Creating complete, healthy players
MLB's Dominican academies teach skills on and off the field
SANTO DOMINGO -- There's a small silver clock, two telephones right next to each other and a week-old stack of newspapers on one corner of Jesus Alou's desk at the Red Sox academy just outside this capital city.
On the other corner is a computer with notes posted all over the screen. There are also files -- many files -- spiral notebooks, calendars, pens, everything you would expect to find in any office in any city in any country.
The look of Alou's desk is all too common, but the view is altogether historic. The former Major Leaguer and current academy director has watched baseball in the Dominican Republic develop during the last 50 years, and he is as proud as a first-time grandfather when he thinks about how far the sport has come in his country.
"When I signed, they picked a kid, signed him and sent [him] to the U.S. without knowing anything about the culture of the U.S. and with little preparation," said Alou, 65, who once shared an outfield with brothers Felipe and Matty in San Francisco. "Things are a lot different from when we started, and that is good."
From the scout-and-sign era known by the Alous in the 1950s and 1960s to the baseball camps of the 1970s and the first modern Major League facilities in the mid-1980s, baseball academies in the Dominican Republic have steadily evolved during the last several decades. Now, with 28 of the 30 Major League teams owning academies in the country, the focus at the facilities has expanded from creating better players to developing better people as well.
"I didn't see this happening when we started," said longtime Dodgers scout Rafael Avila, who, along with Toronto's Epifano Guerrero, established the first academies in the Dominican Republic in the early 1970s. "We were trying to train players for our clubs. We didn't think it would have this type of impact on the country. It was just baseball."
Now it is also big business. A recent study conducted by the Entrena Consulting group in the Dominican Republic estimates that $84 million enters the country annually because of baseball. The figure includes an estimated $17.5 million in signing bonuses paid to new prospects and $52.5 million reinvested into the country by current Major Leaguers born in the Dominican Republic. The fact that 30 percent of players in the Majors are foreign-born, and most of those are from the Dominican Republic, leads many to believe that the investment in the overall development of the young men in the country is not only logical but also socially responsible.
It was a notion first realized more than six years ago.
The concept of an International Major League Baseball office based in the Dominican Republic was first discussed in 2000 and spearheaded by Sandy Alderson, the former executive vice president for Major League Baseball operations. Alderson developed his expertise in the Dominican Republic working with Oakland, dating back to the 1980s.
"With the involvement of Major League clubs in the Dominican Republic and the amount of economic investment we make, and the need for administration of contracts and oversight of conduct of clubs and players, it was important to have an administrative office," Alderson said. "I think that it has helped immensely, not only in the overseeing baseball operations but also in fostering relationships with the Dominican government and various business communities. It was long overdue."
Rafael Perez, now with the Mets, was the first senior manager of the Santo Domingo office, and Ronaldo Peralta, who was later promoted to senior manager, served as his assistant. The first order of business for the office was to establish a standard of quality at each academy and upgrade the housing facilities.
A uniform method of distributing signing bonuses was also established during the office's infancy. But by 2001 the priority had shifted from facilities to verifying the ages of players in the academies after it was discovered that nearly 60 percent of the birth certificates were either false or had been changed.
"Most of the time, teams made an investment and it didn't pay off because the player was three or four years older than they thought he was," said Peralta, 40. "Now there is a system in place, business associates who check documents, and the number has dropped, from 60 percent to 27."
Peralta estimates that the industry has saved $5 million in the last three years as a result of the strict regulations regarding birth certificates. If it is found that a player has discrepancies in his documents, his contract with a Major League club can be voided or renegotiated.
"We know that our main business is to produce ballplayers, and we must protect our interests here," Peralta said. "But we also need to help these kids become better players and better people. The reality is that a lot of these kids are not going to make it, so the least we can do is make the experience in baseball is a good one. I don't want them to look back and say, 'I lost three or four years of my life in an academy.' "
The current focus on educating players could not come at a better time for the country, says former Major League pitcher Jose Rijo. A lifetime resident of nearby San Cristobal and the owner of a facility that is home to three Major League Baseball academies, Rijo has grown frustrated with watching youth fail both on and off the field because of a lack of education.
"To this country, education is the most important thing, even more important than baseball," Rijo said. "Right now we have so much talent in this country. But a lot of it goes to waste because they don't have education to develop. It's a shame. We have to speed up the education level in this country and make up some time lost. Teams are getting involved, and that's the first step in the right direction."
All academies are required to teach an English class and a course on cultural adaptation to the U.S. Four clubs -- Boston, Cleveland, the New York Mets and Seattle -- have formed a partnership with a private school in Santo Domingo that offers high school diplomas.
"You have to understand, many of these players come from very low socioeconomic levels, and some of the kids have never been out of the Dominican Republic," Peralta said. "They don't know what an airport looks like, much less what English or American culture is all about."
It is Peralta's belief that many players in the academies are lucky to finish elementary school, and most only complete the sixth or seventh grade. The emphasis on education gives Dominican players a better chance to compete against their counterparts in the U.S.
"It's an investment, and teams will use resources, but in the end it pays off because the guys become better players and better people," Peralta said. "They will better represent the teams, the Dominican Republic and Latin America."
Peralta's use of "we" when referring to the MLB office in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic as a whole and players in the academies is not an accident. The job is more than a way to pay his bills; it's his calling. Peralta was actually born in Nicaragua, but he moved to the Dominican Republic as a teenager and graduated from a local university with a degree in Industrial Engineering. He later received his Masters of Business Administration in Santo Domingo. He began working in baseball later in his career.
Every member of Peralta's five-person staff at the office in Santo Domingo was born in the Dominican Republic, and each understands the relationship -- including the similarities and differences -- between their country and the U.S.
"We have a different reality in Latin America, for social reasons, economic and historic reasons, and a different set of values and reality," Peralta said. "We have been fortunate to be around the game and operate in this country, but I believe we should not only take but also give back to the country. For me this period is running baseball with a social conscience."
The next step could be the establishing a scholarship program for all players who enter an academy. Such a program would give Dominican youth the option of continuing their studies at a high school, university or technical school free of charge. The option remains after a player has been released from an academy.
A nationwide educational radio program for players is also being discussed. Such programs as RBI Dominican Republic and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund are currently being used as method of educating youth through baseball.
The general rule of thumb on the island is that for every 100 players in an academy, four or five make it to a 40-man roster in the Major Leagues.
"If somehow all the kids that we sign finish their career -- released or not -- and end up on a computer, more or less speaking English and with a high school diploma, we are doing a lot," said John Siebold, an American-born advisor who has spent the last 25 years as an education consultant in the Dominican Republic. "Then they are equipped to go out and continue to advance in society."
It's not just about the classroom.
Educating future Major Leaguers about the dangers of performance-enhancing substances, drug abuse and the healthy alternatives available is also a priority for the Santo Domingo office. In 2006, Dr. Raymond J. Blais, a trained psychologist, was hired by MLB as the employee assistance professional to combat the problem with presentations and seminars, and by working closely with each academy's trainer. Players in the Major League Baseball academies in the Dominican Republic operate under the same rules and testing guidelines for performance-enhancing drugs as Minor League players in the U.S., and it's Blais' job to make sure the players in the academies understand that.
"Over here, steroids are no bigger an issue than in any other place, just like in the States," Blais said. "But it's such an underground issue that we won't get a player to say openly what he has or has not used; so there will always be some mystery. We know what positive tests are showing, so we get an idea of what substances are being consumed. The positive tests are decreasing, and we are optimistic that will continue."
In 2004, of the 894 tests for performance-enhancing drugs administered, there were 99 cases (11 percent) in which players tested positive for a banned substance. In 2005, of the 1,206 tests administered, 86 tested positive (7.1 percent) for a banned substance. Blais believes that education and enforcement of the policy will help the trend continue.
"I think, basically, the players are uninformed, and at a certain point, they are vulnerable and influenced by others," he said. "These guys come from different realities, and they have a lot of pressure by family and friends to succeed and get the family out of poverty. That's a lot to deal with at a young age, and they are tempted. It creates a person that is susceptible to this abuse."
The abuse can start early -- many times before a player signs with a club and enters an academy. A good tryout with a club can translate into a huge signing bonus, so players are sometimes urged by their agents (buscones) to use performance-enhancing drugs to make a lasting impression. After all, testing players does not start until a player signs and enters a club's academy.
"Is it a problem? Absolutely," Rijo said. "You have young kids do it before they come here. You see a guy throwing 95 mph when he is really a guy who throws 88 mph. If you see a kid and you like him, you watch him for a month to see if his skills stay the same before you sign him. You see him play every day to see if he is clean."
Staying clean is not impossible despite the temptations, Blais said. Pharmacies in the Dominican Republic are notoriously linked to supplying steroids to players, but the reality, he said, is that a prescription is still needed to legally acquire steroids from a pharmacy. That said, he admits that written prescriptions -- as well as the steroids themselves -- can be acquired easily through the black market, and the law to keep players from buying steroids illegally at a pharmacy is not always enforced.
But the main sources for the illegal performance-enhancing drugs, some believe, are the Internet, individual drug dealers, and veterinarians or veterinary hospitals that sell the drugs illegally. These hospitals have a larger variety of performance-enhancing drugs at their disposal than a local pharmacy and prove appealing to a player looking to get a competitive, albeit illegal, advantage.
"I was born with a good arm, a strong arm. I never have used steroids and never will," said Rangers pitcher Edinson Volquez, 24. "I know there are guys who have tested positive, but I can't point a finger and say 'he has' or 'he has not,' because sometimes it is hard to tell. I can not sit here and tell you that there is or there is not pressure to use steroids, because it is a very personal choice, and everybody has their own lives and pressures. My choice was not to do steroids, but I can not speak for everybody else."
In some cases, players have tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and blame a nutritional supplement or vitamin, saying they were unaware it contained ingredients on the banned list. But Blais is not certain that all players are the innocent victims they claim to be.
"We have no way of knowing for sure," Blais said. "How can you know they are giving you accurate information? Most deny it first and then put the blame on a nutritional supplement there were taking, which in some cases is true, because they trust what they are taking is legal. But we also know that every positive case is not due to consumption of a nutritional supplement. That's why we educate them. That's what my job is and why I am here."
As for Alou, the view from his corner office never looked so good. He likes what he sees and envisions a country where the boys are known as much for their life skills off the field as their baseball skills on it. He is a familiar face, a respected part of the old guard, but an ardent supporter of the new republic.
"Every day we are in more demand in the U.S. and in countries like Japan, Korea, Spain, so baseball will always be an option," he said. "For me, I think about what kind of men these boys will turn out to be. They are more prepared than we were. They have options now. What are they going to do for our country?"
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.