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Beisbol: La vida Latina: Players On Way Up Find Themselves A Long, Long Way From Home

By Howard Bryant

September 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE BOSTON HERALD. All rights reserved.

Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez didn't know what was worse, the loneliness or being so removed from everything familiar that even baseball didn't seem worth it when his legendary story began in 1990 in Rookie-level Great Falls, Mont., a tiny town 4,000 miles from his native Manoguaybo, Dominican Republic.

`I remember having nothing,` Martinez said. `There was nothing there for me. I didn't know anyone, didn't talk to anyone. My brother, Ramon, is the reason the good things happened to me. For young Latino players, that road to get here, to the major leagues, is the toughest road.`

Red Sox [stats, schedule] pitching coach Dave Wallace was with Martinez in those days in the Dodgers farm system, and he thought that if there was one person so driven to succeed that his environment would be secondary to realizing the dream, it was Martinez.

Not everyone handles the odyssey so well.

The experience usually begins in a mall, in the middle of nowhere. For Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada it began in southern Oregon, playing rookie ball in the Oakland organization. He used to joke that he thought he was on another planet.

For Tejada, who left school at the equivalent of the sixth grade to play baseball full time, the days in Oregon were about more than baseball. They were about the adjustment to the United States -- from how to deal in society's mainstream to learning how to use indoor plumbing. In Latino America, whistling at a girl is a harmless sign of affection. In theStates, it can get you sued.

The coming-of-age stories in the past for both black and Latino players were often marked by racism, but as racism eased, the journey was no less difficult for thousands of young Latino players who flooded the minor league systems of big league teams.

The great Roberto Clemente was so offended by the American South in the 1950s that he considered going back to Puerto Rico.

Yankees manager Joe Torre remembered a story Bob Gibson, the great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, told him about his first road trip at Creighton. He was not served in restaurants and was unable to eat with his teammates. They brought him food from a cafeteria, while he sat alone on the bus.

'These types of injustices could have broken him, but they made him what he was,' Torre said.

Minors a lonely place

Red Sox slugger David Ortiz' journey to the big leagues began in Wisconsin, at Single-A in the Seattle Mariners system. For him, racism was secondary to severe loneliness, from being apart from his mother.

`I wanted to shut that out of my mind, because I knew I wanted to make something of myself,` he said. `Back home, you have your family. You have yourfriends, but you don't have anything else. I told myself, especially all those times I missed my mother so much and wanted to go back home to the Dominican, that I owed it to myself to be something. That's when I stayed.`

Today, there is the loneliness of being away, of being unable to communicate with some teammates, and of knowing some of your American teammates are considered more valuable, even if you have more talent. It is a question of economics. For every American kid, especially a top prospect, who signs a big league contract, a club can sign a dozen Latin Americans.

The competition is fierce, especially because each team is reserved a certain number of slots that allow prospects to come to the U.S., a work visa program of sorts.

Latin America is not subject to the American draft, and that allows big league clubs -- especially small markets like Oakland, Montreal and Cincinnati who cannot afford to pay large bonuses to American kids — to stockpile cheap talent in their minor leagues.

The Dominican Republic, once a secret talent pool to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos in the way the Negro Leagues was to a handful of opportunistic National League clubs, is a huge talent pool for every major league club. Major League Baseball sources estimate the 30 teams combine to invest more than $80 million in the Dominican.

Bargain basement stars

Some Latin players, like Miguel Tejada, become huge stars for a fraction of the cost of signing an American player. The good ones make scouting legends of their organizations. Montreal, with Vladimir Guerrero, Wil Cordero and a host of super young talent, made its fortune in the Dominican.

The case of Oakland is a bit different. Tejada signed for $2,000, a sum so small an American eighth-grader wouldn't take it. Tejada's teammate, Mark Mulder, by dint of being American and in college, signed for $3 million. Of course, Willie Mays signed with the New York Giants in 1950 for $5,000.

But Tejada was the exception. At the big league level, the chances the A's took on a host of young, highly touted players -- Jose Ortiz and Mario Encarnacion, for example -- did not work out, and the players were quickly dumped. The Latino players call it the `boatload mentality,` meaning the clubs sign a boatload of players, with little financial risk. It is something of a human lottery.

When the youngsters arrive, they are thrown into the system. Willfully, but only because baseball is the ultimate goal, do they leave home.

David Ortiz knows. On a dusty dirt road in the mountain town of Moca -- made famous by Danny Almonte, the New York Little Leaguer who falsified his age and caused an international scandal in 2001 -- sits the Dominican baseball complex of the Chicago White Sox [stats, schedule]. Inside the complex, the White Sox try to hone the elite into prospects. Beyond the center field wall is the smoke-belching Voit factory, where basketballs, footballs and soccer balls are manufactured by the ones that don't make it, for less than $100 per month.

In Latin-American countries, the Dominican Republic especially, baseball is for kids what boxing was to the American ghetto, the way to escape working in the fields or the factory.

`What are your choices?` Ortiz repeated the question. `You've got choices in the Dominican, but a lot of kids don't see it that way. They see baseball. If you don't play baseball, you might be stitching basketballs for the rest of your life. Then, you've got nothing. I wanted to make sure I became something.`

The Red Sox' Wallace understands.

'Everyone knows what's at stake,' he said. 'Coming here is the chance of a lifetime, to make more money than your whole town. But the clubs have a responsibility, too. It's complicated.'

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Sandy Alderson are sensitive to the question of the Dominican in particular, where the players are so dominant but the economic structure does not immediately work in the players' favor. There is talk of an eventual world draft, which would revolutionize baseball's current economic system. But for now, the deal with Latino kids is simple: Take nothing for the opportunity of making the show, and cash in big when you do.

As Ortiz says, 'It's a chance every single kid in my country can't wait to take.'

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