NewBlackMan (in Exile): Baseball’s “Puppy Mill”?: ‘Pelotero’ and the Dominican Connection

Baseball’s “Puppy Mill”?: ‘Pelotero’ and the Dominican Connection

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sports films are a staple within American culture. From the Hollywood imagination to documentaries, there has been a longstanding interest in sporting cultures. Offering a window into fundamental American tropes and ideologies – meritocracy; bootstraps; rages to riches; the American Dream – sports films fill the insatiable desire for stories of perseverance, redemption, and possibility. Pelotero, a new documentary narrated by John Leguizamo, enters into this larger cultural landscape, highlighting the dreams and nightmares of global baseball.

Pelotero sets out to answer a simple yet immensely complex question: how can a country the size of the Dominican Republic, with only 2% of the population of the United States, produce so many professional baseball players? In 2010, 86 of MLB’s 833 players come from the Dominican Republic; almost 25% of the 7,000 minor league players hailed from this nation of 9.7 million people. The film’s directors, Ross Finkel, Jon Paley, and Trevor Martin describe their goal as follows:

The central question behind Pelotero was a simple one: Why are Dominicans so good at baseball? The tiny island nation is consistently overrepresented in the Major Leagues, and as America’s pastime continues to globalize, every year brings a fresh crop of young Dominican Peloteros to the top levels of the game. We had a romantic image of these players’ humble beginnings etched in our minds; poor kids chasing rolled up socks through dusty streets as motorbikes whizzed by. However, that vision of street ball felt disconnected to another romantic idea of Dominican baseball; Big Papi, Sammy Sosa, or Robinson Cano slowly trotting around the bases under the bright lights and cheering fans of a big league ballpark. How does one lead to the other? And what is the story in between the two?

Eschewing cultural arguments, those that emphasize role models and “the single-minded pursuit of baseball” and theories that harken Social Darwinism, Pelotero highlights the social, political and economic contexts that funnel Dominican youth into the professional ranks.

With only two offices throughout the world, one in New York City and the other in Dominican Republic, it is clear that Major League Baseball has focused its efforts on developing future players. The desperation and poverty facing those in the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America has produced conditions ripe for American corporations taking advantage of this potential labor force, ultimately exploiting workers (players) inside and outside the United States. The establishment of “schools” – baseball’s sweatshops that produce its raw materials – has exacerbated this process.

Beyond filling the League with talented ball players, Major League Baseball teams use the “third world” because the “raw materials” (the players) are cheap. Dick Balderson, a vice-president of the Colorado Rockies, called this process a “boatload mentality.” The idea behind this approach is to sign a “boatload” of Latin players for less money, knowing that if only a couple make it to the big leagues, teams will still profit from the relationship. “Instead of signing four [American] guys at $25,000 each, you sign 20 [Dominican] guys for $5,000 each.” The desperation and poverty facing those in Latin America is facilitating this “single-minded” pursuit of sports, creating a situation where professional baseball teams are able exploit this labor force.

Charles S. Farrell, who is the former director of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Sports, described the dangerous predicament facing youth in the Dominican Republic:

Baseball is mainly the sport of the poor in the Dominican Republic, and viewed by so many as a way to escape poverty. Mothers and fathers put a glove on boys as soon as they can walk in order to pursue the dream of la vida buena.

But with every dream there are dream merchants, those who promise to pave a path to glory and riches for a price. The buscónes, as they are known, latch onto prospects at an early age, giving them advice and consul on how best to pursue the dream. Some are genuine in their mission; others simply hook into a potential meal ticket. Either way, good or bad, the buscónes have become a part of the Dominican baseball scene.

Pelotero highlights the consequences of the overdevelopment of the institutions of baseball alongside the underdevelopment of society at large (thanks in part to the polices of the IMF and World Bank). It elucidates how everyone from scouts to the teams themselves take advantage of the limited economic opportunities, the manipulated (unfree) marketplace, and the imported American Dream to get young 13 and 14 year olds to work hard so that maybe their parents can have a better life. Reduced to commodity, the efforts to sell a dream, a future, and most powerfully freedom/independence (signing day is July 2) to the players and their families are crucial in maintaining this exploitative system. One respondent in the film describes the ways that baseball views these young men: “It’s like when you harvest the land, you put seed on the land, you water it, you clear, and then when it grows, you sell it.”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Baseball’s “Puppy Mill”?: ‘Pelotero’ and the Dominican Connection.

NewBlackMan: Ain’t Much Black in the Fall Classic: Racial Diversity and Baseball


Ain’t Much Black in the Fall Classic: Racial Diversity and Baseball

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

The World Series is set to start on Wednesday between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. Much will be made of the pageantry, the Cinderella story surrounding the Cardinals, who only made into the playoffs on the final day of the seasons, the Rangers’ attempt to finally win a title, and of course the redemption story of Josh Hamilton (whiteness has its power). Yet, there are more stories to be hold, one being what this World Series tell us about diversity and baseball, and more importantly what the racial and national demographics of the “American past time” tell us about large social forces.

While the National Championship series highlighted an overwhelming number of African American baseball players (8), the World Series won’t showcase a similar level of diversity; as the Cardinals possess 4 African Americans on its roster (Edwin Jackson, Arthur Rhodes, John Jay, and Adron Chambers), Rangers will only suit up a single African American player (Darren Oliver). Representing 10%, this still exceeds the league-wide number, which stands at 8.5%. Mac Engel describes the state of baseball’s diversity in “Baseball continues to see fewer black players:”

For a variety of reasons, from societal to financial, the sport can’t seem to reverse the trend of fewer African-Americans playing baseball.

The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported this year that the number of blacks in baseball is down to 8.5 percent. The percentage of Latinos is 27 percent. The percentage for African-Americans in MLB is at its lowest level since 2007. When the institute began to track the figure in 1990, 17 percent of all MLB players were African-American. Beginning in 1997, the number has steadily decreased for a variety of reasons.

The consequences of closed parks, globalization, specialization of sports, prohibitive costs, a failing school systems, and expanded prison system has been the steady erosion of baseball. The last thirty years have seen the re-segregation of baseball, an ironic twist given its importance within the larger history of sports integration. From 1990-2000, blacks presence in professional baseball decline from 18% of the league’s players to 13%; in the ten years since, the number has continued to decline, with prospects even worse for the future. While the lack of black baseball roles models and the presumed incapability between an authentic black identity and baseball certainly part of the story, segregation and the systematic divestment, dismantling and destruction of the institutional spaces that produced past generations of black ball players is key to understanding the waning black place within “America’s Past Time.”

The declining presence of African American baseball players, almost 65 years after Jackie Robinson reintegrated professional baseball, transcends the numbers, with the shrinking influence and importance, evidence by the lack of African American star power. It is also evident in the absence of younger African American talent. Two of the players are older than me (Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver) revealing beyond the numbers how the systematic destruction of the infrastructure that produced both the great African American stars of yesteryear and the role players has left a barren future for African Americans in baseball

The World Series will equally highlight the impact of globalization, with a total of 17 players coming from outside the United States (8 from the Dominican Republic, 3 hailing from Venezuela, 2 coming from Japan and Mexico). Two Cardinal players hail from Puerto Rico, which has historically produced a large number of Major League players. Similar to their African American brothers, recent history has seen a precipitous decline amongst the professional ranks, which in part reflect the limited development and focus on cultivating talent. Despite its neocolonial status (or maybe because of it), players from Puerto Rico are subjected to the MLB draft, impacting Puerto Rican presence within the game (teams won’t want to invest in players that they might not be to sign). In “Puerto Rico’s Pipeline Has Been Running Low,” Ken Belson reflects on the changing place of Puerto Ricans within Major League Baseball

The pipeline of prospects from the island, once rich with potential Hall of Fame talent, has narrowed as major league teams focus on cheaper and more plentiful prospects from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

In 2009, only 3.5 percent of position players in Major League Baseball came from Puerto Rico, a 24-year low. Meanwhile, the percentage of Cuban and Venezuelan position players has nearly doubled in the last decade.

While the mere mention of the declining numbers of African Americans and Puerto Rican players, or the efforts to highlight the global influences on the game often sets off resistance to the mere introduction of race and politics in the game (see here for a vivid example), we can learn much about larger issues of injustice, social change, economic inequality, and global politics by examining the rosters of this year’s World Series competitors.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Ain’t Much Black in the Fall Classic: Racial Diversity and Baseball.