In the spring of 1984, Dominican professional baseball commissioner Rey-naldo (Papi) Bisono was visited in his office by the mother of a 17-year-old player. The mother was desperate. Her husband had just died and she couldn't find her son. "She'd heard that her son had been taken away by a baseball scout," Bisono said, "and she asked me if I could find him."
After making a few calls, Bisono determined that the boy was being boarded at one of the permanent tryout camps that had been opened in this country by major league baseball organizations. Bisono phoned a Dominican police officer, who visited the camp and found the boy.
"And this was one of many complaints that I received about these camps," Bisono said in a recent interview. "The scouts who ran the camps had these kids hidden, that is the real truth. These camps were hideouts because the scouts didn't want their kids to be seen by other scouts. It almost seemed like they were concentration camps: the kids who went in couldn't go out."
Today, 12 major league clubs have camps in this baseball-crazed nation, and the Dominican government has taken measures to regulate them.
"We had no choice," Bisono said. "We had to ensure that our kids would be properly taken care of. Now, with these new regulations, I can say that I'm in favor of the camps. If the scouts follow our rules, there's no doubt that the camps will be beneficial to the Dominican kids."
The camps signal a determined effort by major league organizations to sign more players in this country, which is already the prime producer of baseball talent in Latin America.
"The camps are good for everybody," said Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, who operates a camp here for the Oakland A's. "Before, a lot of players were signed in this country, taken to the U.S. and released -- nine, 10, maybe more in one day -- because the kids weren't ready. That wasn't fair. The organizations lost money and the kids didn't have a job. Now, with the camps, the kids are better prepared before they leave for the U.S. So the camps are good for the country. Good for the players. Good for the scouts. Good for the organizations."
The camps may be good for some organizations (the Yankees, Braves, Orioles, Cubs, Astros, Royals, Dodgers, Brewers, A's, Cardinals, White Sox and Blue Jays have them) but they're not for everybody. "Want to know what I think of the camps?" said Pittsburgh Pirates scout Howie Haak, 74, who has been visiting Latin America for three decades. "I think they're horse manure." More from Haak later.
Typically, the camps operate as follows: A major league scout will spot a player, then invite him to his camp. If the player is attending high school, he will either quit school or enroll in a night school. At the camp, the player will be given free room and board, medical care and English lessons, and his baseball abilities will be evaluated five hours a day, five days a week by as many as five coaches. If the player shows promise, he will be signed to a minor league contract.
The camps vary in sophistication. The Toronto Blue Jays have a sprawling, year-round complex where players can even watch U.S. cable television. The Milwaukee Brewers have a seasonal camp in which players sleep in bunk beds under the grandstand of a public ballpark. Other organizations, such as the A's, Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves, schedule workouts in public stadiums and board players in $10-a-night guest houses.
"The camps will make a difference in the number of major leaguers that you'll see coming out of the Dominican Republic," Marichal predicted. "Just wait and see."
As recently as the mid-'50s, few scouts bothered even to visit this impoverished island nation, opting for the more Americanized environs of Cuba and Puerto Rico. But with the emergence in the late '50s of stars such as Marichal and Felipe Alou, and of a lefty named Fidel who sealed off the marketplace in neighboring Cuba, the Dominican Republic was on its way to becoming known as the bargain basement of pro baseball.
By the early '70s most organizations had assigned scouts, if only part-timers, to comb this country for bargains, from the palmy beach villages of the north coast to the sugar-mill towns in the south. And as the competition grew, scouts began looking for an edge. Some invited prospects to live in their homes. Others boarded players in guest houses. The strategy was simple: hide players from rival scouts until they were ripe to be signed.
In 1977, a Blue Jays scout, Epy Guerrero, had a better idea. With a bank loan, he purchased a brick house and plot of land in Villa Mella, 12 miles north of here, and built his own complex, complete with grandstand, playing field, army-style barracks and jungly garden where players could pick their own snacks: bananas, oranges, lemons, coconuts, mangoes, berries, grapefruit and avocados.
For several years, Guerrero operated the camp with minimal assistance from the Blue Jays. Then, in 1981, he persuaded the organization to use the "Epy Complex," as it came to be known, as a permanent camp. Today, the Blue Jays spend about $100,000 a year to operate the camp, Guerrero said. "It's been successful for us," said Pat Gillick, Toronto's vice president of baseball operations. "Any time you can better prepare a player to come to the States and be adapted to professional baseball, that's an advantage not only to the club but to the player."
By 1984, at least a half-dozen clubs had opened camps here, and some became known as hideouts.
"It's true -- a lot of scouts hid kids," Marichal said. "We understand that some clubs were doing that," admitted Miguel Rodriguez, the Latin American coordinator in baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's office. "They would place players in various facilities and not permit access to other individuals to go see the players."
For awhile, the commissioner's office considered closing the camps. "Some organizations that weren't involved as heavily in the Dominican Republic as ourselves, the Dodgers and Atlanta brought pressure on the commissioner," Gillick said. "These clubs thought we were trying to corner the market for ourselves. My answer to them was: It's a perfectly free situation. If you want to spend the money to get involved, get involved."
The camps remained open. But under guidelines issued by Ueberroth, clubs could no longer enroll players under the age of 16 and players could not remain in a camp more than 30 days (although they could return to that camp after each 30-day absence).
The guidelines didn't satisfy the Dominican government. On Nov. 7, President Salvador Jorge Blanco issued a decree that placed the camps under his government's supervision.
The decree stipulates that each big-league club must register its camp with the government and purchase a 50,000-peso ($17,500) insurance policy from a Dominican company; that players may leave the camps at any time; that camps must provide players "room and board, medical care, transportation" and prepare them "mentally, socially and culturally through courses, speeches, seminars, conferences, etc." for their futures in this country and abroad; and that players cannot sign with major league organizations until they have spent 30 days in an accredited camp.
The decree has been controversial, both here and in the major league commissioner's office.
"Obviously we'll comply with the laws of the Dominican Republic," Rodriguez said, "but if the decree makes it totally inhospitable for us to be there, it can affect the operation of major league baseball camps and the future of athletes from the Dominican Republic."
There's no doubt that the camps have created inhospitable feelings among scouts.
"Some of the scouts who don't have camps try to steal kids from the clubs that do," Marichal said. "In the 2 1/2 years I've had a camp, I've lost about seven. You get a player in your camp, you let him go home every weekend and in those three days somebody comes up to him and says, 'Listen, do you want to sign?' And of course the kid will want to sign. He's hungry."
"I had to chase two scouts away from my camp last month," said Milwaukee Brewers scout Felix Delgado. "They came to my camp during our lunch break and took two of my players to the other side of the stadium. I caught these guys and told them to leave. It just wasn't fair."
Howie Haak doesn't have any patience for such complaints. In his hotel room overlooking the Caribbean Sea, the Pirates' scout stuffed a wad of tobacco into his mouth the other afternoon and said, "These camps aren't going to change the way that we scout in this country. We're still going to sign the players we want to sign. If they're in some other club's camp, well, they're in some other club's camp."
Haak and the Pirates' Dominican-based scout, Pablo Cruz, say their organization has no intention of opening a camp here. "The camps are a waste of money," Haak said. "I've signed over 70 players who went to the major leagues from this country, and I don't think I ever saw more than three or four who ever played a game. You don't need to. So you don't need to put a kid into a camp for three weeks to see if he's a prospect. We see them in a tryout camp. We run 'em. We throw 'em. Watch 'em hit. Then if we like 'em, we sign 'em."
Haak unloaded a stream of tobacco juice into a trash bin. "We'll continue to sign players without a camp," he said. "We just signed a player out of the Yankees' camp in November. Of course, the Yankees raised hell about it. But what could they do? They still hadn't signed the boy."
Cruz nodded. "The boy, Jose Clemente, was a left-handed pitcher who played on the same team as my son," Cruz said. "I told him, 'Listen, I want to follow you.' What happened? One week later the Yankees took him to their camp and the boy stayed four months there. Then I sent a bird-dog scout to get him, and we signed him. The Yankee scout got mad. He said, 'How can you call yourself a Christian? We had that boy here for four months! Why did you take him?' I said, 'I had that boy before. You kept him for four months and you didn't sign him. So I signed the boy.' "
Haak grinned his approval. "They didn't sign him," he said, "so we signed him." (Woody Woodward, Yankees vice president of baseball administration, said he was aware of the signing, but declined to comment.)
For the next five minutes, Cruz debated the merits of the presidential decree. Would players really be required to spend 30 days in a camp before they would be allowed to sign? Did the Dominican government really intend to enforce this decree? Finally, Haak had heard enough.
"What you do is ignore it," he said.
"Yeah," Cruz said, "but if Pablo Cruz signs a player (in violation of the rules) and they take me to court, I'm going to be in jail."
"Call me up," Haak said, "and I'll straighten it out."
Haak laughed, shook his head, and sent a vicious stream of tobacco juice into the trash bin.
"For some reason," he said, "scouting in the Dominican Republic isn't as much fun as it used to be."
Next: The superscout