The location from which Tony Fernandez chose to talk about baseball in his home country was in the shadows of the batting cages at the Texas Rangers’ Dominican academy.
He said that he feels more comfortable near the action, where he is able to monitor the club’s prospects as they work on the field and to offer help if needed in his role as a special assistant to general manager Jon Daniels, rather than be confined to the quiet of an office.
That should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Fernandez, who was plucked as a 17-year-old by the late scout Epy Guerrero from San Pedro de Macoris, the Cradle of Shortstops, and spent 17 years in the major leagues.
Fernandez wants to make good on the blessings baseball gave him. Since retiring in 2001 he has dedicated much of his time to mentoring young ballplayers, calling it his duty as a former major-leaguer.
As he gazed toward a tryout game for players eligible to sign with big-league clubs beginning July 2, Fernandez was concerned about Dominican children putting too much emphasis on baseball as their only path to a better life.
“These kids should be in school,” he said.
They would be in a perfect world, but the business of baseball in the Dominican Republic isn’t perfect. Education is often put to the side, and independent trainers, known as buscones, are looking to strike it rich by taking a huge percentage of a player’s bonus.
But the mid-morning weekday tryouts are a necessity, as are the buscones, and neither is an entirely bad thing. Fernandez is hopeful that more regulations and improvements are coming, because not every player on the island makes it to the major leagues and those who don’t need something to grasp onto once their playing days are done.
“That’s why they need education and another option in life,” Fernandez said. “The sport is going to be there, but make sure they develop in more than one area.
“If you develop a program where they continue education through sports and develop morals, that would be great for these kids. I think we can have not only a better player but a better citizen. That’s what we have to do.”
Exception to rule
Ronald Guzman is an exception at the Rangers’ complex, not because of his size (6-foot-5) or his signing bonus ($3.45 million in 2011), but because he is a Dominican player who has completed high school.
He comes from the northern part of the country, south of Santiago in the town of La Vega. Education, not athletics, were the top priority of his parents, a rancher and a nurse. They insisted that Guzman graduate from high school before he could sign with a major-league organization.
He did both on the same day in 2011, landing his payday from the Rangers shortly after midnight July 2 and graduating during normal business hours. He knows that his diploma puts him in elite company.
“I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of them that haven’t,” said Guzman, a 19-year-old first baseman. “My parents always told me school is before baseball. I missed a lot of classes because of tryouts, but they told me, ‘You may love baseball, but school is first.’ ”
Indeed, fellow 2011 signee Nomar Mazara left school after his junior year, though he would like to take college courses. Jairo Beras, signed in 2012, also skipped his final year, and 2013 signee Michael De Leon said that he was done with school after eighth grade.
Each signed for life-changing money, with De Leon’s bonus the smallest at $550,000. His bonus likely won’t last forever, and he’ll have to find another walk of life at some point if he doesn’t reach the majors.
That thought, though, hasn’t entered into his 17-year-old mind. He won’t let it.
“If you’re mentally weak and think of obstacles that could prevent you from getting there, you’re not going to get there,” said De Leon, a shortstop who continues to grow on Rangers evaluators. “You have to make your mind up that you’re going to get there, and work hard for it.”
The Rangers require that their players at the complex take an hour of English each night, taught by a professional from the area. The Rangers also don’t stand in the way of a player who wants to further his education independently, and there are those who take classes Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Part of the club’s plan to help players transition to the United States includes having an American manager for the Dominican Summer League team. Ryley Westman continued the trend the past two seasons, and Aaron Levin gets his turn in 2014.
But the Rangers and other clubs believe that baseball teaches the players life skills, such as accountability and responsibility, and those will help players if they don’t go far in baseball and don’t continue their education.
“It’s going to be a small percentage of these guys that moves on, but I know in my heart that we are producing kids that one day are going to be good fathers and good husbands,” said Westman, who guided the Rangers to the DSL title in 2013. “They’re given more accountability here than they ever have been in their lives. When you sign to be a big-league ballplayer, you’re going to learn to be a man sooner than later.”
MLB is promoting education in the Dominican Republic, where it isn’t as much of a priority as it is in other Latin American countries that produce players. It’s not unusual for a child in the Dominican Republic to quit school so that he can to take a job to help support his family.
Guzman and Mazara came to the Rangers from the MLB-backed Dominican RBI program. The basic requirement of the program, which saw 1,080 players in its leagues in 2013, is to be enrolled in school and to participate in community activities.
MLB is seeing cooperation from its clubs to place more of an emphasis on education, and all 30 teams made a financial contribution last year to help fund the Dominican RBI. In addition to that program, MLB’s Amateur Prospect League stresses education, and MLB has launched an initiative that guides players who are released toward vocational programs.
Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, said that the feedback from players has been positive.
“We’ve done surveys of the kids in our academies, and for the most part we do find that the kids are interested in education,” Ng said. “All 30 of our clubs offer some kind of education. Some clubs offer more than others. But it’s very difficult to reach these kids and their families.”
Said Fernandez: “I think the Major League Baseball is taking the right approach. I talked to some of the executives, and they want to make sure they get their education. That’s music to my ears.”
Fernandez, though, said that more needs to be done to regulate the players’ independent trainers, or buscones, who also act as agents. He isn’t looking to strip them completely of what is a livelihood, but some take too much of a player’s bonus.
The buscones, though, are a necessary part of the process. With almost no organized youth leagues, they are the primary development system in the Dominican Republic. They agree to house, train and showcase players for a percentage of their bonuses.
Beras started working with his buscon at age 11.
Right-hander Nefali Feliz said that he surrendered 20 percent of his $100,000 bonus from Atlanta in 2005. Guzman and Mazara weren’t sure how much their buscones took. Neither was Beras, though some have heard that 25 to 40 percent of his $4.5 million bonus was cut up between two buscones/agents.
“Given the situation down in the Dominican Republic and the very complex situation that exists, we’ve tried to work with the independent trainers in helping with their players’ markets,” Ng said. “But at this point, the independent trainers are a vital part of the development system of the Dominican Republic.”
Many aren’t the lowlife crooks that they have been portrayed to be. Most aren’t, in fact, but some engage in falsifying documents, providing players with performance-enhancing drugs, and other questionable, if not illegal, acts to get their players signed for bigger money.
MLB has made headway in making sure players are who they say they are, and are as old as they claim to be. Armed with a staff of scouts, MLB investigates each player eligible to sign in the upcoming class. The showcases and prospect leagues they operate also allow them to track players and buscones.
Don Welke, a senior special assistant to Daniels, said that the Dominican Republic is far more regulated than it was even 10 years ago. Welke, whose first trip here was in 1978 as a member of Toronto’s trailblazing operation, has the best perspective of anyone in the Rangers’ organization.
“It’s a lot better. A lot better,” he said. “Nobody knew how old this, that and the other was, and there was speculation about guys being on steroids. There’s more regulation on those types of things.”
Fernandez would like to see the government, which has also become more aware of identity fraud, help curb abuses by buscones.
“I know it’s a business for them and they invest a lot of money in these kids, but I think they could have a way to regulate it,” he said. “I’m not saying take it away from them. It’s a way of life. But they can make it better.”
That’s Fernandez’s goal, as well as MLB’s. Things have improved for today’s young players, Fernandez said last week as he watched a group of young hopefuls cut class to try out for Rangers scouts, but the business of baseball in the Dominican Republic can be better.
“It’s good for baseball, and it’s good for the country,” Fernandez said. “If they tied it with education, it would be great. It could be very, very good.”