This season, as during every season in recent memory, more Major League players come from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola than from any place outside of the United States. But for the time being, they come only from the eastern half of the island, the Dominican Republic. Prospects with origins in Haiti, Hispaniola’s western half, do exist, however. Most are first-generation Dominicans whose parents or grandparents emigrated from Haiti, as was the case with shortstop Miguel Sano, who signed with the Twins for $3.15MM in 2009 and is currently the team’s number three prospect, according to Baseball America. But as Neftali Ruiz at the Dominican newspaper El Caribe (link in Spanish) wrote in a highly recommended article this weekend, teams and scouts are showing decreasing willingness to sign or work with such prospects, due to what is perceived as a categorical opposition toward Haitian players from within the league itself.
The issue, as could be expected for a country with Haiti’s combination of poverty and ineffective governance, is reliable information. But even in the cases where the prospects have their paperwork seemingly in order, verifying the age or identity of Haitian players is a challenge the league can’t seem to master, explained Patrick Guerrero, the Latin American Scouting Director for the Mariners.
“The cases involving Haitians always get stalled in MLB. They usually get categorized as ‘indefinite’ and it takes three or four years for the player to receive a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ verdict,” Guerrero told Ruiz. “I don’t see them any more because I don’t want to waste so much time.”
Ruiz lays out the case of one such player, Cristian Pierret, who Guerrero calls “a player of great ability, but one of many players I’ve had to let go in order to avoid problems.” Pierret was born in the Dominican to a Haitian mother, and his father died when Pierret was two years old. As a player, Pierret began receiving offers upwards of $450K at age 15, and had an impressive tryout for then-Mets general manager Omar Minaya two years ago. However, the player, now 19, told Ruiz scouts have since stopped paying attention to him.
“Many people don’t believe my age. After July 2 [the start of the international signing period], two months went by without my lawyers presenting me to any teams, and I then I knew there was a problem,” Pierret recalled.
As Ruiz detailed in another article in El Caribe on Friday, there is a process for baseball prospects to seek Dominican citizenship and have their identity and age verified, even if they don’t have a birth certificate. However, Roberto Rosario, the president of the government office responsible for performing the research, told Ruiz that their work is limited to cases arising from specific requests by Major League Baseball—such as that of Sano, whose mother is Haitian. Over six months in 2009, Sano and his family were subjected to over six months of investigation, including DNA tests and a study of his bones, which placed his age as between 16 and 17.
The conclusion: He is who he says he is, but his age remains “indefinite.” Nevertheless, Sano signed with the Twins for what was, at the time, the second-largest signing bonus ever given to a non-Cuban Latin American player. This begs the question: is a matter of a year or two of age really worth all that trouble and lost time? After all, a process like Sano’s can seem particularly invasive and complicated when compared to high-profile Cuban players, for whom doubts about age persist as little more than joking asides in future columns. Mario Guerrero at the Dominican daily Listín Diario (link in Spanish) noted the discrepancy in an editorial on Sunday, writing:
"Just as Major League teams take the risk of recruiting Cuban players, having no idea of their age and true identity, they should give the same treatment to Haitians. The team’s directors will argue that these young men are high-risk goods, and most times this may be true, but if that's the case, then the matter could be resolved by offering a lower bonus, instead of rejecting them as a commodity without any value."
As for the tortuous verification process facing Haitian players, Guerrero said reading about them made him “feel like I was living in the time before 1947.”
“The pieces Ruiz published reveal that, although more than 60 years have passed since Jackie Robinson vindicated the rights of black players to play baseball in the Major Leagues, in many respects the exclusion of people based on their ethnicity is still in force in the sport.”
Dominican lawyer David Toribio suggested to Ruiz that the Dominican government could provide a more open and straightforward path to citizenship, perhaps utilizing existing Dominican players and their hundreds of millions of dollars in annual earnings as resources. The Mariners' Patrick Guerrero is less clear about a solution, emphasizing instead simply that the talent is there, and that many players are missing out on their small window of marketability.
"They are paying for other people's sins," he told Ruiz. "There are lots of players, and there's no need for them to spend years in such a painful situation."