By Tom Farrey
Two plane hours and two economic worlds away from Miami, on the southern edge of a nation of sugarcane fields and coffee plantations, in the dusty urban center of a mountainside town, outside a tin-roofed apartment that faces a makeshift trash dump and the stray dogs that pick over it, beneath a wall lined with jagged green Presidente beer bottles to keep the birds away, next to a front door held open by a discarded carburetor, in the right rear corner of a concrete porch, sits a red toolbox. The plastic chest, no bigger than a lunch pail, holds a screwdriver, pliers, a couple of other tools. Yet somehow the father fixes cars here. He gets on his back and snakes long, thin fingers into cavities crisscrossed with colored wires, a surgeon hunting for an artery. He isolates the renegade strand, replaces it and then ... let there be light! The headlamps are working again for some guy lucky enough to own a car. The red toolbox would one day belong to the son, whom the father expected to follow in his footsteps. The money for a self-employed automobile electronics repairman -- never more than 10,000 pesos ($230 U.S.) a month -- isn't great, not even by Dominican standards. But the work is honorable and regular. The son's future, however humble, was set. And then at age 10, as he whiled away the afternoons goofing around in the streets, the tall, slender boy started to knock the corn from the kernel-filled bags that sufficed as baseballs. And the father got an idea. His family lived in near squalor. He had two other sons who suffered from sickle-cell anemia that made them scream in pain in the night, and he had no health insurance. Maybe this son could provide deliverance. So Luis Soto Sr. huddled with a neighborhood boy who everyone called Mon. Only five years older than Soto's son, Luis Jr., Mon already knew his way around the business of baseball in the Dominican. Luis Sr. proposed a partnership. "You are poor, and we are poor," he said to the boy. "Find money for both of us." His name is Enrique Soto. But he calls himself something else. "I am General Motors," he says, and there is some skewed truth to his statement. He does, after all, run a factory, a baseball-player factory. On a grassless field in Bani, D.R., on a pleasant, sunny day in March, about 100 or so boys are working out for the leather-skinned 40-ish man. Some of them take BP. Others scoop grounders hit by one of Soto's eight assistants. Two boys swing bats at a truck tire half-buried in the red dirt behind the first-base line. It is an old Dominican method for strengthening wrists. Enrique Soto is a buscone (pronounced boo-scone), a de facto gatekeeper for any Dominican boy who wants to play baseball in America. A buscone -- literally "finder" -- is part street agent, part trainer, part fixer. Over the past decade, buscones have made themselves a tacit extension of baseball's scouting system, bringing together teenagers looking for a way out with teams looking for the next Miguel Tejada or Albert Pujols. Men like Enrique, many of them former players themselves, groom boys in every Dominican city and village, on ballfields (a luxury), in rock and dirt parking lots and on the sides of rutted, treelined hills. Almost any unoccupied space is a potential site for a buscone escuela. These "schools" are where virtually every young player is taught to hit, run and catch. But baseball, according to those who have gone to these "schools," is not all that is taught in them. Buscones have been blamed for high dropout rates and for encouraging their players to use steroids, even supplying them and other harmful supplements. In 2001, two unsigned players died after injecting themselves with substances suspected of being animal steroids. Buscones have also been accused of ID forgery and extortion. As ESPN.com reported recently, one buscone pried a six-figure "incentive" payment out of the Diamondbacks for steering top pitching prospect Adriano Rosario their way. But Enrique, blunt and suspicious, rejects the notion that buscones are a blight on Dominican baseball. "If not for us, these kids could turn into bad people," he says in typical self-aggrandizing fashion. "Getting rid of the system we have here would create more people like Osama bin Laden." No place produces more major leaguers per square mile than this country, which crams nine million people into an area the size of Virginia. This year, 79 Dominicans started the season on major league rosters, nearly twice as many as from any other foreign country (Venezuela had 46). Some credit for the heavy representation has to go to the estimated 1,700-plus buscones currently panning here for their nugget of gold. The Dominican is a particular hothouse for buscones because there are so few local regulations governing their enterprise, and because Dominicans, like all prospects outside the U.S. and Canada, are not subject to the amateur draft. Kids can sign an MLB deal as early as 16. Problem is, when they do, they often find they owe their buscone as much as a third or more of their signing bonus. That far exceeds the 5% typically collected by U.S. agents. By all accounts, Enrique Soto is one of the more successful buscones. Tejada launched his career under Soto's discerning eye. So have many other lesser players from in and around Bani. Over the past 14 years, Enrique, a former Oakland A's scout, has developed an impressive reputation for getting teenagers into professional baseball. That rep is a magnet for young players, who drop out of school as early as eighth grade to train with him. About a half dozen of his kids sign American contracts each year, for bonuses ranging from $5,000 to more than $1 million. For his efforts, Enrique says he charges 35% of those bonuses. In a country with an average annual salary of $6,300, that is more than enough to make him a rich man. Luis Jr. knew about the busy field just blocks from his ramshackle apartment. He knew Enrique Soto (no relation) provided players with gloves and bats. He knew that if he was one of Enrique's better prospects, there'd be free food, medical help and a spot on one of the bunk beds in Enrique's house. He knew this because Enrique knew about him, and had recruited him hard. But Luis also knew that he shouldn't sign a contract with Enrique. His name was Hanlet Melo. Except it wasn't. Andres Soto, an older cousin of Luis Jr.'s, used the name to convince scouts he was 17 instead of 18. Slicing his age helped the lanky outfielder to land a $50,000 bonus with Atlanta in 1999. Soto spent a year in a local baseball academy operated by the Braves -- 27 MLB teams have training facilities on the island, ranging from first-class to shoddy -- before he was shipped to the rookie league. When he got there, fans of the Danville (Va.) Braves puzzled at his curious name. "Hanlet, like Shakespeare," he explained. Who's the real Hanlet Melo? Andres, standing in the doorway of his parents' house in Bani, flips a moped key to a friend and gives him directions in Spanish. Minutes later, a thin fellow lopes down the street and stops at the Sotos' stoop. Inside, a neighborhood duck roams the hall as if it owns the place. Andres greets the visitor, whose skin is three shades lighter than his own, and places a hand on the man's shoulder. "This," he announces in clipped English, "is my friend Hanlet Melo." The real Melo allows a sheepish grin. He is no ballplayer. Andres says it was Enrique Soto who suggested he tamper with his birth certificate. Enrique, however, claims he's never doctored anyone's identity or age. Anyway, according to Andres, incitement to forgery wasn't the worst of Enrique's transgressions. Like the arrangements of many players and buscone, theirs was an informal one. Enrique often didn't sign contracts with his players until an ugly dispute with Dodgers prospect Willy Aybar in 2001. So it wasn't until the day his bonus check arrived that Andres learned of the buscone's fee. After Enrique received the call from a Braves official to come and get Andres' money, the player and buscone made the hour-long drive through the cane fields. In Santo Domingo, Andres was handed a check worth $35,000, after U.S. taxes. He immediately went to a bank to cash it. Back at the car, he handed the thick stack of paper pesos to Enrique, who stuffed it between the front bucket seats. When they pulled up in front of Andres' house, the player says Enrique seized $20,000: more than half the stack. "I didn't have the courage to do anything," says Andres, when asked how he could have let such a thing happen. In his defense, Enrique contends he took only $15,000. "I always take the quantity that belongs to me," he says. "Always." Either way, Enrique's work for Andres was done. Three years later, in winter of 2002, Andres was on his way to the Braves' minor league spring training camp when someone at the U.S. consulate in the Dominican noticed there were two national identity cards for Hanlet Melo. "You look a lot darker in this other photo," an immigration official said to Andres. "I got a sun tan," Andres replied. That was the end of Hanlet Melo's career with the Braves, who had other players with comparable talent and real names to develop. Now 23, Andres sleeps in a room so small his bed touches three walls. He continues to train with another buscone in hopes of catching on again, maybe with a European team. But his journey was not without benefit. When Luis Soto, his cousin, was 13, he told Andres he was thinking about joining Enrique Soto's program. "Let's talk," Andres said. And Luis listened. His name was Edison Arias. Except it wasn't. "Enrique took three years off me," Juan Soto (also no relation) says, milling around another sunwashed Bani ballpark just a five-minute scooter ride from Enrique Soto's operation. He is neither bragging nor complaining, although it does annoy him that the engraved name on his Dominican league championship ring reads ARIAS. He won the ring as a shortstop in the Phillies organization, which signed him in 1999 for $10,000 and put him in its academy. One year later, he was done. Luckily, he had other options. Juan, who is known by his Bani nickname, Mon, was the neighborhood teenager recruited by Luis Soto Sr. to mentor his son. Even as he tried to make his way to Philadelphia, Mon spent hours showing Luis the intricacies of his position, hours more teaching him to hit from either side of the plate. Now, he could turn his full attention to Luis. That included navigating through the various buscones who came by to recruit Luis on an almost daily basis. First, Mon and Luis traveled each day to a neighboring town to train with a man who said he wanted 40% of any eventual signing bonus. Two years later, they switched to a buscone closer to home. Finally, they landed at a field controlled by Juan Deliza, a minor-league first baseman with the Pirates in the 1970s. As Mon rose to become Deliza's right-hand man, his cousin's skills began to attract MLB scouts. At each stop, Luis had been asked to sign a contract. "I felt a bit of pressure because I had all these buscones wanting me," Luis says. Deliza, his buscone until last November, insists Luis did sign a deal that guaranteed him 20% of his bonus money. But he can't produce the document. He says that's because Mon stole his only copy. Mon disputes that. He says on his advice, Luis didn't sign paperwork with any of his buscones. That is, unless you include Mon. He and Luis have a contract that promises him 19% of any bonus. His name is Rafael Oscar Perez. Except many call him something else. "Snitch," says one prominent buscone, who, like many in his line of work, feels Perez is on a mission to shut him down. Perez is a 36-year-old Dominican who was once a minor league pitcher with little heat but a wicked curve in the Pirates organization. Until four years ago, he was a global project manager for an accounting software company in Orlando. Then he was asked to open an MLB office in Santo Domingo. His first task was cataloguing the list of abuses alleged by local players. Now, he and his eight-person staff work with the commissioner's office and regional governments to combat age falsification and to implement safeguards for the players. Recently, they began steroid testing inside MLB's Dominican academies. (Steroids are easily obtainable in most pharmacies and veterinary stores.) On another high-sky day in March, Perez is in his office, a converted house in a residential neighborhood. Outside, iron gates and a security guard protect the building. Inside, the walls are lined with photos of great current and bygone Latin major leaguers. Perez knows all the stories, including the one about the player who received a $160,000 bonus from the Dodgers but pocketed just $16,000 because he'd signed with at least seven buscones. On the day the player was handed the check, his buscones jostled for position outside the front door of this very headquarters, muscling in for their payday. "What we're confronting is an industry in which the buscones-slash-agents are not being regulated," Perez says. "And because they're not being regulated, they are managing themselves in a very unethical way." Buscones weren't much of an issue when Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa and their countrymen were coming up in the '80s and early '90s. Back then, signing bonuses often topped out at no more than a couple of thousand dollars. Now, the average is 10 times that. A total of $14 million was distributed last year to 442 Dominican prospects. The reigning high mark for a 16-year-old here is the $2.25 million the Dodgers gave shortstop Joel Guzman in 2001. Before the era of megabonuses, most of the Dominicans who reached the majors were raised, like American kids, on a healthy diet of games. Now, amateur leagues for teenagers are nearly dead. "I think nowadays they play more for the money than the love of the game," says Raul Mondesi, who grew up a few towns from Bani in San Cristobal, and who signed with the Dodgers in 1988. "When I came up as a player I never had money on my mind." Mondesi, by the way, is currently in a court battle with former major leaguer Mario Guerrero, who claims Mondesi promised him 1% of his earnings for teaching him the game. Money was certainly on the mind of Luis Soto. He stopped going to school full-time at age 13 so he could train during the week. And he listened well to the various buscones Mon found for him. "He is smart," says Deliza. "You tell him one time what you want him to do, and he learns it. I hope God can give me one more boy like him." One willing to pay the 20%. His name is Luis Soto. But it wasn't always. For a while it was Gabriel Soto, the name of his little brother, though Gabriel hardly looks like kin because of the blood disease that keeps him reed thin. Gabriel is two years younger, and Mon thought those extra years would help Luis' chances. But that was before cousin Andres got caught for posing as Hanlet Melo, and before MLB started to require its teams to verify a player's identity before releasing his signing bonus. After a while, Luis didn't want to chance it anymore. Turns out, he didn't need to. By early last fall, Boston, Seattle and Arizona were putting money on the table. The Sox went as high as $150,000 for the infielder. But that failed to impress Mon. He sought out Dominican-based street agent Jay Alou -- a member of baseball's Alou clan whose father, Jesus, is a former major leaguer and a Red Sox scout -- and Jay's American partner, Bean Stringfellow. "If you can get Luis to the U.S., you can represent him," Mon told Alou. The agents put Luis, now 6'1'', 180 pounds, in an all-star tournament in Florida, where he displayed the kind of line-drive power Mon himself is all too familiar with. Mon still has a three-inch dent above his right eye where Luis broke a bone with a shot off his bat. The Diamondbacks offered $300,000. The Red Sox, smitten with Luis' speed, arm and patience at the plate, upped their bid to $550,000. Two weeks before his 18th birthday, just before dinnertime on a late November day, Luis shook hands with three local Red Sox officials in his family's modest apartment. The bonus would allow his mother to retire from her minimum-wage job at the tomato sauce plant. It would cover the many blood transfusions and medicines needed to care for his sick brothers. It would buy his father a car of his own. And it would mean Luis was on his way to Fort Myers, Fla., to play in the rookie league. "Miracles can come true," Luis says now. Sure, he had to pay Alou and Stringfellow 6%. And he gave Mon his 19%, which is not far from the 15% the Dominican government is considering as a cap on buscone fees. At least Mon promised he'd use part of his cut to appease Deliza, who still claims he's owed 20% and has hired a lawyer to prove it. Luis signed the contract on top of an old television, the only flat surface in the main room, and immediately felt an overwhelming urge to be alone. He found solitude in the cramped family bathroom. There it occurred to him that for the first time since he was 10, the game could be a game again. And he said to himself, "Now it is time to play ball." This article appears in the May 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Click here for a Spanish version of this story which appears on ESPNDeportes.com.