Walk-off or Trade-off? Baseball and education in the Dominican Republic

˙ PREAL Blog

The business of recruiting young Dominican baseball players is today a high value global industry, but it can also lead to a risky educational gambit for young Dominicans: leaving school to train.

As opposed to American-born aspiring baseball players, international youth are not eligible for the annual Major League Baseball (MLB) draft, wherein American players that have graduated from high school or college register for a highly regulated selection process. Instead, young aspiring players in the Dominican Republic who are signed to short-term professional contracts are recruited from the informal training system of programas (programs) that are run by enterprising training program directors and facilitated by buscones (informal scouts).

The singular goal of participation in these programs is to land a coveted spot in one of the MLB academies on the island, which youth are eligible for at 15.5 years of age. The Dominican “academy system” produces more foreign-born MLB players than any other country in the world (Venezuela—the second largest provider of foreign-born MLB players—also had a similar system, but due to political unrest, insecurity, and even malnourishment, there are only four teams with camps there as of 2017, and roughly 100 or less informal training programs remain intact).

MLB has estimated that 2,000 – 4,000 Dominican youth participate in contracted training activities at the Dominican academies each year, a number that represents an elite pool of talent drawn from the informal programs across the country. As many as half of the young players in the academies will go on to some kind of professional contract in the MLB or elsewhere, offering at least a short-term professional opportunity and a relatively significant source of income, as well as a valued pedigree for continued baseball work like coaching or training.

By contrast, estimates of annual involvement in the roughly 1,500 informal feeder programs range from 20,000 to 80,000 youth, or between 2% and 8% of all Dominican males in the age range of 10 to 20. According to a recent Dominican television program on the subject, officials estimate that the “vast majority” of these youth either drop out of school completely or, when possible, choose to enroll in a part-time Saturday school that leaves them drastically behind their peers.

Youth, Education, and Poverty in the Dominican Republic

All predominantly poor, young baseball aspirants in the Dominican Republic face strong, entrenched incentives to drop out of school completely in order dedicate themselves to the study of baseball. Those young hopefuls from outside the major metropolitan areas where the training programs predominate will often move in with family, friends, or even the program directors themselves so that they can participate in an intensive, full-time training and playing regimen through their early teenage years.

Dropouts training for baseball careers quickly find themselves joining what is referred to as the “ni-ni” (neither-nor) generation in Latin America; they neither engage in compensated work nor are enrolled in school. Recent estimates put this population at an average of 30% of youth aged 15-24 across the entire region. It is estimated that this age demographic is both the critical driver and central victim of the rising tide of violence, gang activity, and drugs that plagues the metropolitan areas of the Dominican Republic.

Young Dominican males already tend to drop out, fail, or repeat at a rate nearly double that of females. The risk factors associated with low education completion rates for Dominican males are alarming, and include higher rates of HIV, teen paternity, criminal convictions, involvement with gangs or drugs, and a vastly higher incidence of formal sector unemployment. All of these risk factors are considerable impediments to the development of Dominican society and the country’s economy.

Of course, it would be inaccurate and unfair to burden the sport of baseball with all of these social ills. Education in the Dominican Republic is already a struggling enterprise, which complicates the tradeoff decision young peloteros face. Fewer than half of all Dominicans complete secondary education and the average formal schooling level completed is approximately 7 years, well below the regional Latin American average. Illiteracy is a particularly acute problem in the Dominican Republic; early literacy rates are consistently the lowest of anywhere in Latin America amongst the 17 countries tested by the UNESCO comparative education examinations – with boys reading at lower levels than girls by both the 3rd and 6th grades. This is the challenging context in which baseball training in the country exists.

In sum all the available data should make it clear that the average path a low-income Dominican boy takes towards a highly unlikely baseball career is a well-charted trajectory towards certain socio-economic poverty.

Efforts at Integrating Baseball and Education

In 1997, Dominican law mandated that all children enroll in school through at least the 8th grade. Shortly thereafter, the first MLB office opened in Santo Domingo; its main objective was to curb the lawlessness around the contracting of young players, which had included falsification of birth certificates, peddling of performance-enhancing drugs, and the fleecing of newly contracted players by buscones.

As of 2006, national law in the Dominican Republic also mandates a minimum standard provision of education for youths enrolled in baseball training camps. Even before this legislation, several MLB teams began to recognize the need for educational support within their academies. Teams began implementing English classes and cultural training for those players likely to make the transition to professional baseball in the United States, and in some cases included basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills. Since then, most teams have instituted or overhauled education programs throughout the academies, some of which are of high quality. While this represents progress, it does not address the deeper challenge.

The challenge that remains is educating those boys in the informal training programs that are leaving school early, and it is one that has never been truly tackled. A “Commission to Prevent School Dropout of Baseball Prospects” recently formed in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, but because there is no centralized authority nor are reliable statistics publicly available, it is difficult to ascertain an informed estimate of the percentage of baseball training program participants that continue on to professional baseball careers at any level. It is clear, however, that the percentage is exceedingly small. Given the increasingly competitive nature of the recruitment and selection process of baseball talent production in the Dominican Republic, this percentage is likely to shrink further while the number of program and league entrants continues to grow. This concern was raised publicly as early as 2005, when journalist Dave Zirin first wrote about what he saw as the “harvesting of talent… with no responsibility for (those) left behind.”

The overwhelming majority of Dominican youth that pursue a professional baseball career will ultimately need to rely on sources of income other than baseball and will need appropriate education and training in order to do so. The fact remains that, unlike their American counterparts pursuing baseball dreams, most young Dominican must still choose between training for baseball and non-baseball careers at as early as 10 years old, while facing harsh socio-economic realities that make the long-term risks of leaving education especially high.

Finding the Sweet Spot: Evidence-based Interventions and Shared Ownership

A shared understanding of the challenges that player development places on education in the Dominican Republic, and vice versa, is needed. With better and more adequate information on numbers, demographics and incentives in hand, the Ministry of Education, the MLB office, the MLB Players Association (MLBPA), donors, and other interested partners can more ably navigate the challenges faced by all those involved and seek out shared or individual solutions. With adequate information in hand, meaningful steps can be taken to change the dynamic.

Light-lift solutions might include options like the creation of a best-practices database of comparative information on the community/education outreach programs of individual baseball training programs for the adults in charge to draw upon, or the assignment of community education liaisons from the Community Education Unit at the Ministry of Education to act as education social workers that can help youngsters and their families chart alternative education and career paths. Baseball Cares, a partnership formed in 2015 between the US Embassy, MLB, and the MLBPA, works within schools and communities near MLB academies. This program is a promising start and recognizes a broader responsibility but could be expanded to target the programas and focus investments on measuring and increasing both retention rates and learning levels.

Longer-term objectives might include the creation or integration of private/not-for-profit schools that can coordinate with baseball training programs to provide an integrated training and education experience through at least upper primary school or a policy level exploration of the prospect of integrating competitive baseball training into formal public and private schools in relevant communities, in effect testing the American model in the Dominican Republic so that the tradeoff between education and baseball can ultimately be eliminated. The Dominican Sports and Education Academy might be one such promising example.

Funding and leadership for efforts at tackling baseball and education beyond the academies should be shared by all of the stakeholders. The national commission on baseball-related dropouts may be a good start, but leadership from some of the more socially-minded, established Dominican players and former players, including those with charitable foundations, will go a long way towards garnering the necessary attention and attracting or generating funding. Not only do they have a unique and powerful voice in the country, but they know better than anyone what life choices would look like had baseball not been an option.

One caveat for would-be interventions: if anything is to provide positive change, it must not be unduly disruptive to the financial and professional incentives firmly embedded in the baseball prospect business. A clear understanding of these incentives should be systematized by a central authority, and education options must respond to them, not ignore or unreasonably challenge them. It is easy to imagine, for example, that firmer government regulation of training programs could prevent school dropouts, but this would provide more stick than carrot if it comes without corresponding funding for programs that allow baseball prospects to stay in school while training at the same intensity level.

To be sure, baseball has provided, and will continue to provide, the Dominican Republic a great deal of pleasure, pride, and prosperity. As well, the United States will continue to benefit from the inclusion of Dominican baseball players in Major and Minor League baseball.

Moreover, progress has been made in dealing with the underbelly of baseball talent production in the Dominican Republic. Kids today that get signed to academy contracts are offered a wealth of opportunities that make their life choices significantly less dependent upon making it to the big leagues—and more productive if they do.

Nonetheless, we should be clear-eyed about the dynamics at play in the production of baseball talent in the Dominican Republic. Getting a decent education is hard enough, and the additional, perverse incentives for youth to dropout should not be ignored. Those who care about both education and baseball should seek solutions to end the trade-off between the sport we love and the pursuit of a decent education.

Michael C. Lisman is a former Education Associate at the Inter-American Dialogue, and a current doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, where his dissertation research focuses on education in the Dominican Republic. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Sources consulted

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Zirin, D. (2005). Say it aint so, big leages; they harvest Dominican baseball talent on the cheap, and give little in return. The Nation: New York281(16), 22. https://www.thenation.com/article/say-it-aint-so-big-leagues/

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