Two veteran travelers to the Dominican Republic, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and former international scouting director Mike Daly, offered three sage pieces of advice to a first-time visitor to the baseball-mad country:
Don’t check a bag.
Never miss a local story.
Indeed, the warmth and humidity hits a traveler as soon as he steps onto the jet bridge.
Customs officials, as tough as that Affluenza judge, don’t so much as glance at carry-ons from the most recent flight to town.
The driving hazards quickly become clear as Dominicans piled four- and five-deep onto their tiny motoconchos dotted the roadways, leaving their safety in God’s hands.
The rest, though, came without warning, not that there was anything of much concern in a country where its citizens are friendly, laid-back and living for the day at hand. But a little help would have been nice when it came to what happens at the Rangers’ Dominican academy.
It was nothing short of controlled chaos late last month in Boca Chica as the annual January Dominican program wound down, and it was nothing like some have portrayed baseball in the Dominican Republic to be.
There was sweat, but the Rangers’ academy, even though it isn’t exactly the nicest in the country, isn’t a baseball sweatshop.
Players there rarely get a chance to stop from the time they roll out of bed before dawn, and they can be found just about everywhere. On the field, in the batting cage, in the bullpen, in and around the weight room.
Many of the players were raised with little, and some come from homes that would be condemned in the United States. All of the players received a signing bonus, even the smallest of which made some sort of positive impact with their families.
But the players aren’t content with what they had achieved simply by signing with the Rangers. They want more. They want to learn more about the game. They want to be major leaguers.
The players, even the ones who have been to the U.S. and played in the minor leagues and experienced a better way of life, were excited to be on the field.
With all that was going on and all there was to see, the hardest thing to find was complacency.
That’s a credit to the players, sure, but also to the Rangers’ scouts. The toughest part of their job is to learn everything possible about the players’ background and work ethic before they are signed.
The tools are obvious, but make-up is as big of a component to the Rangers’ scouting process as time in the 60-yard dash or arm strength or bat speed. The Rangers want talented players, of course, but they want talented players who won’t be happy just to get a big bonus.
Each Rangers scout from Latin America was on hand, along with several members of the front office, to watch players from the upcoming July 2 signing class and see if any would emerge as potential signees.
If there was anything uneasy about the January program, the tryouts were it.
Everything was on the up and up on the field, as new international scouting director Gil Kim orchestrated games and as scouts gathered on and around the field for a good vantage point of each player.
The uncomfortable part was observing the players and their independent trainers, or buscones.
The players should have been in school, but education comes in a distant second to baseball. Many of the players seemed pensive, and indeed there is a lot of pressure to perform at a tryout.
As outfielders worked, they strained to make the hardest throw possible to each base, accuracy be damned. The same went for infielders. Base running was sloppy, with many runners getting picked off at first base or thrown out trying to steal a bag.
It wasn’t crisp baseball.
Meanwhile, the buscones had gathered down the right-field line to watch their players.
Daniels and Daly, now the Rangers’ farm director, defended the job most buscones do and played devil’s advocate when it came to the high percentage of the bonus money buscones take.
Most aren’t bad people, Daniels and Daly said, but they have chosen a high-cost, high-risk, high-reward profession. But there are still the slimy buscones who push ethical limits or flat-out ignore the rules and regulations of MLB and their own government.
One saw his pitcher leave a game with a sore elbow. Even after listening to a trainer explain that the elbow wasn’t healthy, the buscon asked if the pitcher could throw again the next day.
But the Rangers aren’t interested in getting anyone hurt. They want players, quality players with quality make-up who want to be quality major-leaguers.
Only a sliver of those working there last week will be lucky enough to reach that ultimate goal. But every player, all of them teenagers, was excited to be at the Rangers’ academy, where there was plenty of sweat but no feel of it being a sweatshop.