In my book The Mental Road to the Major Leagues: A Guide for Rising Ballplayers, I dedicate a chapter to explaining winter ball, the Latin baseball season during which many major league baseball players (especially foreign born) compete during the off season in order to make extra cash and perfect their skills. While highlighting each of the four countries involved in winter ball (Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic), I dedicate a large portion of the chapter to discussing the Dominican Republic.
Over the past thirty years, major league baseball has developed a growing interest in recruiting ball players from the Dominican Republic, initially because the small island just southeast of Cuba was an untapped resource of raw talent. Today, all thirty major league baseball organizations operate training academies in the Dominican Republic; of the nearly 30% of foreign-born major league baseball players on 25-man rosters in 2015, the largest pool of players come from the Dominican Republic (followed by Venezuela, Cuba, and Puerto Rico).
The bottom line is, there is talent in the Dominican Republic, but it is fostered in a totally different way from American baseball talent. This is due largely in part to the massive divergence in wealth between the Dominican Republic and America. (According to the CIA Factbook, in 2010 34.4% of Dominicans lived below the poverty line.) Ironically, poverty does not disqualify Dominicans from the race to the Show; in many ways, their poverty fuels their passion to play harder so that they can earn the chance to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Recently, I spoke with the head baseball coach at Nicholls State University, Seth Thibodaux, when I learned that he had escorted players on his team to the Dominican Republic during the 2015 winter break. After having studied the Dominican Republic for my book and spoken with individuals who ran baseball training camps in the country, I was curious to speak with someone who had actually experienced Dominican life firsthand. Here are a few insights from the conversation we shared.
KL: What initiated your interest in taking the team to the Dominican Republic?
ST: I had been wanting to go for several years, but with the financial situation of the university, I just held off. There were a couple guys I knew who had offered to help me plan a trip over there. Finally, this past year (2015), right after finals in December, I was able to take the team. I felt it was a good team to take because they were young. We lost a lot of veteran players last season so we’re in a rebuilding year. Many families contributed to the cost, but we also raised funds so that we could go. It was a good team building experience.
KL: What did you do when you were in the Dominican Republic?
ST: The day after we arrived, we put on a camp for all the kids in Boca Chica. This was our first taste of what baseball means to the kids in this country. Basically, someone rode through town in a car with a loudspeaker, announcing that we were holding the camp. Probably 200 kids showed up on the field, and even more were sitting in the stands watching.
KL: Did these kids have to miss school to attend?
ST: School is not a big deal down there. Kids may go to school once a week, or maybe they go one month out of the year. What you see all the time is kids walking around with their bats and gloves, ready to play ball. The morning of the camp, I went for a jog on the beach at 6:00 a.m., and already there were kids out on bikes or walking, heading to the village park to play baseball. They love baseball. It’s their life.
KL: How did the camp go?
ST: I wish we could have stayed longer, just so our players could experience more of that time and make a difference to the kids. The kids were great. They didn’t speak English, but they were so eager to learn that it was easy to work with them. They were so coachable, so teachable.
KL: What else did you do while you were there?
ST: After the camp that morning, we rode in a bus out to a local training camp, one that was run by a buscone. We drove 40 miles inland, literally through sugarcane fields, down these two-lane gravel roads. We’d pass through areas with maybe five or six houses and a little store. Then all of a sudden you see these training camps. This is where the major league teams have their training facilities, as well, and of course every kid is hoping to get signed with an organization so he can live and train at the major league facility.
KL: Were the local camps similar to the major league camps?
ST: Not at all. The camp we went to was a hut; it had a sleeping quarters and land filled with chickens, pigs, a self-sustaining farm. They made their own meals. These are young kids—twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-olds—and the buscone is the only one supervising them.
KL: Why are these young boys willing to live in the buscone’s facilities? Away from their families?
ST: These handlers are connected to the major league scouts. While we were there, we saw a kid sign with the Angels. When he turns sixteen, he’ll live in the Angels’ training camp, learn English, learn baseball. Then when he turns eighteen he’ll go to the United States.
KL: I’ve heard people’s negative impressions of buscones, saying that they often skim players’ bonuses or will forge birth records in order to make a deal.
ST: The guys I met were awesome. Obviously, you’re going to have some buscones that are not respected, but for the most part those guys don’t get dealt with. The shady ones are guys that come from Cuba, not so much the Dominican. In the Dominican they’re very passionate about trying to help. There’s no harm there.
KL: Did your guys have a chance to play while you were there?
ST: Sure, we played two games. One game we played against the national police team, a group of veteran players who had just finished playing baseball. They get paid by the government to play, and some get a chance to go to the big leagues. We also played the Tigres del Licey in Santa Domingo. This is their country’s oldest team, one of the teams in the winter ball league. They were on their all star break at the time, so we got to play them in their big stadium. It was good competition. They beat us 3 to 1.
KL: It sounds like kids in the Dominican don’t have as many opportunities as American kids because the country is so poor. Does that affect their ability to succeed in baseball?
ST: If anything, kids down there have more opportunity to succeed. The whole country wants to see young people succeed at baseball. You’ll see professional ball players, doesn’t matter whether they’re AA or AAA, out there after a game working with little kids, playing catch, doing ground balls. They’re all trying to help each other. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a kid’s age because he’s such a good player. Honestly, you could walk next to a twelve-year-old and think he’s twenty. They play and throw and handle themselves so different from our kids. Their maturation in their ability to play is so much different from American kids.
KL: Do coaches put limitations on how much these kids throw? Particularly pitchers? I know in the United States coaches are very careful about protecting a developing arm.
ST: I talked to our tour guide about that. Kids in the Dominican are constantly moving. They don’t have a computer to sit in front of, they don’t have a cell phone. They only sit in school for a couple hours a week. A lot of them go out into the fields and cut sugar cane. They are constantly used to moving and doing heavy work. For our young guys, the flow of pitching or throwing is not a natural movement. The wear and tear catches up to them a lot quicker.
KL: But the Dominican kids could never play college ball in the United States, not like American kids.
ST: Most of them could play college ball, but they just don’t have the academics to qualify for college. They don’t have an ACT or an SAT score. The NCAA won’t allow it. I had a Dominican boy stay with my family in January through February when we got back. We flew him over and he practiced with my players until he had to report to spring training. Like most kids in the Dominican, he just wanted to get off the island. They would give anything for the opportunity, but college is just not one of the options for them.
KL: What is it like for these kids living over there?
ST: They just want to make their families’ lives better, and baseball is the only chance they have of doing that. There’s no air conditioner, there’s no fresh water. In one of the villages we visited, we distributed water bottles. This one little kid took the bottle, but then looked at his mother. She said to him, ‘Son, you better drink that because you may never see fresh water again.’ He drank that thing down like he’d never drank anything in week. It just breaks your heart. When we went and painted these houses, we’re talking about thatched roof houses. You just can’t make this stuff up. If they don’t have doors, they just put together a couple boards. They have dirt floors, kids don’t have shoes, there’s glass everywhere.
KL: And what did you think of Dominican culture as a whole?
ST: Their people are very friendly, very willing to help and very humble. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and I hope we get to go back.
For more information about baseball in the Dominican Republic, check out Kelly's book The Mental Road to the Major Leagues: A Guide for Rising Ballplayers (available through Amazon).
Photo courtesy of Michael Hanson. For more of Michael Hanson's photography, check out his article "The Republic of Baseball" at www.nytimes.com.