Juan Cedeño shepherds boys from La Pidoca to Baseball City for a chance to grab hold of a dream.
IT’S GAME DAY AT LA PIDOCA, a ragtag field in the sprawling working-class neighborhood of Los Minas Viejo, and the scene that unfolds is a far cry from the structured Little League experience of my American youth. Twelve-year-old boys from competing local clubs start up a game against a weathered backstop, calling their own balls and strikes, while twenty or so younger boys head down the right-field line to start a game of their own. A third game breaks out in left, and vendors abound, hawking coconut and tamarind ices out of rickety carts or shouldering pallets of hardboiled eggs across rutted outfield grass. Older boys fungo grounders to one another in the space between the field and a long cinder-block wall, the skeleton of an abandoned paint factory; others run wind sprints through the crowd. Apparently, baseball here is governed by the same first rule as Santo Domingo’s roads: If you can find space, use it.
I’m here to meet Juan Cedeño.
A tall man with a weary smile and a gentle yet authoritative bearing, Cedeño has been running a youth baseball program out of La Pidoca for the past thirteen years. These days, he earns a good living operating a cheerful budget hotel in a seedy little beach town called Boca Chica, about twenty miles outside Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. But it is his ambition to reclaim a career in professional baseball as a so-called buscón
, a sort of all-purpose adviser that holds a central, controversial role in the Dominican game.
The way the American media often tells it, the buscón
exploits the boys he coaches, represents, and fosters. And when I traveled to Santo Domingo last May, it was not only to observe up close how a small, poor country could produce so many of the world’s best ballplayers but also to investigate a culture I had come to think of as somewhat mercenary—one in which profiteering adults pushed kids to pursue a career in baseball beyond all other things. Indeed, buscones
have been in the middle of a string of recent scandals, including a sham-marriage racket that aimed to use Dominican ballplayers to gain legal status in America for Dominican women, and a money-skimming scheme that caused the dismissal of an assistant general manager for the Chicago White Sox last May and has attracted an ongoing FBI probe. Still, to be around Cedeño and his counterparts is to be impressed by their earnestness and devotion; in this island nation of about ten million, baseball often seems less like work or play than it does religious calling.
“Look!” Cedeño tells me, gesturing gleefully at a line of pint-size boys counting out their calisthenics with martial precision. “They already have a focus on where they’re going. In this country, at five years old they already know where they want to go, and how hard they have to work to get there. But this is a poor league. These boys think the only way they’ll ever get rich is by baseball.”
Fifteen years ago and thirty pounds lighter, Cedeño was a shortstop in the Seattle Mariners’ minor-league system, and he still moves with the grace and explosiveness of a world-class athlete. As we talk, he ushers me around the field, stopping here and there to do some teaching with a player or to bark an instruction at one of his assistant coaches. Occasionally, a boy will materialize before us and hand up to Cedeño a fistful of grimy bills, twelve dollars’ worth of Dominican pesos, to cover the monthly league fee. “A lot has changed in thirteen years,” Cedeño says, “or going back to the days when I was a ballplayer. There is a lot more baseball now. There is a lot more money, so there are a lot more fathers sending their sons to me.”
THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
has a rich baseball tradition, dating back to at least the late nineteenth century; some Dominicans go so far as to claim that their aptitude for the sport derives from a primitive bat-and-ball game played by their island’s pre-Columbian inhabitants. During a brief period in the 1930s, Trujillo paid a king’s ransom to import top Negro Leaguers to play professional ball with Los Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo (the dictator had taken the liberty of renaming Santo Domingo after himself). And since 1956, when Ozzie Virgil became the first Dominican-born player in the major leagues, the DR has been a hugely important source of talent for American professional baseball. Today, about 10 percent of Major League Baseball’s twelve hundred active players come from the DR.
Still, Cedeño is right: A lot has changed. Beginning in the 1980s, MLB clubs began pouring money into the Dominican Republic, building and maintaining permanent complexes to scout, house, and develop talent. In 1988, the Dominican Summer League was established—an official, affiliated minor league that, with thirty-seven teams and some twelve hundred players, is now the largest in the world. The first complexes were modest affairs; now they are increasingly state-of-the-art, with building costs running into the millions of dollars. Meanwhile, salaries for major-league players have continued to grow, and baseball has come to represent for many young Dominicans what basketball can for boys in American inner cities, or what soccer can for South American or African teens: a fantasy of fame and fortune, a means to an honest escape.
But it is not only the boys who dream of baseball riches. While professional teams can send scouts to American high school and college games, organized amateur sports do not exist in the same sense in the DR—in effect, there are no high school or college games to scout. MLB clubs depend on middlemen like Cedeño to bring the talent to them, and when a player signs to play professionally, a chunk of his bonus goes to the adviser. When Cedeño started his league in 1995, there was far less money in Dominican baseball. While he has always wished the best for his players, the new marketplace has him dreaming of grandeur for himself—in much the same way he once dreamed of stardom as a ballplayer.
, the hot, hard Caribbean sun has chased some of the younger players home. Others persist at informal games in the outfield corners, but most crowd around the backstop to watch the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds play. These are the stars of La Liga Juan Cedeño—league fees are not a trivial expense, and each year the boys with less promise drop out. But even among the survivors, only a few have a chance of playing professionally. Cedeño points them out proudly: the powerful shortstop Villamella and the agile third baseman Perión, and the ten-year-old whom Cedeño keeps telling me is the league’s number one prospect—his son Juan Jr.
For all the talent on the field, the teams play inconsistently. There are line-drive base hits and towering home runs, stolen bases and a couple of slick plays in the infield, but also base-running blunders and bags left uncovered, missed cutoff men and many walked batsmen. On occasion, Cedeño will call a player over for a bit of instruction or stand up to support an umpire’s call. But by and large, he’s only marginally interested—he’s more engaged in chatting with parents and other community members watching from the tree stumps and log benches behind home plate. “Winning is important,” Cedeño tells me. “But it’s more important to develop. You can see, there’s no scoreboard here.”
Of course, the players keep score for themselves: When the visiting team wins on a putout at home, the players mob the infield, circling the catcher, jumping up and down and clapping him on the head. All day long I’d watched these boys, in their dress and their postures, approximating the big leaguers broadcast into their homes most every night on Dominican network TV. Here, a fourteen-year-old Derek Jeter, rewrapping his secondhand batting gloves before stepping back up to the plate; there, tucking in a beaded rosary, a scrawny David Ortiz. Now, I’m reminded of big leaguers celebrating their own narrow victories, in jubilation behaving again like the children they used to be.
“THEY FORGET ALL ABOUT YOU.
After they sign, they forget about you right away,” Cedeño tells me, gesticulating with the cordless phone that is so often attached to his hand, less for business than to keep track of a typically transnational Dominican family, which has put down roots in Toronto and New York, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
We’re out on the back patio of his hotel in Boca Chica, where Cedeño and his nephews Fausto and Yorman like to linger over their midday meal. Cedeño is telling me the story of Alex Alcántara, a player who switched his allegiance from Cedeño to another adviser shortly before signing with the Atlanta Braves, thereby cutting Cedeño out of thousands of dollars. Later, I heard that the second adviser was Chicago White Sox infielder Wilson Betemit’s father, a coach who runs one of Los Minas’s oldest youth programs. I was not surprised: In a business that operates on an informal basis, it’s often a matter of who you know, and the Betemit name would have offered Alcántara broader access to scouts and the opportunity to win a larger bonus.
Cedeño has not raised the subject for my benefit alone. Slumped in his chair at the next table over, a tall, slender seventeen-year-old named Julio “Priki” Ignacio is doing his best to appear indifferent. Several months ago, Priki moved out of his parents’ meager home in Los Minas and onto the well-manicured grounds of Villa Marianna, where Cedeño provides him room, board, equipment, and guidance. In return, per written agreement, Priki will give Cedeño 30 percent of his signing bonus.
Tomorrow, Priki will have his first pro tryout, and the occasion is being attended to as if it were graduation or prom. During lunch, Fausto and Yorman treated him to a series of playful taunts (“Better not jerk off tonight”), superstitions (“A ballplayer shouldn’t drink sugar in his coffee, it makes him sweet”), and memories of their own gone golden days (“Yorman was a horse,” Fausto says, but Yorman adds, “I could never learn to hit the inside pitch”). After the dishes have been cleared, Cedeño brings out the new outfit he purchased for Priki’s debut—bright red spikes, wrist bands, and self-wicking T-shirt—and soon the nephews are dragging tables aside so Priki can pose for digital photos in his shiny new gear.
But for all the ceremony, a tension abides. Cedeño genuinely wants Priki to succeed: Ask him to describe the feeling he gets when a boy he knows signs, and he affects a solemn pride you might expect from a father discussing the birth of his first son. Yet it’s not so simple. “I didn’t have papers with Alcántara,” he tells me after Priki has retired for his midday nap and Yorman and Fausto have left to attend to their hotel duties. “But after all the years we were together, I thought he would share his success with me when he signed. But you know, this is a business.” A business in which Cedeño, like Priki, still holds a tenuous place.
IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC,
the term buscón
is mostly out of favor—“mentor,” “coach,” and “adviser” are all preferred, and with good reason, for they refer to men who have won increasingly large sums of money for Dominican boys from the American baseball behemoth. In the two months I spent in the DR, the only people I heard use the word were employees of MLB clubs; while buscón
is commonly translated in the American sporting press as “searcher” or “finder,” its colloquial definition is closer to “pimp.” “I think it’s a derogatory term,” says Austin Jacobo Jr., who calls himself a trainer. “It implies ‘hustler,’ and then it’s like, Well, who are you trying to hustle?”
Jacobo’s father, Austin Sr., was a scout for the Houston Astros in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris until he was thrown out of the DR in the 1960s for attempting to organize sugar-mill workers. Jacobo Jr., a trim, thoughtful man in his early forties, was raised in the Bronx, where, after graduating college, he owned a Laundromat and a long-distance call-center. The picture of a modern baseball man, he was toting a laptop when I met him—at a restaurant in Juan Dolio, Boca Chica’s upscale, more respectable neighbor—and his cell phone vibrated incessantly as we chatted over the sounds of a heavy rain and a heated game of dominoes being played nearby.
In the mid-1990s, Jacobo decided that his teenage son would have a better chance to make it as a ballplayer growing up in the Dominican Republic, so he moved his family back to his birthplace of San Pedro, bought some land, and built a field. Today, Jacobo’s son plays stateside in the Kansas City Royals’ organization, and baseball is Jacobo’s full-time job; when he’s not traveling the country scouting talent, he’s in San Pedro, managing a staff that includes four full-time coaches, two chaperones, a maintenance man, and a woman who cooks and cleans for his players. At any given time, he has about forty athletes in a program that graduates ten or so teenagers a year to professional baseball, a total and a rate that place his program among the most successful in the country.
“Jacobo was lucky. He got here at the right time,” a San Pedro baseball man known locally as Papo told me. “When the bonuses started exploding, he already had a reputation.” In the late 1990s, the Yankees started making splashes in the Dominican talent market, shelling out $1.5 million for Ricardo Aramboles in 1998 and $2.44 million for Wily Mo Pena in 1999. Last summer, a six-foot-seven sixteen-year-old named Michael Ynoa signed with the Oakland Athletics for $4.26 million. (By comparison, Tim Beckham, the top pick in the 2008 amateur draft, received $6.15 million from the Tampa Bay Rays, though that figure will be paid over five years, decreasing its present-day value.) Ynoa is described as a once-in-a-generation talent, and it is probable that many Latin American prospects are not paid so fairly with regards to comparably talented North Americans; nonetheless, his bonus was in keeping with what he might have expected had he been eligible for the draft. According to a recent report on ESPN.com, MLB clubs spent just under $13 million on signing bonuses for Dominican ballplayers in 2004; last year, they had spent close to $35 million by the end of September, of which about $10 million wound up in the pockets of men like Jacobo.
“I always try to explain to Americans,” Jacobo told me, “because they see what I do and they hear that I take 30 percent of what the kids get and they think it’s not fair.” But while American agents generally charge commissions of between 3 to 5 percent of a client’s salary every year, Dominican advisers like Jacobo take their 30 percent only once, and this from only a fraction of the players they invest their time and money developing. Jacobo told me his overhead was about $70,000 last year; still, he managed to sign enough players to turn a tidy profit. But for every trainer like Jacobo, there are untold many—part-time aspirants like Cedeño, but also monied Dominicans, retired ballplayers among them—striving for a foothold in pro baseball. Every year, some close shop, the costs in time and capital overriding the desire to play a role in the national game.
“It’s not easy to develop ballplayers anywhere, but especially here,” Jacobo said. “A lot of the time you’re working with poor, uneducated kids, so it takes a lot of different skills. Sometimes I say I’m a cross between a baseball coach and a social worker. It’s like a new profession.”
STEP OFF THE BEACH at Boca Chica and you become a kind of prey. Shoeshine boys skitter out from nowhere to chase down anything made of leather. Motorcycle taxis congregate at street corners, the drivers revving their engines and leering hopefully at anyone who seems—maybe, possibly—in need of a ride. And there are the girls—in the cool of the tourist bars or seated in open-air restaurants along the main drag—casting out their lusty voices for an American or European john. It’s not uncommon to see a white man walking hand in hand with a dark-skinned woman forty or fifty years his junior, nor to see a female tourist with a young Dominican or Haitian man.
At twenty-five dollars a night, Villa Marianna is far from the toniest house in town, but it isn’t the seediest, either. Cedeño manages the hotel with the same relaxed air of authority he exudes at La Pidoca. By day, he stations himself at the front desk, paying bills and supervising the staff, perusing last night’s box scores or trying to drum up new business on the Internet. Evenings, he moves behind the poolside bar to watch over his reveling guests, by turns encouraging them and advising caution, occasionally pouring himself a beer and joining the fray.
He would like to have a career like Jacobo’s, with a stable of talented prospects and every pro scout in the area on speed dial. For now, however, baseball is a part-time gig. On Friday afternoons, he leaves Fausto in charge of Villa Marianna and travels by bus and gypsy cab to the cinder-block house in Los Minas where his wife and three children live. The next day, when his league games are done, he retreats to the hotel. Lately, the back and forth has been wearing him down. “When Juan Jr. gets older,” he tells me, “I’ll move my family here, so that
Juan can concentrate on baseball and so I don’t have to do so much traveling. I’ll start a new baseball program in Boca Chica then.”
But if Cedeño has an easy time passing between the very different worlds of Boca Chica and Los Minas, I wonder what the experience will be like for his son. From what I can tell, it hasn’t been easy for Priki. At La Pidoca, he had resembled a young lion on home turf, prowling about with his shirtsleeves rolled up, treating other boys to a scowl or a predatory arm about the shoulders as he moved up to skip someone in line. But at Boca Chica, he is another boy entirely—shy and unsure of himself among the staff and guests at Villa Marianna, almost vibrating with nervous energy.
Rising every morning at six, Priki spends the first part of his day running on the beach or working out with other prospects at a local field. After lunch, however, there just isn’t much to do. On days he can’t persuade Fausto to roll him ground balls on the back patio or toss him dried kernels of corn for batting practice, he spends the afternoon in the hotel’s living room, using the communal computer to instant-message with friends who hang around an Internet café back in Los Minas. When he gets bored with that, he drapes himself over an armchair to watch daytime TV.
“Nothing’s ever on,” he told me once. “It’s the same thing every day. Nothing until baseball comes on.”
When I asked Cedeño whether being separated from his old life in Los Minas was good for Priki, he looked at me as though my Spanish had obscured my meaning, then shook his head. “He has everything he needs. Good food, good coaches, no distractions. There’s no trouble for him here.”
Is Cedeño right? I’d come to the DR curious about what baseball costs boys like Priki, and certainly, it’s hard to watch a teenager languish in isolation, out of school, hanging all his hopes on a baseball dream. There’s no question Priki faces incredibly long odds; the numbers dictate he will have washed out within a few years, with little to show for his prodigious efforts: no education, scant savings, few job prospects. I didn’t meet many people willing to criticize the place of baseball in the lives of Dominican youth, but those few I did would point me to the motorcycle-taxi drivers. Those are your baseball players, they’d say.
Baseball men claim that the sport offers other benefits: the food and shelter that Cedeño pointed to, or, commonly, that the clubs teach English to their charges. But when I met an American who worked at one of the academies, he told me that his club was hardly invested in teaching English: Most of the players will never make it to America, so why waste the time and effort? As Cedeño told me, a prospect must focus on only one thing.
And yet, it isn’t baseball that’s keeping Priki and his peers out of school. Lack of education is a national, systemic problem; while I wasn’t able to pin Priki or Cedeño down on an answer, I can guess that even without baseball, Priki would have been out of school by the time he was twelve or thirteen. I met other ballplayers who practiced by day and attended school by night, but they are more exception than norm. Meanwhile, Priki’s agreement with Cedeño allows him a richer material life than he had in Los Minas, a neighborhood that generally draws electricity from the power grid for less than twelve hours a day.
Nor can I help but think his efforts provide their own rewards. In college, my baseball coaches used to harp on the sacrifices of time and effort you made to be an athlete: that you worked hard because hard work was a good thing. At eighteen, I found their exhortations to have something of a false ring. Now, watching Priki labor day after identical day, I can believe in the value—unquantifiable, and perhaps only private—of the rigorous pursuit of an improbable dream.
JUST OUTSIDE BOCA CHICA,
by the side of a highway called Las Americas
, a large generator marks an otherwise nondescript access road that stretches five hundred yards through seaside grasses to a flimsy gate. This is the entrance to Baseball City, the largest and in many respects the most important of the Dominican baseball complexes. It houses the Dominican operations of six MLB clubs, with construction under way to expand beyond the current facilities: twelve full-size, perfectly manicured baseball fields, a smattering of smaller practice fields and exercise yards, and six two-story dormitories.
As I follow Cedeño and Priki onto the grounds, the first thing I notice is the quiet. I don’t think many Dominicans will be offended if I say theirs is a loud country. Between the merengue blasting from car stereos, the shouted conversations, and the brup-brup-brup of the motorcycle taxis, the noise can feel thicker than the air pollution or the humidity. But at Baseball City, amid the open space and beneath the seaside sky, you can hear an echo off the crack of the bat.
A professionalized game is being played here. It’s not quite nine a.m. and the teams are hours into their workouts. The players move through practice with choreographed efficiency, rolling their protective screens onto and off of the infield, communicating in baseball English (“I got it” or, comically, “Yo
got it”) while shagging flies. I visited Baseball City many times, and passing onto the grounds always conjured a visceral sense of a place in between. Here, you have neither the shabby improvisations of the Dominican Republic nor the anonymity of suburban America; just when you forget you’re not in Tempe or Fort Myers, the sight of a blue-shirted maintenance man carrying a machete brings you back to reality.
Yet Priki doesn’t seem so impressed. Later he’ll tell me that he has never seen fields so nice, but as we pass through the grounds on the way to his tryout, he hardly seems to notice the action around him. By will or by nature, he’s unintimidated.
“Test me again,” he says to Cedeño.
“What’s your name?” Cedeño obliges. “What’s your birth date? Where were you born? Where do I find your father?”
As we reach the gate that cordons off the Baltimore Orioles’ academy, Cedeño stops to pantomime an upright posture and give Priki one last piece of advice.
,” he says. Strength.
THE ACTION HAS ALREADY STARTED
when we arrive at the twin fields that belong to the Orioles. A group of prospects in sharp black and orange outfits takes a round of infield from a uniformed coach, while a handful of others exert themselves at long toss, hurling the ball across increasing lengths of outfield grass until they are standing almost pole to pole. For me, this may be the epitome of beauty in sport: the thrust of mechanics that takes the athlete from standstill to release, the body catapulting after the ball as it carries onward with plane and velocity or flags against the air.
“Those ones already live here,” Cedeño tells me, “but they haven’t signed. They’re trying out today, too.” The Orioles, like many organizations, bring players on for observation, moving them into their dormitories without extending a contract so the club can see how the boys perform in a professional environment. The visiting aspirants stand in sharp contrast with the boys on the field. Like Priki, they have come dressed to impress, but most fall short of the desired effect. A few shirts match shoes and hats, but more representative are a boy in a green A’s cap and clashing green Rays shirt and another in a bright new Mets hat and blocky Carlos Baerga spring-training jersey from 1997.
The order of the day is a simulated game, and when the first inning starts, Priki is sent to left field, far from his favored position of shortstop. It is clear that he is filler here; the Orioles have other infield prospects they’re more interested in seeing. Still, it’s his first tryout, and you never know what will spark the recognition of talent. After all, the goal for the scouts is not to discern who is the best today, but rather to imagine who will be in ten years. As Dominicans I met were quick to remind me, few would have pegged Sammy Sosa for a future superstar back in his gangly adolescence.
“It’s very hard,” Jacobo told me, “for a sixteen-year-old kid to already have all the tools that the scouts want to see. Amazingly, some do, and those are the ones who are going to get the big money. But there are always the guys who develop later; who sign for little money and wind up better than the millionaires.”
Even so, today is not Priki’s day. At the plate, he stands knock-kneed, hands at the top of his head, back elbow cocked out to waggle the bat in the direction of the pitcher. He’s a long way from Villa Marianna. He may be quick enough to whip the bat head around on the corn kernels that Fausto tossed him, but in his first at-bat at Baseball City, he’s overmatched. Two blistering fastballs from the diminutive left-hander on the mound and Priki looks enfeebled. It takes everything he has to get the bat off his shoulder, and swinging strike three at the third-rate curveball that follows is a foregone conclusion.
Deserved or not, Dominican ballplayers have the reputation for being free-swingers at the plate: “You can’t walk your way off the island,” the baseball men say; if you don’t swing the bat, the scouts will never see what you can do. But as the tryout winds down, the pitchers become increasingly wild, and many of their offerings are way out of the zone. When Priki comes up a second time, a tall, strong kid with an awkward windup sails pitch after pitch high and wide. He’s quickly replaced, but the next pitcher also struggles and he, too, is sent off.
Ten minutes and three pitchers into his second at-bat, Priki swings and misses. “OK, strike three,” says the scout behind the backstop as he beckons for the next hitter.
“Two!” Priki says, jerking his head around to eye the scout. “That was strike two!”
“That was three,” the scout says.
But as the next hitter trots out, Priki holds his ground, demanding in high tones that the first strike had come against the previous pitcher. With an air of boredom, the scout instructs the pitcher to continue.
Priki’s got a long swing, and he’s late again, but this time he lines a fastball deep down the right-field line: foul. Nonetheless, it’s one of the best-struck balls all day. He makes contact again on the next pitch, looping a shallow fly ball that glances off the right fielder’s glove.
Cedeño, creeping out of his seat as the ball took flight, leaps up when it lands on the ground. “Corre!
” he yells. Running, Priki finally looks like a prospect. Flying around first with a long, easy stride, he beats the throw to second; when the throw in from right skitters out into no-man’s-land in left center, Priki pops up and glides on, beating the throw to third easily with a graceful slide.
Cedeño directs a burst of rapid-fire Spanish to the advisers stationed nearby, then sits back down. Safe at third, Priki smiles big, then, perhaps realizing it was just a bloop hit, reins himself in. Cedeño adopts an air of grave theatricality.
“But he can run,” he says, slowly, to me.