MLB Searches for Talent, but Not in the Right Places
Major League Baseball works to develop replacement talent needed to keep the professional game going, basing its training centers in so-called academies built at places around the world where the administrators of the men’s game believe that talent can be nurtured. Those places include countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia, and even Italy (the location of MLB’s International European Academy).
How has this worked out for MLB? Is the money well spent? Should MLB be proud of its international outreach?
Let’s take Australia, where each year since 2001, seventy or eighty young men from across Australasia receive scholarships to an elaborate academy at a Radisson Hotel resort that has been described as a “world-class baseball facility.” So far, only two players trained there have made the majors.
How about Venezuela? About 200 Venezuelans have made the majors over the last decade, with many of those having been trained by the academies. But because of rising crime and political tension, MLB has closed most of its twenty-one Venezuelan baseball academies, with only five MLB teams still retaining bases there. Accusations of corruption and youth exploitation have sullied the reputations of these training facilities. In addition, it’s dangerous to be a Venezuelan ballplayer visiting family back home, because Venezuelans who receive paychecks from MLB have been robbed, beaten, and kidnapped, even shot, and their families have been abducted, according to a Sports Illustrated story in March of 2013.
A similar situation exists in the Dominican Republic, long a major source of talent for MLB, where hundreds of men and boys are trained in baseball skills at thirty separate academies operated by the major-league clubs. But as in Venezuela, problems are rife. Self-appointed agents often take charge of these boys and their money and cheat them.
In 2010 MLB sent a representative to these Dominican academies to clean up the situation, but he resigned after the season to take another job. Latin Americans themselves began to reform the academies, but reforms are said to be slow. An unfortunate event occurred in 2011 when a sixteen-year-old died of meningitis at a “Spartan” training center without even a trainer, much less a doctor. MLB still needs to adopt a corporate code on how these boys must be treated, according to Rob Ruck in an extensive article for Americas Quarterly in 2011.
Dominican boys have long been encouraged to use baseball as a way to escape from the island’s poverty to the United States, but most of them devote years to baseball without making good, as the 2009 film Sugar made clear. Investigative reporting of baseball centers at these Latin American countries has resulted in unfavorable publicity for MLB, as a perusal of stories available on the internet will make clear. A Mother Jones article by Ian Gordon in 2013 refers to the academies as “Major League Baseball’s Dominican sweatshop system.”
MLB’s European Academy in Italy has produced only two major leaguers. One such player was from Germany, the son of an American serviceman and a German mother. He grew up with little interest in the game and less knowledge of how to play it, so he never tried baseball until he was fifteen, and he made a lot of false starts before learning how to play.
A private academy established not by MLB but by a Mexican billionaire has been opened in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but local boys generally fail to meet the academy’s talent requirements. Instead, most of the school’s athletes come from northern Mexico, where the Mexican League operates. The owner of the academy also owns two professional baseball teams in Mexico, so naturally the graduates of this facility are meant for their own country, although some have made the American minors.
What about baseball academies in the United States? MLB supports a well-known facility in Compton, California, the Urban Youth Academy, which since 2006 has provided after-school recreation, baseball and softball instruction, and tutoring in school subjects to children from twelve to eighteen. The Academy serves the youth of the area, most of whom are black. Its director has not made clear whether any of its graduates went on to enter the majors, but with such a diversified mission, the facility seems to be placing other goals above that one.
In all, MLB’s outreach for new player talent makes for a spotty record of developing good players, one that has failed to result in praise for the system. That’s hardly encouraging for the growth of the game.
Isn’t anyone in charge of this foreign academy program? Yes, and it’s one place where MLB has made an unusual and innovative appointment.
In 2011 the Commissioner’s office appointed Kim Ng, formerly assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as supervisor of all international operations. For the talented Ms. Ng, this was a sideways “promotion,” because many expected her to become the first female general manager of a major-league club. That would have given her some real power. Instead, she was handed the problem of figuring out how to get these academies to shape up by introducing some rules of behavior and getting rid of those who take advantage of the boys in their care.
In her new job as supervisor of talent development, Ms. Ng might recommend other sources, especially those available right here at home, where she could easily locate players to whom baseball is not new, since many have played it since they were five years old, have formed their own leagues and schools for player development, and are supervised by ex-players and their own families who, instead of taking advantage of them, support them with help and finances. This group has already developed some stars and could develop a lot more if its leaders knew the players had a future in Major League Baseball. Instead, MLB refuses to consider them, just as for many years black men were refused consideration. I refer, of course, to women who love playing baseball and take part in it every chance they get.
Players with great joy in the game as well as acknowledged skill, like Ila Borders, Justine Siegal, Julie Croteau, and Robin Wallace, their careers now over, should have been welcomed to tryouts. Although it’s probably too late for them, a high school varsity knuckleballer named Chelsea Baker with surprising ability is still only sixteen. As a child she was called the best Little Leaguer in the entire country, and today she could play pro ball in Japan if she wanted to. MLB, instead of considering her and other current female standouts, is spending millions scouting foreign players and sending them to foreign training facilities with questionable reputations in the hope of developing players with the kind of talent that can be found right now and right here in the United States.
It’s a topsy-turvy world.