The Hard Life of MLB’s Dominican Prospects

Before making it to the big leagues, David Ortiz didn’t have it easy.

David OrtizDavid Ortiz photo by Keith Allison on Flickr

In the March/April issue of Mother Jones, Ian Gordon takes an eye-opening look at “Major League Baseball’s Dominican Sweatshop System.” The lengthy feature details MLB’s poor treatment of its Latin American prospects. Not only do they get paid less than their American counterparts—“The average signing bonus for American players drafted in 2011 was $232,000; for international players, it was approximately half that,” Gordon reports. In the article, Gordon tells the story of shortstop Yewri Guillén, a teenager in the Washington Nationals system who died in 2011 after contracting meningitis.

There wasn’t a certified athletic trainer, let alone a doctor, to evaluate Guillén at the Nationals’ academy, a spartan training camp with cinder-block dorms. No one from the team accompanied him to Santo Domingo or intervened when he couldn’t get into the Clínica Abreu [the capital’s best private hospital]. (The club didn’t cover the costs of his treatment until after he was admitted to the [cheaper] Cuban-Dominican clinic.) And following Guillén’s death, the club required his parents to sign a release before handing over his signing bonus and life insurance money—a document also stating that they would never sue the team or its employees.

It’s a crushingly sad story. And although he never had to go through the hell that Guillén did, David Ortiz understands what life is like for a kid trying to beat the odds. (That’s not just a cliché. Only tiny fraction of the prospects at MLB’s Dominican academies will make the majors.) “A 16-year-old doesn’t know how to play baseball,” the Red Sox Slugger told Gordon. “I don’t care what they say. When I signed at 16, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.”

That’s not the only thing Big Papi feels strongly about.

Ortiz said Americans don’t understand the pressure on Dominican teenagers, including in some cases to lie about their age. “The thing that made me mad about the whole situation is that people want to look at us like we are criminals,” he said. “I would like to get in their face and ask them, if that was their only way out, what would they do?”

Ortiz is only a small part of Gordon’s story. But for Red Sox fans, the whole thing should be required reading.