A feeding frenzy for talent

There's a distinctive and unmistakable Latin American flavor in Major League Baseball these days. The primary source of the salsa music routinely heard inside big league clubhouses now is emanating from the Dominican Republic, a tiny Caribbean nation of just under nine million residents that has established itself as the game's most productive pipeline of talent.

Just five years ago, there were 66 Dominican-born players on baseball's Opening Day rosters. This year, that number will top the century mark. In simple terms, about one of every seven major league players will have been born in the D.R., which easily leads all countries in big league players produced outside the United States.

It's a figure that will only continue to climb in the coming years, especially considering that nearly 30 percent of all minor league players last season were born in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti.

"Look around, major league organizations are in need of different sources of talent,'' said Montreal Expos general manager Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New York City after arriving as an eight-year-old. "American athletes are playing more soccer, basketball and football and turning away from baseball. The Dominican Republic has come in and is filling this vacuum.''

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, the most significant being money. The average monthly salary in the Dominican Republic is roughly $100. A player making an $800 monthly minor league salary can sustain his extended family back home. These are riches that most Dominicans will never reach in their lifetimes.

Much of Sammy Sosa's $600 monthly income in rookie ball at Port Charlotte, Fla., in 1986 was funneled back to his family in San Pedro de Macoris, where the current Chicago Cubs slugger spent his youth shining shoes for pennies while honing his skills on the dirt field of his hometown before being discovered and signed by Minaya, then a scout for the Texas Rangers.

A major league signing bonus of even $5,000 can provide untold necessities for these families. It's the single biggest reason so many Dominican children spend the majority of their days playing baseball.

"Baseball is the best way out of poverty for most of these kids and their families,'' said Al Avila, assistant general manager of the Detroit Tigers. Avila's father, Ralph, operated the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dominican academy for decades, producing such stars as Pedro Guerrero, Raul Mondesi, and brothers Pedro and Ramon Martinez.

"They see on television and read in the newspapers how many of their countrymen have made it. For parents that have kids, they have them playing from early on. The numbers show that the dream is within reach. And even if they don't make it, these Dominican academies house, feed and educate these kids in English. They become acclimated to a new culture, which is always positive. At the very least, even if they don't make it as a player, they could get different doors opened, like becoming a coach.''

The Dodgers, Toronto, Atlanta and Pittsburgh were the first to recognize the depth of talent in the Dominican, each starting a Dominican academy in the 1970s. After watching players such as Guerrero, Alejandro Pena, George Bell, Damaso Garcia, Tony Fernandez, Pascual Perez, Rafael Ramirez, Tony Pena and Frank Taveras arrive fairly polished and contributing at the big league level for those four clubs, other franchises quickly realized they needed to follow suit.

"These were the realities,'' Minaya said. "Baseball needed to go down there. Now if you're not there, you run the chance of losing out on some great talent and putting yourself behind your competitors.''

Sosa and Pedro Martinez are the elder statesmen of the Dominican presence in the majors, each a certainty to join Juan Marichal, the only Dominican-born enshrined in the Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. Vladimir Guerrero and Albert Pujols have started their careers with Hall of Fame-type numbers and Miguel Tejada and Alfonso Soriano aren't far behind.

All share a common bond: They were in search of finding a way out from their impoverished surroundings. In Pujols' case, his family's move to suburban Kansas City at age 15 allowed him to play high school and junior college ball and be drafted by St. Louis. But the others came up through an academy, where players are signed as early as 16, regularly nourished for the first time in their lives, taught English, and given an opportunity to make the kind of money that is, otherwise, unreachable.

"Albert never stopped working because he was chasing his dream,'' said Rene Rojas, a childhood friend of Pujols in the Dominican capital city of Santo Domingo. "He always told me that he was somehow going to make it. He had to for his family.''

The same formula is being blamed for the shrinking talent base of American-born players from the inner cities. It was right around the mid-1980s when baseball began to see a decline in African-American players. American-born Blacks in the majors have dropped from 17 percent in 1990 to what is expected to be less than 10 percent this season.

"There's a reason,'' Minaya says. "Football and basketball are what I call the flashy sports, the more sexy sports. If you're a poor kid in urban America you recognize there are more college scholarships in football and basketball than in baseball. Those sports are giving you a better chance to get out of your surroundings. The better athletes used to play baseball. Now they're playing the sports that give them the better chance of making it.''

Of course, let's not forget the weather. It never snows in the Dominican Republic. Baseball is played 12 months a year. Even if the equipment is sometimes cut up milk cartons for gloves, broom sticks for bats and wads of tape for baseballs and a street is the diamond, the game is still being played.

"Why do we produce more players?,'' Anaheim's Jose Guillen asks, "because we play all the time.''

Sometimes, the simplest answer offers the best explanation.

Pedro Gomez, who is a bureau reporter for ESPN, covered the Oakland A's from 1990-97 for both the San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee and was the national baseball writer for the Arizona Republic from 1997-2003.