] favor," said Jose Rijo, a native of nearby San Cristobal who pitched 14 years in the majors and now serves in the Nationals' front office. "Now, we got kids 13 years old, 14 years old with talent. [The buscones] feed them, give them some better instruction, give them a chance to develop every day. If you go back to the old system, nobody would discover them, nobody would help them."