Dominican Prospects Protest Reform

Last Wednesday, over 800 prospects, coaches, and scouts gathered outside of the hotel of recently appointed MLB Dominican baseball czar Sandy Alderson in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. Alderson joked to local reporters that he should have brought lunch for the crowd, but those in attendance, stationed behind a police barricade, simply wanted to make sure Alderson heard their three-word chant: "No al draft." No to the draft.

The crowd's concern could seem premature, as Alderson has gone on the record recently in the Spanish-speaking press saying he is not seeking to implement a draft on the island. His immediate goals, he told ESPN's Jorge Arangure, Jr., are more simple: combating age fraud and steroid use, guarding against scouts "skimming" players' signing bonuses, and implementing a scouting bureau to curb the abuses of the ill-reputed independent scouts known as "buscones." However, Bud Selig has been clear in his desire for an international draft, and Alderson noted to Arangure, "If baseball decides to start a draft, there are ways of making it work."

Over the ensuing days, the protest has received coverage only in international baseball press, but the Dominican press has been rife with increasingly panicked interviews and editorials that make the draft sound all but inevitable, and its consequences catastrophic for MLB's second-largest talent pool. Alderson, critics say, is "arrogant and categorical" in meetings, making decisions unilaterally and refusing to meet with the scouts who are at the center of the Dominican system. The changes he advocates would spell the "total collapse" of the country as a baseball market, said Enrique Soto, president of the Association of Independent Scouts, to Diario Libre's Nathanael Perez Nero.

So what is everyone so afraid of? In two words: Puerto Rico. The US commonwealth was brought under the umbrella of the draft in 1990, and has since fallen far behind the Dominican Republic as a baseball producer. Last year, noted Arangure, 28 Puerto Ricans were on Major League rosters, as compared to 81 Dominicans. This disparity isn't lost on officials in Puerto Rico, who have petitioned to be excluded from the draft as recently as 2007, at which time Secretary of Sports and Recreation David Bernier noted that "after the introduction of the draft, Puerto Rico is neither part of the continent nor part of the world."

Puerto Rico's decline looms prominently in Dominican news stories about Alderson's proposals, along with claims that the draft was the singular force which "killed" the sport. Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican native Orlando Cepeda echoed the concerns in a recent interview with ESPN, noting that "kids in Puerto Rico don't play baseball anymore," primarily because "there are hardly any more Puerto Rican players kids can look up to." In contrast, he called baseball "a sport for the hungry" in the Dominican Republic, an idea which featured prominently in fears expressed at the protest.

"(Alderson's) plan threatens to create more criminals. When you reduce the number of options for young men to sign in a country with few opportunities, they will choose to do bad," said Soto. "They want us to put our players to compete (in a draft) at age 16 against Cubans, Koreans, Australians and Americans who are 20 and 24 years old. We're talking about men versus boys and less money for our players." In 2009, according to Diario Libre's Nero, that money amounted to $39.4MM from teams to sign 421 Dominican prospects, another $15MM invested in 29 team academies on the island, and, of course, the $353MM earned by the 85 Dominican players on Major League rosters.

By week's end, tempers seemed to have calmed, as Dominican baseball commissioner Porfirio Veras Mercedes announced that "Alderson has given us assurance that if the buscones, scouts, and coaches ensure that players comply with current regulations, there will be no draft." Alderson reinforced this notion in Spanish to the AP, portraying the draft as something between a last resort and a punishment.

However, a fiery editorial in Sunday's edition of Listin Diario, the country's oldest newspaper, revived the debate by tying the reform effort to the erstwhile conversation about racism in baseball—but from the other side. Baseball columnist Mario Emilio Guerrero writes that Alderson's plans reflect widespread fear in the states that there are "too many Latinos" in baseball, noting in particular that over half of minor league players are from Spanish-speaking countries. Citing both Torii Hunter's "impostors" comment and Gary Sheffield's line about Latin players being easier to control than African American players, Guerrero writes that MLB's plans for the Dominican Republic would "delight those who see the Latin player as an intruder, dominating a scenario where he does not belong."

Guerrero concludes his lengthy diatribe by expressing a desire popular at the protest—that Dominican national authorities should take notice and perhaps even intervene on behalf of their prominent industry:

What will they do with the academies and the enormous investments that numerous Major League franchises have made in the country? Because with a draft, training centers would have no reason to be. You're not going to form a player just so someone else can select and recruit him. And most importantly, will the government and national sports leaders allow this stab at the heart of Dominican baseball without putting up any type of opposition? You have to keep your eyes open, because at any moment the wolf could bring out its fangs.

While a few scouts now seem to be willing to take Alderson at his word and embrace reform, it appears changes in the pipeline that currently accounts for a quarter of Major League players won't happen without a fight.

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