When Hurricane David struck this Caribbean nation in the fall of 1979, it didn't spare Manoguayabo, an impoverished town near the island's south coast. Typical was the damage done to the three-room, dirt-floor shack where Rufino Campusano lived with his six children.
"The roof came off and the walls collapsed," Campusano recalled. "We took the pieces of the roof and put them back together, but it was a mess. When it rained we all got wet -- and the mosquitoes were terrible. But what could we do? We had no money to fix it up. We just lived in our house, as best we could, and prayed for a miracle."
In the fall of 1983, Epy Guerrero, a Toronto Blue Jays scout, provided that "miracle." Acting on a tip, Guerrero invited one of Campusano's three sons, 17-year-old Silvestre, to move into the Blue Jays' permanent tryout camp outside Santo Domingo. "The boy had never played organized baseball before," Guerrero said, "but I'd heard that he had the tools to become a major leaguer."
Campusano, a center fielder, was in high school at the time but that didn't matter. "Once Epy found me I no longer thought about school, even though I had three years left," the athlete said. "I borrowed some shoes from one friend and a glove from another and I went to Epy's camp. I stayed there for two weeks, then Epy offered to sign me."
The negotiations were easy. "We're poor people," Campusano said. "When I was growing up, it was hard to even find food sometimes. So when Epy offered me a $3,500 bonus, I took it. I had to take care of my family."
Campusano gave the bonus money to his father, who used it to paint his house, cement the floor, repair the sheet-metal roof and buy living-room furniture. Although he still couldn't afford screens for the windows, Rufino Campusano was delighted with the improvements. "All this," he said the other night, sitting under the bare bulb that illuminates his mosquito-filled living room, "because of baseball."
Campusano's "miracle" illustrates much of what's right and much of what's wrong with the system that has made the Dominican Republic the foremost producer of baseball talent in Latin America. (There are 47 Dominicans on the winter major league rosters, compared with 37 Puerto Ricans, 15 Venezuelans and six Mexicans.)
For three decades major league organizations have provided needed employment to thousands of Dominicans, many poorer than Campusano. The stories of big-league triumphs, of Cesar Cedeno being discovered on a drugstore team, of Juan Marichal becoming the first Dominican to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, of a sugar-mill town, San Pedro de Macoris, producing more present-day major leaguers than any other city its size in the world, have created hope in a nation of 6 1/2 million where the annual per-capita income is less than $1,200.
But for decades, major league scouts also have encouraged Dominican ballplayers, some 14 and 15 years old, to abandon their educations for a shot at the big leagues. It is a long shot at best: for every story of a Marichal or Cedeno, baseball officials here say, there are hundreds of tales of disillusioned Dominicans who, after being released from minor league clubs, disappeared into ghettos of U.S. cities or returned home unprepared to compete in a job market where 60 percent of the people are either unemployed or underemployed.
"It's sad, really sad," Rico Carty, the former major league slugger who is president of the Dominican professional baseball players' federation, said in an interview here. "But all you hear the kids talking about nowadays is how Joaquin Andujar and Pedro Guerrero and Alfredo Griffin are making millions of dollars. With the high unemployment, kids don't even talk about education anymore. That's a mistake, because most of these kids won't make it to the big leagues -- or even to the minor leagues."
Carty gazed out the window in his office at Estadio Quisqueya, the country's largest ballpark, and spotted some boys playing ball on a weedy lot. "So many of these kids can't even read or write but the scouts don't seem to care," Carty said. "There's no draft here like there is in the States, so scouts will sign as many of these kids as they can, just hoping to make a few dollars for themselves. Then the kids are released and, with no education, they are lost."
If choosing between a high school education and a minor league contract is the Dominican ballplayers' dilemma, it is only one concern about the pipeline that has delivered thousands of Dominicanos to major and minor league teams. In recent interviews here with more than 50 players, scouts, coaches, agents, baseball executives and government officials, The Washington Post found that these concerns include:
*That scouts representing major league organizations have failed to pay signing bonuses that are owed to Dominican prospects. For years, one National League club scout routinely pocketed portions of the bonus money he had been instructed to pay Dominican signees, according to sources here and in the United States. The scout no longer works for the club. Carty said he is investigating complaints that have been registered in his office against two Santo Domingo-based major league scouts. "One boy, 16 years old, told me that a scout had failed to pay him the $3,000 that he was promised when he signed," Carty said. "Another player said he had signed a contract in April 1984 for which he was promised a $1,500 signing bonus. The scout kept the kid under contract for a year, didn't send him to the States and didn't give the kid a cent. And now the kid has been released." Carty added, "I receive complaints like this all the time. Some kids come in here crying."
*That big-league organizations have been trying to hoard -- at times, hide -- Dominican prospects by enrolling them in "baseball camps" throughout this country. No fewer than 12 organizations have programs here that provide room, board and instruction to Dominican prospects. "There have been a lot of complaints about the camps," said the Dominican professional baseball commissioner, Reynaldo (Papi) Bisono. "At first, a few of these camps would take most of the important talents and let nobody else see them until they were certain that they didn't want that boy anymore. And it seemed like players were being pressured to stay in these camps." Sources said that the major league baseball commissioner's office considered closing the camps in 1984. Now, the camps are being operated properly, according to Miguel Rodriguez, the Latin American coordinator in Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's office. Not taking any chances, Dominican President Salvador Jorge Blanco has placed the camps under his government's supervision.
*That major league scouts have misled young Dominicans during contract negotiations. "We've had several complaints from players who signed 'false contracts,' " Bisono said. "One boy was led to believe he had signed a contract with a major league organization when he had actually signed with a Winter League club. The boy stayed here two years and he didn't have any assignment to go to the U.S."
Of special concern here was the relationship between the Philadelphia Phillies and the owner of the Escogido Winter League club, Francisco (Quique) Acevedo. For 11 years, the Phillies employed Acevedo as their fulltime Dominican scout -- and Acevedo gave the Phillies first crack at purchasing his Escogido players. The unorthodox sale of players by a scout to his own organization created "confusion" among the players and "a monopoly" for the Phillies, said Rodriguez. Acevedo's contract with the Phillies was terminated on Dec. 31, 1984, for reasons the club will not disclose.
*That agents are signing low- and middle-level Dominican minor leaguers who have no apparent need for an agent. "The agents are coming here in bundles," said former big-leaguer Jesus Alou, a Montreal Expos scout. "They are signing kids right as soon as we scouts sign 'em, hoping that these players will eventually reach the big leagues." While agents are also signing minor leaguers in the U.S., the practice here seems more common. One agent, former major league shortstop Mario Guerrero, has daily access to prospects in the Blue Jays' camp, which is operated by his older brother, Epy Guerrero. Mario Guerrero said this access has enabled him to receive commitments from "15 or 20" Blue Jays minor leaguers, whom he will offer to a Florida-based agency, Davimos Sports Management Inc. Mario Guerrero has been retained by Davimos as a recruiter.
For decades, there were no rules governing the signing of Latin ballplayers, and the major league commissioner's office voiced no objections to the hiring of 14- and 15-year-olds, even though U.S. boys couldn't be signed until they turned 17 or graduated from high school, whichever came first.
In 1981, the commissioner's office ruled that clubs could not sign Puerto Rican boys until they turned 17 or completed the 11th grade, whichever came first. But there were still no rules covering Dominicans.
However, in July 1984 the commissioner's office opened an investigation to determine whether clubs were acting properly in the recruitment and signing of Dominican players. "We had concerns about clubs signing ballplayers at an early age, looking at ballplayers and not really signing them, although advising them that they were signed with a particular ball club," said Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Puerto Rico-born lawyer. "We didn't know enough about the Dominican Republic and we just wanted to look at the entire area."
After six weeks of investigating, Rodriguez said he had evidence that some major league club employes, presumably scouts, had not been dealing squarely with Dominican players. "Some of the players might have been misled," Rodriguez said, adding that disciplinary action was taken against some club employes.
In December 1984, Ueberroth ruled that clubs can no longer sign a Dominican or other foreign (non-U.S/Canadian/Puerto Rican) player unless he is 17 years old or will turn 17 "prior to either the conclusion of the effective season for which he has signed or Sept. 1 of such effective season, whichever is later."
"We just thought it would be better not to sign kids who are 13, 14 years old," Rodriguez explained. "As you know, in some states those kids can't even work (because of child labor laws)."
Ueberroth also ruled that Dominican and other free-agent players who are signed before July 1 must play in the minor leagues that season, and that clubs competing in the Dominican Summer League, which is now part of the minor league system, must offer English language lessons to players.
The prohibition against signing players of any age received mixed reviews in the Dominican scouting community. Said Marichal, now an insurance executive and Oakland A's scout, "It's a good rule. I don't agree with signing a kid at 15, because the kid should be in school." Said Epy Guerrero, "A lot of guys 15 have a chance to be a future major league prospect. If you wait until the guy is 17, maybe he won't want to play anymore. So I don't think the old system should have been changed."
Even more changes were on the way. On Nov. 7, 1985, concerned with what one government official called the "indiscriminate signings" of Dominican boys, Jorge Blanco took the first step in his country's history to regulate the activities of scouts.
Presidential Decree 3450 stipulates that (1) all scouts must be registered with the Dominican government, (2) all minor league contracts that are signed in this country must be approved by the Dominican baseball commissioner, and (3) all camps operated here by major league organizations will be regulated by the Dominican government. Not mentioned in the decree is a further requirement that all newly signed Dominicans donate 250 pesos (about $86) to their country's amateur baseball program.
The decree, which is a presidential order, not a law, has been widely condemned by major league scouts here. Said one scout, who asked not to be identified, "If this decree gives me any problems, I'll just take the Dominican players across the border to Haiti and sign 'em up there."
"The scouts are putting up a lot of resistance to this," Bisono said. "They don't want to be controlled. They want to do whatever they want. They don't think this decree is going to work out because they think this is a bluff by the government. But they'll know this is going to work out when they sign a kid, bring him to the airport, and he won't be allowed out of the country because he doesn't have the approval of this office."
Nor has the decree been lauded by the major league commissioner's office. On Jan. 9, Rodriguez wrote Bisono in a letter that can only be interpreted as a warning: " . . . Our clubs are very active in the recruitment and signing of Dominican players. If such legislation was adopted it would most likely have a negative impact on the recruitment of Dominican players and could curtail our clubs' interests in the Dominican Republic."
The decree will not prevent scouts from signing Dominicans while they are in high school. Education is compulsory here only through the eighth grade, and in this country, money doesn't talk, it shouts.
"The reason the Dominican Republic is by far the best place in Latin America for baseball talent -- it isn't even close anywhere else -- is that this country is like the United States was during the Depression," said Pittsburgh Pirates scout Howie Haak, who has been visiting this island since 1954. "There aren't enough jobs for anyone, so you go out to play ball. It was the same in the U.S. during the Depression. There were more ballplayers in the U.S. who became great because they played from 10 in the morning until dark."
Haak resents the suggestion that scouts are luring Dominicans out of high school. "That's baloney," he said during a recent visit here. "The main thing is, they don't have the money to go to school. And you'd be surprised. A lot of these fellas that are signed here, their father never married their mother and their mother brings 'em up and the mother can't keep track of 'em. She has to work, so they don't go to school."
"It's tough for me to say this about my country," said Acevedo, the former Phillies scout, "but the truth is, we do not have the sufficient schools that we need for all of our children. And if there is a school for a boy to go to, the family does not have the money to buy his shoes, to buy his pen, to buy his shirts, his notebooks, his pencils. They have nothing. So in that situation the only thing that the boy can do is play baseball, because it's the cheapest sport they can play in this country. So going to school is not an option."
More than 247,000 boys were enrolled in Dominican high schools last year, according to a government estimate. "Saying that school is not an option for ballplayers accommodates the interests of the scouts very well -- not the interests of the ballplayers," said Luis Scheker Ortiz, the Dominican secretary of state for sports, physical education and recreation. "We admit that we need more classrooms for schools and that a lot of kids leave schools young. But saying that school is not an option will justify the situation permanently. That's an excuse for the abuses that the scouts do in this country. We will have to make a common effort to stop these indiscriminate signings by scouts and to work together to solve this social problem."
Some scouts clearly don't see it as a social problem. Echoing the opinion of other scouts who were interviewed here, Jesus Alou said recently, "I don't see anything wrong with kids taking baseball as a career even before they become high school graduates. There are doctors and lawyers and engineers in this country that have worked all their lives in their professions and they have nothing because the pay is not that good. On the other hand, you see kids that are playing in A-level ball who are living well and being good citizens. I didn't get a high school diploma and I don't regret it. I made it to the big leagues.
"Same as a doctor who graduates from medical school, any kid who plays ball and makes it to the big leagues and establishes himself there, he also graduates -- from baseball."
In early 1984, Silvestre Campusano made a farewell visit to his high school. "I told my teachers that I was going to the United States to play baseball," he recalled. "I told them that I did not intend to finish high school, and they all said, 'Congratulations. Be a good ballplayer. You've opened a new road for yourself through baseball. We hope you make it.' "
In his first season, playing in the Gulf Coast rookie league in Bradenton, Fla., Campusano hit .267. Last year, he averaged more than .300, finishing the season with the Blue Jays' AA club in Knoxville. This month, the just-turned-20-year-old will make his first appearance in the Blue Jays' major league spring training camp. "He's definitely one of the hottest prospects in baseball," Epy Guerrero said. "Already, people are comparing him to Roberto Clemente."
In Manoguayabo the other night, in the shack where he lives at the end of a rock-cluttered dirt road, Campusano lifted the mosquito net that hangs over his bed to reveal a wall full of newspaper clippings.
"I'm proud of what I've accomplished," he said. "When I'm asleep I dream a lot about baseball. I dream about playing in the World Series. I dream about playing in the major league All-Star Game." Campusano paused. For a moment he seemed lost in this dream. Then suddenly he was awakened.
"Someday," Campusano said, swatting a mosquito off of his face, "I hope to be a superstar."
(Washington Post staff writer Bill Brubaker spent 10 days in the Dominican Republic, where he assessed the system that has made the Caribbean nation the No. 1 producer of baseball talent in Latin America.)
Next: The camps CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, In the streets of San Pedro de Marcoris, which was represented by 14 major league baseball players last season, the next generation hones its skills; Silvestre Campusano stands before the house his father repaired with proceeds of the young ballplayer's $3,500 bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays; Reynaldo (Papi) Bisono; Francisco (Quique) Acevedo; Map, Dominican Republic.