MLB bonuses help pave poor players' way out of poverty
02/04/2014 1:31 PM
11/12/2014 3:51 PM
The dirt road that Texas Rangers scouts and officials navigated to reach the home of coveted prospect Jairo Beras has been altered by progress the past few years.
An overpass, part of the major road improvements designed to make a tourist’s two-hour commute from Las Americas International Airport near the capital of Santo Domingo to the luxury resorts of Punta Cana, was dug out of the old dirt road.
A new dirt road has been created by necessity, but now it’s in a ravine. There’s only one lane, and only one car at a time can sneak beneath the overpass and squeeze between a tunnel of concrete support walls.
Once a car makes its climb back to flat land and into this rural town, a baseball field like many others on the island appears on the left-hand side of the road.
A diamond is easy to make out, though the infield dirt appears to be as hard as rock and filled with pebbles. A dirt pitching mound has been erected, though one side is slightly higher than the other, and the skeleton of a rickety batting cage hovers above home plate.
The cage offers next to no protection to nearby structures or the occasional car that might pass into this impoverished village. The netting is in shambles, and what’s left of it hangs on sadly to what it once was.
But Beras remembers his days there fondly.
“It wasn’t a great field or anything, but you could play there and have a good time,” he said last week at the Rangers’ Dominican academy in Boca Chica. “I was always one of the tallest kids, but I was still the youngest one. They would always say that I was going to go places.”
The children of El Peñon still play this country’s favorite game on that rundown field with the hope that they, like Beras, can go places by signing a major league contract and reap the financial rewards that come with it.
Not all players signed in Latin America, and more specifically the Dominican Republic, come from areas such as Beras did. But with 40 percent of Dominicans living below the poverty line and 1.5 million children being raised in one-parent households, baseball is the way out.
“The country itself is poor, generally speaking,” said general manager Jon Daniels, who has made an estimated 15 to 20 trips to the Dominican Republic since 2004.
“I remember my first trip down here, and one of our veteran guys told me, ‘We have two exports: sugar and baseball.’ I don’t know if that is technically accurate, but effectively it is.”
The children here now don’t seem to mind their situation, and likely don’t know any other way of life. Electricity is scarce, though the neighborhood bar and a small store across the dirt street are able to refrigerate bottles of Presidente beer.
The house Beras, his mother and his sister lived in stands no more than 100 feet away. House, in this case, is a loose term.
There are four walls and a roof made of corrugated tin. A black tarp stretches across the spots on the roof where rust has won out and rain would otherwise seep into the one-room structure that in the United States would be a tool shed, and an eye-sore at that.
Blankets hang to create rooms for the family that lives there now. A mother, flanked by two small children and a pregnant stray dog, politely declined a request to take an extended look inside.
Mike Daly recalls visiting Beras there before he signed a $4.5 million deal in February 2012. The Rangers’ former director of international scouting, Daly had become accustomed to seeing abject poverty, and says the Beras house was akin to many homes of Dominican players the Rangers have signed.
But it was home.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Daly, who was promoted to senior director of minor league operations after last season. “I’ve gone to other houses where it’s been dirt poor. You walk inside, and it was nice. Everything was in its spot. His mother was proud of the home, and Jairo was proud of the home.”
The house of shortstop Michael De Leon, signed last year for $550,000, was said to be only marginally better. The youngest of five siblings, with the other four all girls, De Leon lived in the cramped Santo Domingo home of his grandmother, who raised them while his mother lived and worked in the U.S.
When Rangers officials went to his house to present his contract, the grandmother told them to step away from the open door that was providing the only source of light — the sun — allowing De Leon to see where to sign his name.
“It was a poor neighborhood,” the 17-year-old said.
Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara, though, are among the Rangers prospects who come from two-parent households where education and structure were emphasized and where money wasn’t much of an issue.
Part of the Rangers’ extravagant international spending spree in 2011, the duo each described his family as middle class. Guzman’s father is a rancher and his mother is a nurse, and Mazara’s father is a retired officer in the Dominican navy.
Guzman, a 19-year-old first baseman, grew up south of Santiago, where he said he “wasn’t really, really poor” and he had “his food every day.”
Like De Leon, Mazara is also from the capital, but he talked about Santo Domingo having “malls and everything, like Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and Papa John’s” and talked as if his family’s financial status allowed him to experience them as a child.
Unlike many others who signed, money wasn’t the motivating force behind Mazara pursuing baseball.
“I picked this career because I love baseball,” said Mazara, an 18-year-old outfielder. “I don’t care about the money. A lot of guys care about the money more than they play baseball. I’m different.”
Even though his family wasn’t hurting for money, Mazara admits that the money he received from a record $4.95 million bonus has made a big difference. The same goes for Guzman, who signed for $3.45 million, but especially Beras and De Leon.
Beras used his bonus money to buy his family a new condo in San Pedro de Macoris, a city of nearly 200,000 a few miles west of El Peñon, and himself a Cadillac Escalade. De Leon has moved his grandmother into a new home east of Santo Domingo in San Isidro.
He’s among the fortunate ones to parlay his love for baseball into a better life.
“I wanted to help my family,” De Leon said.
Thursday: The Rangers have found success in Latin America through the tireless work of their scouts and the deep pockets of their owners.
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