Ivory, Rubber and Baseball

The San Diego State Sports MBA program allows its students to get to the heart of some of the controversies surrounding Major League Baseball in a way that no other programs do. Here is my take on what we saw on our trip to the Dominican Republic.

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Importing athletes is hardly a new concept. The ruins of the great Coliseum in Rome depict a time when another superpower went elsewhere to import their entertainment in an effort to avoid the costs related to employing their home population at the foot of the stands. While these costs have transformed from the flesh to the bank account, the agony of defeat is only slightly less dire and the rewards are as glamorous as ever. Trainer Homero Lahara explains, “They are playing for their lives. In the Dominican Republic, for a lot of these kids it is baseball or nothing. It is as simple as that.”

Any trip inland from the wonderful Dominican beaches reveals two things: poverty and baseball. Circumstance has transformed this Caribbean island into an extremely efficient baseball player factory, one that Major League Baseball is apt to take advantage of. From its sugarcane field roots, Dominican baseball has evolved from perhaps the singular escape from work in the fields to a force, trapping young Dominicans to a new field. The feint hope of sweet rewards is enough to maintain an infinite cycle of ignorant desperation and MLB will never run out of new recruits. The rest are recycled back into the poverty to keep their shantytowns afloat with no literacy, no employable skills and a penchant for creating the next generation.

The Roman gladiators were the products of wars near and far. MLB did not have to fight a war to get its prisoners. European imperialism, sugar barons and industrialization did the work for them and they are simply the newest tenants reaping the spoils. A Dominican star can be produced for one-seventh the price of an American so MLB teams have come and suck as many players as they see fit into the system and spit them back out with almost as much regularity. They pump just enough riches into a handful of families each year to keep the dream alive for the rest of the island. All the while MLB expects that Americans continue to enjoy their pastime like they do their ballpark’s hot dog: without asking how it is made.

Baseball is far from the first industry lured to the tropics in search of riches. Conrad’s fictional hero Marlow tells of his journey into the depths of the Congo to retrieve its ivory but the implications of which have created a situation more dire than virtually any other corner of the planet. When the holes in the map began to fill, the exploitation needed a facelift and industry’s standard-bearer of the time, Henry Ford, attempted to apply it as depicted in Fordlandia by Greg Grandin. He took all of the arrogance and ignorance he could muster and spent $20 million trying to turn a chunk of the Amazon into a Michigan suburb. His target was the region’s rubber and his vision was one of manicured domination. If he could export row houses and order into the rain forest, then he would be rewarded with pipes of liquid rubber flowing right back to Dearborn.

Both the East India Company described by Conrad and the Ford Motor Company described by Grandin succumbed to the entropy of the forest, but not without leaving skeletons of their operation that withstand the equator’s greasy air better than the expatriates that they sent. The Ford water tower that still competes with the trees in the depths of Brazil marks a land introduced to vice and corruption that it had never seen before. Henry Ford’s goal was law and order and efficiency but his attempt to fit a square peg through a round hole was flawed at its core. While his mission was always going to be difficult, the factor that doomed it more than any other was that the man never went to Brazil. Ford’s moral compass was supposed to be the fabric that induced success but it got lost somewhere in the Atlantic and prohibition and order gave way to disease and violence. As with Kurtz – the center of Conrad’s tale – the messengers of the North, sent by Ford to teach the jungle how to operate like the plains of the Midwest and the people to punch time clocks and go to church – were ill-equipped to take on the maddening nature of lands lost in time.

The companies of the North have ultimately been successful at importing one ideal to every acre that they inhabit: greed. When the visitors ultimately retreat the land is never the same again. When given a glimpse at the fortunes of the more temperate climes off in the distance, governance changes and the scramble to the top of the ladder begins for a significant proportion of any population. The few that make it to the top offer another peek through the lens for the next generation and a few of the lucky, resourceful and ruthless always manage to grab at the top rung and dangle it just out of reach, ensuring that more will attempt the same. The Congo’s rebel groups’ incessant battles to procure larger slices of a shrinking pie are Europe’s legacy. While Ford’s legacy may not seem as grim, with every forest giant that is cut down to clear way for industrial farmland and every high-rise erected in Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro or Belem, his vision of importing American efficiency becomes closer to reality. This efficiency, however, is never as successful as in its source and is constantly impinging on the diversified portfolio of resources and thought that the world has to offer.

Our maps’ dark spaces are being filled in and our world is flattening. Transportive technology is changing the way that today’s societies interact and Ford’s objectives might be easier to accomplish when communication is instant and physical passage is almost as fast. It is impossible to imagine that such a massive investment today in a foreign land would happen without the investor visiting the land. Hopefully this leaves Major League Baseball better equipped to take on the wilderness than the companies that preceded it. This, however, requires that the MLB owners use the technology available to them to see firsthand where their supply chain begins.

While this technology should make this task easier in theory, it may not in practice. The branches of MLB are expanding in length and girth and the individuals at the core cannot dream to keep up with the direction that each branch bends. Their focus will always be on the strongest branches and the ones close to home. A flight to Santo Domingo may only take a few hours, but owners are still content to govern their empire from afar just like Ford Motor Company and the East India Company.

It is no coincidence that half of the positive doping tests in MLB come from Dominican players. When the owners of the league can barely be bothered to check Boca Chica off  their travel list – the inhabitants of the shadows will act accordingly.

Kurtz’s Central Post was decorated with poles adorned with sinister ornaments. The heads of those that didn’t align with the goals of the company stood as a constant reminder of what is to become of those who fight the status quo. When one head withers off its post there will always be another to take its place. The mothers and sisters and daughters of the countless MLB hopefuls remind one of skulls set upon frail stakes although their rebellion less overt – being born with a slightly different set of chromosomes. They stand at the side of the baseball field quick to remind their counterparts that baseball is the only answer.

Hopefully, the forces of progress find a solution to the problems beguiling the developing world. Hopefully, the wonderful virtues at the core of sport can overcome the crippling side effects of imperial enterprise. None of the parties that have ventured into lands unknown have anticipated the consequences of their actions. For anything to change in the Dominican, MLB needs to heed the lessons of history and take greater agency over the canopy that they cast. Sending a dozen or so employees to some cubicles in Santo Domingo in an attempt to fix the symptoms of the problem, PED use and age fraud, is going to create little more than extra frustration.

Globalization can be a wonderful thing. It opens the world to physical and intellectual resources that enrich and lengthen the human experience. The problems of globalization come not from the expansion into parts unknown but from the laziness of the expanders who do not take the time to understand what they have stumbled upon. It happens when the haves take what they please and leave the rest to fend for themselves. The problems are hardly abated by halfhearted efforts to fix them with progress’ leftovers, some stickers and cheap toys. The problems will only be fixed when we combine their intrinsic knowledge of the land with the best of what we have to offer from afar.

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