Business of Baseball and Youth Development Programs in The Dominican Republic

Caroline Bartolome (SMBA ’15) wrote this piece for the Human Resource Management course following the Dominican Republic trip earlier this year. The Business of Baseball and Youth Development Programs in the Domincan Republic looks at the impact that baseball has not just on the business world in the Dominican Republic, but the youth community’s development.

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In order to fully grasp the propensity of learning, one must first evaluate the component parts and the context in which the lesson was derived. While the current baseball system in the Dominican Republic remains a little known operation by most, it is an indicator of the impact of the globalization of sports. Sociologist Alan Klein writes, “A globalized world is all about understanding quickened connections among disparate people, ideas, places, and things that have reached the point of straining conventional boundaries while pointing to new formations” (2014, p. 3).  Through a series of academic research and firsthand observations, the current inefficiencies of the baseball business reveal the lack of youth development programs outside of the academies in the Dominican Republic. For the sake of educational purposes, proper evaluation of the impact of baseball on the Dominican Republic requires awareness of Dominican history and the current baseball infrastructure.

Historically, periods of foreign occupation and related events have led to “the ambiguous and confused Dominican identity” (Kurlansky, 2010, p. 20). According to maps, the Dominican Republic is connected to Haiti. Logically it may seem that the two cultures should be interrelated, the opposite is true.  The island first experienced a sequence of foreign occupation by the Spanish and the French, and eventually crafted the divide between the two halves of the island as the two European colonies took off in different social directions (Roorda, Derby, & Gonzalez, 2014, pp. 1-8). The rift between colonies created the most significant remnant of early European colonization, the division of the small island; with the Spanish remaining in the East in what is now known as the Dominican Republic, and the French inhabiting the West, or current day Haiti. Consequently, the Dominican half of the island suffers from a “complexity of racial identity” as they deal with racial mixture, or mestizaje (Roorda, Derby, & Gonzalez, 2014, pp. 195-199). Yet somehow, Dominican nationals have been able to find an identity through baseball. While the origin of the first baseball game on a batey is still debatable, what is certain was the impact of the game, the effectual “fueling [of] both anti-American sentiment and Dominican nationalism” (Klein, 2014, p.11). Described as “more than a game” by Dominican Winter League General Manager Winston Llenas, baseball has become a way of life (Pride and Passion: Baseball in the Dominican Republic, 2014). In fact, baseball is often referred to as beisbol romantico because Dominicans played for the love of the game (Klein, 2014, p. 36), essentially turning it into the passion of the nation.

Coincidentally, the Trujillo regime began to make jobs on the refineries obsolete, and workers began to experience hard times. However, “they could grow their food and they could keep themselves together by playing baseball” (Kurlansky, 2010, p. 64). From here, the Dominican began to experience a shift from being economically reliant on sugar to the business of baseball. Author Mark Kurlansky eloquently describes the economic shift in San Pedro de Macoris as “A town where baseball was known by the sugar industry became a town with some sugar that was known in the world chiefly by baseball organizations and fans” (2010, p. 9). While the need for labor on bateys started to disappear, the market for professional athletes surfaced and the Dominican entered what Klein refers to as the Global Commodity Chain (2014, p.19).  Referenced as being a unique commodity, Klein specifies the differing characteristics of labor in the form of baseball players; most notably that “the commodities that typically are considered in these kinds of analyses are not human beings” (2014, p. 19). Nevertheless, as hard times began to set upon the island, baseball provided a way out, or as Kurlansky describes “it [baseball] could be the salvation of an entire family” (2010, p.93). While the shift from sugar to baseball seemed natural and a way of rejuvenating the island, no one could have foreseen what was to come, a baseball centric society full of buscones and Major League Baseball academies housing a small portion of Dominican youth training day in and day out with hopes of one day reaching the big leagues.

Confirming the escalation of baseball internationally, Rafael Perez, Director of Dominican Operations for Major League Baseball stated at a recent gathering of colleagues and graduate students, “Baseball might be the American pastime but now it’s a world game” (R. Perez, presentation, June 11, 2014).  With the trade embargo in place with Cuba, citizens of Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) subject to the draft, and Nicaragua’s economy failing, the Dominican Republic rose to the top for recruiting players (Kurlansky, 2010, p. 96). Renowned for their shortstops, San Pedro de Macoris is just an example of the emergence of the Dominican Republic into the business of baseball. But this poses an important question- what lies ahead for the youth of the island? While the Dominican is viewed as the breeding grounds for baseball players, individuals who make it to the major leagues are few and far between.

Dominican youth are now inadvertently a part of the new society of buscones and MLB academies regardless if they are directly linked to the institutions. The pressure to perform runs rampant and dictates the structure of the Dominican Republic, often placing the sport above a traditional education. During a recent study abroad, graduate students observed firsthand that education in the Dominican Republic is not a priority. As a matter of fact, it is reported that only 80% of Dominican youth have not earned a high school diploma, an indication of “how viable baseball is as an economic alternative” (Klein, 2014, p. 53). Young boys are pressured into providing for their family, bateys have been transformed into orphanages, and street tough kids have been labeled tigres, a quality that has been deemed “the opposite of coachable” (Klein, 2014, p. 58). Ironically, the term tigre, also known as tiguere “among male peers over a beer it can also connote respect for someone who ‘gets away with murder’ by acquiring wealth, a woman or position he does not necessarily deserve” (Roorda, Derby, & Gonzalez, 2014, p. 442). A recent visit to buscon Michel’s training facility in San Cristobal leads one to contemplate, which role truly deserves the title of tigre?  As buscon Michel presented a brief background on his training operations, one could not ignore the level of discomfort present among all, players and visitors alike. The facility housed young boys ages 12 to 16, though some clearly appeared to fall outside of these parameters. Youth are quickly labeled delinquents because they skip school, but in a society faced with Merton’s unintended consequences (Klein, 2014, p. 3), by definition, buscones can be viewed as the true tigre in the player-trainer relationship.

buscone Michel
Young boys hone their baseball skills at one of the buscones which the SMBA Class of 2015 visited while in the Dominican Republic.

More often than not, the teenage boys feel a sense of urgency and desperation to make it as the next big pelotero in order to provide for their families. From an early age, local youth begin training for the majors and as a result, they are repeatedly taken advantage of by those who claim to want to help them achieve their dreams. Children skip school and commit their days to training at the local impromptu buscon facility. In some extreme cases, young boys are sent to train with a buscon and leave home, with the trainer becoming the new father figure in the young man’s life. As a surrogate guardian, buscones are responsible for the development of the player as well as the financial well-being because they are investing their own time and money to support them in the meantime. This leads to a vicious cycle described by Jesus Negrette, the Assist Administrator Dominican Republic Operations en San Diego Padres, as “the mismanagement of contracts between buscones and the player’s families, usually leading to settlements” (J. Negrette, group interview, June 11, 2014). In order to break the cycle, programs designed to intervene are being implemented in the Dominican, to not only protect the young ball players financially, but in an attempt to educate the future of the Dominican.

On the financial side of things, Banco BHD has stepped in as Major League Baseball’s partner and the official bank of players in the Dominican. Jorge Besosa, Executive Vice President of Business Banking affirms the corruption that exists among buscones and shares the story of a time where players were paid in checks. Because most players did not have active bank accounts, money was entrusted to the buscone, who would then go to a local exchange house and cash them, resulting in players consistently getting slighted out of their earnings (J. Besosa, presentation, June 13, 2014). With a strong belief in savings as the basis of wealth and success as a reflection of being able to think for yourself and managing your money better, Banco BHD promotes “education is the focus, not the sport” (J. Besosa, presentation, June 13, 2014).

With the maturity of baseball in the Dominican Republic as an operable business, Major League Baseball has taken steps to build a systematic program that both educates and prepares players for the big leagues. Neskys Liriano, Director of Education & Community Department commented on the difficulty of implementing such a program, “It’s difficult but not impossible” (N. Liriano, presentation, June 11, 2014). For example, Kurlansky describes the fact that “baseball players earn their living playing their childhood game, they have much less pressure than most people to act like adults in the workplace” (2010, p. 78). In another instance, Juan Henderson of the Mets comments that some players respond to the mandated English classes by stating, “I don’t need to learn English, my English is my arm” (J. Henderson, presentation, June 13, 2014). Despite the resistance they encounter, according to the official Major League Baseball Dominican Republic website, “the main priority is to ensure that all Dominican players are not only prepared for life on-field, but also they are prepared for life after baseball” (Education Initiative, 2014). With a focus on shifting player’s attitudes and discipline, MLB’s education programs aim for quality and not numbers [metrics]. MLB aims for training players to “think, appropriately react and be assertive on the field” (N. Liriano, presentation, June 11, 2014).

Fulfilling this model is the New York Mets Academy which is run by Director Juan Henderson. He emphasizes the Mets mission of developing “the whole package, good citizens and good players” (J. Henderson, presentation, June 13, 2014). Leading the way among other MLB academies, the Mets Academy partners with the University of Central Florida, which according to one of the current female students interning on site, “the 24-7 interaction provides a level of mentorship for the players, ultimately creating a support system for them both on and off the field” (Jennifer, presentation, June 13, 2014). And while Major League Baseball as an organization and individual academies such as the Mets have taken strides to revitalize the Dominican Republic through a synergy of athletics and education, there are still outstanding inefficiencies within the Dominican Republic’s current operations. The lack of an intermediate youth development program, similar to American Little League leads one to agree with Jorge Besosa, the “infrastructure [baseball with inner cities] needs work” (presentation, June 13, 2014). Scholars and studies also confirm that while the business of baseball was intended to prepare teens and provide options, an effective and comprehensive program is still needed.

Individually, each program currently in existence has successfully made some progress in providing options for Dominican teens. But the biggest revelation, academic, professional, personal or otherwise didn’t spawn from solely focusing on the individual programs, but on the operation as a whole, a system that can be strengthened by remaining objective. Objective in the sense that agencies should pursue the implementation of strategies similar to the partnership between Banco BHD and MLB, an alignment of goals for the betterment of the community.  As business professionals it is one’s natural inclination to pursue the best options for the improvement and expansion of the firm. And while these tactics prove beneficial for the company, it limits the potential the business has on fulfilling its feelings of social responsibility, at least for those agencies concerned with doing so. In the case of the business of baseball in the Dominican Republic and their current youth programs, Banco BHD and MLB have stumbled upon a trend that holds a key lesson for progressive business, integrative partnerships. By aligning their missions to educate, not only are quality services provided for the young players, but a future outlook that includes protection and security is created. While the retention rate is variable, the foundation of a path forward is provided.

It is said that “Dominican children are resourceful” (Kurlansky, 2010, p. 83). And while the foundation has already been laid down by MLB, the academies and Banco BHD in order to propel the momentum of youth development programming, the community can benefit from sticking to the grassroots value of resourcefulness. Innovation does not need to cease to exist when children enter adulthood, just as BHD exhibits through their various options and succession of corporate mergers. Hence, professionals should, in fact, use their greater understanding of the world and the roles they play for greater good. Otherwise positions such as the buscones exist and use their positions solely for their own social advantage, a detriment to the community that capitalizes off the labor of vulnerable children striving for a better future. While the unification of the Dominican Republic through baseball has already been discussed, efforts towards providing quality youth programming remains in the infant stages of development.

The heart and the passion behind supporting not only baseball, but the community already exists within Dominican society. It just needs to be positively capitalized off of, which can be accomplished through cooperative business developments. As standalone entities, programs are operable but focusing on the individual firm negates the natural cultural components of the Dominican identity. An identity that despite heritage disputes was discovered through baseball. By fully comprehending the operative pieces, collectively everyone can accomplish more. Alone, agencies are limited in staff and monetary resources, but together bridges can be built which in the context of baseball in the Dominican can lead to individuals living in “the moment to focus on baseball” (J. Besosa, presentation, June 13, 2014) rather than worry on other external circumstances beyond their control. In short, allow aspiring peloteros to be children again, rather than be viewed upon as cogs in a machine. From an economics standpoint, strategic alliances displace responsibility from the youth as commodities to businesses that have more power to initiate change and promote not only valuable programs, but an overarching network of support for the nation, its children and communities.

By applying this valuable lesson of collective action, a predictive model of business can be adopted for future endeavors. Rationally speaking, Dominicans already have a strong tie to their families, but have a strong tie to the regions of their country, yet “little interest is shown in the broader community” (Kurlansky,  2010, pp. 18 & 33 ). In spite of this scholastic conclusion, one can observe and extrapolate that while the feeling of community is lacking in the eyes of an academic, the adverse is true. A sentiment of community does exist in the formation of the baseball centered society on the island. While some of the consequences of baseball in the Dominican have proven unintentional, what needs to come from the level of understanding is ownership and responsibility which can be mitigated through developing partnerships.

For instance, the partnership between Banco BHD and MLB currently encourage players to invest and save their money, both in pesos and U.S. dollars.  As mentioned previously, wealth is indicated by savings and simple investments. While expressed on a singular basis, the same principle can be applied in a macro sense for individuals to invest in their communities with the intent of creating a sustainable youth development program. Klein describes the disconnect within the current makeup of baseball as “by itself, then, the chain is mute; it says nothing. We bring meaning to it” (2014, p. 21). And while most may disagree with Klein’s extremist views on baseball in the Dominican Republic, the “we” can easily be replaced by those who have actually been through the current structure. There is no better candidate to work towards improving an existing infrastructure than someone who has been subjected to it. Change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and what better way to start than from within using the same concept Henry Ford had in Brazil to create “what was understood to be a closed, self-regulating circuit that both increased production and consumption” (Grandin, 2009, p. 40). While Ford was referring to wages in exchange for labor, the same can be applied to the development of Dominican youth, because as alluded to previously, baseball players are, in fact, the commodity that powers the island’s economy (outside of traditional tourism).

In the case of gauging the true impact of baseball in the Dominican Republic, to formulate a comprehensive action plan in business requires the ability to understand both sides of a transaction. Whether it’s partner relations or international business both parties involved have a story to tell. To ensure the delivery of quality and efficient services involves evaluating needs, assessing available resources and strategic planning. Sometimes after a thorough investigation and inventory of what’s available, the best recommendations come from taking a step back and thinking critically about the individual establishments and available resources as a whole. Standardization of procedures helps to identify inefficiencies through the use of methodology, but critical thinking provides solutions. Because it is not a matter of trying to impose best practices that create solutions, it is empathy that constructs positive and meaningful criticism and forms well-intentioned plans. Regardless of the industry, the clientele, or even the country conducting business, partnerships lie in the most unexpected places. As careers progress, experience acts as a driver for emerging leaders in the business realm. Though it may seem at times that the corporate world operates like a machine day in and day out, society is powered by action. As observed through the effect baseball has had on the small island of the Dominican Republic and its youth, purposeful action goes a long way, both positively and negatively. It is the ability to remain grounded by grassroots values such as being resourceful and negotiating between when to be guided by intuition and procedure that provides the most valuable skill set an individual can possess. Better yet, it is the ability to work cooperatively without negating the integrity of one or another for the greater good for all that is even more invaluable.

Works Cited

Education Initiative. (2014). Retrieved from Major League Baseball Dominican Republic: http://mlb.mlb.com/dr/education_initiative.jsp

Grandin, G. (2009). Fordlandia. New York: Picador.

Klein, A. (2014). Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kurlansky, M. (2010). The Eastern Stars. New York: Penguin Group.

Pride and Passion: Baseball In The Dominican Republic. (2014). Retrieved from Major League Baseball Dominican Republic: http://mlb.mlb.com/dr/pride_passion_dr.jsp

Roorda, E. P., Derby, L., & Gonzalez, R. (Eds.). (2014). The Dominican Republic Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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  42. Anonymous AT, Joanna, and Shooting Buddy, I’m in agreement with you all 100%. And Joanna, like you, I only threw in the seed and chicneks thing because I didn’t want to seem a hard case. You know as well as I do that they would be all eaten in 5 days, with the eaters sitting down and whining for more. I live in the middle of several thousand acres of shade tobacco, used to make the wrapper in high grade cigars. It’s 100% huminity and 115 degrees under those nets, and I worked as a picker back in highschool. Talk about a walk in hell, or in the case of working shade, a crawl. You can’t get American kids to work shade for love nor money nowadays. For a dozen years or so, they brought in down-scale Jamaican field hands, little if any different that the typical Haitian. Scads of great Jamaicans around here, most of them cream of the crop, but they’re literate, predominantly small town people with a fun easy way to them, and a good work ethic. They refer to the nasty bastards out in the fields as “Maroons”, and the ambulances filled with machete carved bozos rolled nonstop from payday (Thursday) until Sunday night around here, when the Rastas finally ran out of money. Now they bring in Indians from southern Mexico, way down near Chiapas and Oaxaca on the Guatemalan and Belizian borders. Again, I know first hand the aching agony, dehydration, and heat exaustion that brutal job entails. Every morning they’re waiting at the bus stop, freshly scrubbed and with knife edged creases pressed into their work shirts and jeans. A fair number of them are women, and they are treated with courtesy and respect. I buy my food alongside them at the local Stop and Shop, and marvel at the quiet class and gentle good humor of these marvellous people. No, I don’t want them to become Americans, because we are already more than full. But with an honest guest worker program, I would be proud to have them as neighbors from May through October, and wish those good people all the good fortune they deserve. And I doubt there is any real difference between a Mexican jungle and a Haitian jungle. Except the people.

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