Baseball Republic

Inside the Dominican Machine

Major League Baseball teams' quest to sign teen ballplayers at bargain prices gives a poor island nation a reason to hope ‐ and to hustle

Reporting: J. Brady McCollough
Photography: Michael Henninger


The search for the island’s next great ballplayer stops in the heart of this sprawling city, amid the steamy, manic buzz of a Friday rush hour.

Five sun-cooked men, three wearing black and gold Pirates caps, hop out of a dirt-sprayed SUV and walk onto the patchy field contained within the expanse of Centro Olympico, built in the 1970s to house and hone the potential of the Dominican athlete. All eyes are fixed on them. Their presence means something good may be on the horizon, and that’s especially true today, with Rene Gayo the leader of the pack. He’s the dream maker, and he’s here to see if he can recreate some history.

Ramon "Papiro" Genao, the buscone that got Starling Marte signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, mimics an at-bat from his home, a 5th-floor penthouse that he recently bought for $227,000 U.S., on June 3, 2015.

The man in charge of this exhibition — a routine display of the island’s most precious commodity — steps forward to greet Gayo and his fellow scouts with a strategic nod to the past.

“This,” Ramon Genao says, “is where I made Starling Marte a star.”

Genao, known as “Papiro” to all, is a salesman. His wares are teenage baseball players. He finds them, or they are brought to him, to be sold to Major League Baseball franchises, ideally when they turn 16. Marte, now the starting left fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was 18 when Papiro got a hold of him — far too old for today’s standards — but the difference between then and now hasn’t stopped Papiro from turning Marte into an emblem of what can happen when a parent is wise enough to choose Papiro over the other buscones.

That word, buscone (pronounced buh-scone), is a personal affront to Papiro. It means thief in Spanish, tied to old pirate tales, but it’s the label his profession has been handed. Papiro, a weathered 54-year-old baseball man, considers himself a trainer and representative. For his services and years of investment in a boy, he will take a pre-arranged cut of the player’s MLB signing bonus, usually 25 to 30 percent.

The van for Ramon "Papiro" Genao's academy, featuring Starling Marte's image, is parked outside his penthouse on June 3, 2015.

Today, eight years after Marte (pronounced Mar-tay) was handed from Papiro to Gayo and the Pirates for $85,000, Papiro drives a white van around town that says “Papiro All-Stars” with a large picture of Marte in a Pirates uniform on the back. He lives in a fifth-floor penthouse he recently bought for the equivalent of about $227,000, a fortune in this desperately poor country. He has made piles of cash off the players he trains, but he says he loves them like sons — especially Marte, whom he speaks with frequently. Papiro could easily be viewed as a romantic caught up in a ruthless game, one governed by rules and regulations over which he has no control.

The formerly enviable passion of the Dominican game has now been monetized by the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by MLB franchises to sprout academies here and speculate on players in a futures market where kids have become their own currency and parents have been encouraged to assign a value to the backs of their children.

So while Rene Gayo would rather be watching an actual baseball game played by Papiro’s boys, evaluating the little things — How natural does the kid play? Does he have good feet? Does he give the impression he enjoys being out there? — he is stuck once again in “tryout” mode, holding a stopwatch in right field as teenagers sprint 60-yard dashes with mouths agape.

Carlos Garcia, an unsigned 16-year-old, passes the scouting team from the Pittsburgh Pirates, including, at right, Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Director of Latin American Scouting, while running a timed sprint on May 29, 2015.

Before each kid runs, the Pirates scouts shout a name and the year he can be signed. Gayo, a former Reds minor-league catcher turned Rangers and Indians scout turned Pirates Director of Latin American Scouting, feels the meat market is beneath him. Now he sits in a plastic chair by third base, watching Papiro’s few unsigned players for 2015 take batting practice.

“I’m looking for love,” says Gayo, whose stout frame and blustery demeanor leave no doubt that he is the Pirates’ El Jefe. “Yeah, I’ll take you to dinner, but am I going to buy you flowers?”

For Gayo (pronounced Guy-oh), Marte was love at fifth sight, but it was love nonetheless. Today, he hasn’t felt a pang.

“When you see one,” Gayo says, “you’re just amazed that he’s playing. I’m looking for dogs who play checkers.”

July 2, the day that MLB allows teams to officially sign international prospects to minor-league contracts, is a little more than a month away. The Pirates, who are on their way to a third straight appearance in the playoffs after two decades lost at sea, have redirected their ship with the help of Dominican riches. First, it was Marte, then right fielder Gregory Polanco, and every year on July 2, they aim to strike gold again.

The Pirates already have most of their 2015 class set, and Gayo, who is based in Houston, is visiting to see some final kids that his scouts have identified for this class and look ahead to 2016.

Papiro has 14 players who have informal agreements with teams. Another big pay day is guaranteed. Still, he is not finished promoting. He has been coaching a boy named Carlos Garcia since he was about 8 years old, and now Carlos is his best unsigned player for 2015. Carlos turned 16 in April, and Papiro knows that if he doesn't get him signed this month, the boy’s value will drop by at least half.

“Right now,” Papiro says, “there are teams which do not want to see Carlos Garcia. What they want to see are 15-year-old players, for 2016, and Carlos will be out of that range.”

Carlos Garcia holds a ball signed for him by Starling Marte inside his room on June 6, 2015. Garcia got the ball signed at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where he attended a Pirates game while on a trip there to play in a baseball tournament.

When you see Carlos Garcia outfitted in official Pirates gear from head to toe, you assume he is just trying to garner favor. But ever since he was a little boy who looked on as Starling Marte was signed by the Pirates, they have been his favorite team, with Marte as his muse. In Garcia’s bedroom, he has a ball signed by Marte and a poster of the player on his wall.

Gayo has also served as inspiration to Carlos and his devoted father, Raymond. Gayo does not remember it, but, at this same field, he once sat little Carlos on his knee and told Raymond that his son could become a fine ballplayer. Gayo handed Raymond his business card, which Raymond carries in his wallet to this day as a reminder of his son’s promise.

Carlos has tried out several times for a young Pirates scout named Victor “Muela” Santana, but to see Rene Gayo at Centro Olympico is entirely unexpected and undeniably special.

Wearing clothing with the emblem of his favorite team, Carlos Garcia, a 16-year-old from Santo Domingo, runs a timed sprint for scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 29, 2015. In the Dominican Republic, July 2 is the day that eligible 16-year-olds can sign with MLB academies, but many players have verbal commitments to teams long before that date. Fourteen of Garcia's teammates had such commitments by this date, with Garcia's future as yet undetermined.

“I felt a little chill and a gust inside of me,” Carlos would say.

In this circus, under the big top of a clear blue sky, Papiro is the ringmaster, constantly shouting about his players’ gifts, but Gayo has all the power. When a physically impressive boy swats a home run over the left field wall, Papiro runs from the pitcher’s mound to the outfield, as if willing it over the fence (Papiro has agreed to award the boys $50 for a home run). Papiro then anoints the player as the next Marte. Gayo is unimpressed, he says, because the boy is “stiff.”

“He’s not even close to being Starling Marte,” Gayo says. “Maybe he thinks if he says it enough I’ll believe it.”

Now Carlos, who stands at 6 feet tall and 175 pounds with a prediction from his doctor that he will grow, digs in at home plate. He bats from the left side, a definite plus. He does not have good speed, so Gayo says he will need to hit for power to have a chance at becoming a big leaguer, which is of course the point.

“I know the end of the story,” Gayo says. “He’s got to put on a Pirate uniform.”

With a few compact, well-practiced swings, Carlos shows off his craft.

Carlos Garcia, an unsigned 16-year-old in Ramon "Papiro" Genao's Academy, swings at the ball in batting practice on May 29, 2015.

“Downward!” Gayo yells to him, motioning with his arms. “Swinging up works here, but not in a game!”

Carlos gets into a rhythm, the thwack of his wooden bat causing the onlookers in the stands to hoot and holler, and then takes a big cut and fails to hit it square.

“Let everyone else get excited,” Gayo says. “Not you!”

Gayo says Papiro is asking upwards of $250,000 for Carlos. Gayo does not think the boy is worth close to that, and he won’t budge. If there is going to be a match, one or both sides will have to move in the crucial month ahead.

The tryout now complete, Gayo packs up his notes and heads for the exit. His scouts have gathered the 30 or so players near the pitcher’s mound to applaud their effort and tell them a little more about what the Pirates are looking for in a player. Then they all kneel and pray together, their faces tilted toward the dirt, knowing that tomorrow, they’ll do it all over again.

Ramon "Papiro" Genao's son, Felix, eats an ice cream bar while standing with his father's players during an after-practice pep talk on May 29, 2015. Felix stays close to his father during practice and is given chances to bat and field along with the older players.


A wild ride into the gray

The Dominican Republic is a country of risk takers. You can gamble on a ballgame at any street corner or gamble with your life by getting into a car and speeding onto a highway. This journey into the Dominican baseball machine unfolds mostly on the island’s roads, moving from ball field to ball field looking for truths that could help to simplify a complex system with many tentacles, and, at a certain point, you have to welcome the madness.

By definition, the Dominican Republic is a free country, and 2016 is a presidential election year here, too. You cannot go anywhere without seeing candidate ads in bright colors. After three decades of democracy, there is still obvious excitement to not be under a dictator’s rule. But all it takes is a trip outside the city to see that law and order is lacking; traffic accidents happen often and lead to drivers creating a new lane into oncoming traffic; small motorcycles dart around cars in reckless fashion, and it is no surprise that the World Health Organization found that the number of motorcycle-related deaths here is the second-highest in the world and four times the U.S. rate.

That’s the type of statistic that exists in a place where there is nothing to lose. The gross domestic product per capita in the Dominican Republic — an indication of standard of living — was $5,100 in 2014, about 40 percent of the world average. The school drop-out rate is the highest in Latin America, and only 61 percent of children attend high school.

The Pirates and several other MLB franchises started scouting the country after the fall of ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1960s and found talent hiding on sugar refinery teams made up of workers who just loved to play baseball. The consistent progression of MLB’s obsession with Latin talent during the last 50 years has put hundreds of Dominicans into the major leagues and two (Juan Marichal and now Pedro Martinez) into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but those successes don’t necessarily justify the way business is being done.

“The whole thing,” Rene Gayo says, “is built on capitalizing on misery.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates sign is illuminated just before dawn at their academy in La Gina, Dominican Republic, on June 5, 2015.

Gayo has been scouting the Dominican for 17 years, and he’s a natural fit for the job. He alternates seamlessly between English and Spanish, and his upbringing as the American-born son of Cuban parents who fled Fidel Castro’s rule offers him a world of perspective.

Before the MLB salary boom of the 1990s trickled down here, he could sign players who went on to become big leaguers for about 10 percent of what they cost him now. With the Indians, he signed current Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta for $18,000 and outfielder Willy Tavares, who once led the National League in stolen bases, for $25,000. Today, for a can’t-miss player, it will run the Pirates at least six figures.

And that’s before a player has ever stepped foot in the Pirates academy in La Gina, a small rural village of 30 houses about an hour east of Santo Domingo. Once there, the players, many of whom have only learned how to excel at a baseball tryout, are finally immersed in the intricacies of a game that was once played beautifully here.

“The problem in all of this is greed,” Gayo says. “This is my thing: We forgot about baseball. We’re going to destroy the [expletive] game. Whatever happened to merit? You know, Marte did it right. He earned his money. Nobody wants to talk about that anymore. That’s what hurts me about the deal, is, my God, we’re destroying the golden goose, and they don’t give a [expletive].

“And it’s going to be too late. Once everybody realizes that we’ve done it, it’s going to be too late.”

Edgar Mercedes, center, a buscone that runs the Born to Play Academy, watches his players with scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cristino Valdez, left, and Juan Mercado, right, at a field in Haina in the Dominican Republic on May 29, 2015.

Gayo is a vocal critic, but he’s a part of the machine just the same. His job is to spend Pirates owner Bob Nutting’s money wisely, and this year, he started with a budget of $2.8 million, a slot mandated by MLB’s most recent collective bargaining agreement that is based on where teams finish in the standings the previous season. The worse you are, the more you have to spend on Dominican talent. The limits on spending were passed because owners and veteran players want to keep more of the salary pie in the United States.

That only makes the money grab here more brazen. If there’s less in the pot, then there are more people left with nothing. At least Gayo and his scouts, unlike the buscones and their support staff, who work for commissions from signings, can count on a steady paycheck.

The first stop of Gayo’s late spring visit is in Haina, a port town west of Santo Domingo that produced David Ortiz, to attend a game being put on by a man named Edgar Mercedes, one of the island’s most noted buscones.

The Born to Play Academy in Haina, Dominican Republic, plays a game for scouts from several MLB teams on May 29, 2015.

To find Mercedes’ “Born to Play Baseball Academy,” one must know where to go. A tall orange wall guards the Catholic school grounds where Mercedes pays for use of a field every weekday morning, and you have to know somebody to be allowed through the gate. Gayo, in this case, is enough.

The field has been carved into tropical brush. Roosters and hens keep tabs on the proceedings right next to scouts from a handful of teams and some neighborhood children who have climbed to the top of the wall to watch. Gayo pulls up a chair and puts his customary dip of Copenhagen into the pouch of his bottom lip. He says he’s “here to watch everybody,” but he’s actually eyeing a couple of 15-year-old pitchers for the 2016 class.

Edgar Mercedes, a buscone that runs the Born to Play Academy, watches his players at a field in Haina in the Dominican Republic on May 29, 2015.

Mercedes, born a New Yorker but brought to the Dominican by his native parents at 15, speaks fluent English. He can’t contain his enthusiasm for the arms he has in next year’s crop. He also knows that if Gayo likes them, it means something.

“If you ask people,” Mercedes says, “Rene is probably the top true evaluator.”

Like many top buscones, Mercedes sort of happened into it about 15 years ago. He had played some amateur baseball, and so a family member asked him to train his son and get him signed. Mercedes did, and other parents started asking him to coach their child. A businessman who was already making money in the lucrative casino business, Mercedes saw an opportunity in baseball, too.

Now, he has about 25 kids in his academy, 18 of whom live year-round in a boarding house that Mercedes purchased. Some are as young as 13 and 14. Because there is so much to learn, they must play every day. On the weekends, they have the option of attending accelerated classes at Cenapec, the equivalent of a GED program, for one four-to-five hour session.

Before Mercedes unveils his 2016 pitchers, he wants the scouts to see an 18-year-old pitcher named Julio de La Cruz while they’re a captive audience. De La Cruz came to Mercedes after his 16th birthday, and they haven’t been able to get a bite, even though the kid has talent. Mercedes just wants to get anything for him so that he can immediately start pitching in the Dominican Summer League. Mercedes would also like some return on his investment.

“At 18 in the Dominican Republic, you’re almost out of it,” Mercedes says. “In the U.S., at 18, you’re just starting. This kid, he would be pitching in high school, and he’d get drafted to a nice place, probably make more money than he’s going to make here.”

Slideshow: Born To Play Academy


Mercedes estimates that 90 to 95 percent of his kids are better off living in his accommodations, away from their families. They’re being fed regularly, are able to lift weights and receive medical care, and some are getting more schooling at Cenapec than they would at home.

“There’s a saying here: ‘The player that is hungry is a player that makes it,’ ” Mercedes says. “At your house, if you don’t have a plate of food, you’re going to go out and get it. Most of the time, the kids that are well off don’t like to play baseball. It’s hard work. It’s in the sun. It’s not like we’re giving out scholarships to go play baseball on the island. We don’t have that scholastic system set up. This is it.”

You ask Mercedes about Gayo’s point — that guys like him are profiting on the misery of others, and he responds calmly, as if it’s a question he lives with every day.

“Well, who’s profiting more, when you get a player for $35,000 and he becomes an All-Star?” he asks. “Who’s making more money, the player or the team? There’s zillions of cases. Marte is one. Listen, academies are not going to spend 7, 8, 9, 10 million dollars on facilities if they’re not going to make money on that. OK? So it’s not about us making money.

“We’re trying to get what the player is worth, but it never happens. They need to change the spending limits. Baseball is in the biggest economic boom of its history. These kids don’t deserve a piece of that, all this TV money they’re making? They’re taking it to a point of child labor, signing 16-year-old kids and paying them [expletive].”

The perspectives of Gayo and Mercedes, two kingpins with different responsibilities in this complicated ecosystem, show the overwhelming gray of the baseball landscape here, where there really isn’t time for discussions of who’s right and who’s wrong. There are more players to see, more harrowing car rides ahead, and nobody really knows where it’s all going.

Scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates, including director of Latin American Scouting Rene Gayo (right), return to their vehicle after watching a practice and scrimmage at the Born to Play Academy in Haina, Dominican Republic, on May 29, 2015.


Living the first dream

The fortunate sons of Santo Domingo get to move east. Most of the MLB academies are located there, near the coastal settlement of Boca Chica, where the main airport sits about 45 minutes from the city. If you’re a MLB team official, it sets up perfectly — you can spend your days commuting back and forth from the academy to the pristine beaches where the turquoise water beckons, and you really don’t have to see much else. But for the players, who live at the academies about nine months of the year, the fun in the sun happens on red dirt and freshly-cut green grass.

The Pittsburgh Pirates Academy plays the New York Yankees Academy in the 2015 Dominican Summer League opener on May 30, 2015.

Not that the kids are complaining. Years of their adolescence were devoted to making it here, and while Rene Gayo may say that Dominican Summer League games are “like kissing your sister” compared to what happens each night in the U.S., getting the chance to put on an official uniform and play against other teams’ best prospects from across the island is the most attainable triumph.

And on this sunny Saturday morning, as the big yellow school bus that says “Los Piratas de Pittsburgh” rumbles from the Pirates academy in La Gina to the nearby Yankees academy in Boca Chica, Yondry Contreras is fighting the jitters. He is a 17-year old center fielder, and less than a year ago, on July 2, 2014, the Pirates signed him for $400,000. Today’s game is the first of the season, his debut, which means he can finally start paying them back.

Yondry never doubted he would be signed. He was 12 years old when he first played in front of scouts, and he was always one of the better players in Santiago for his age. Still, in April 2014, when Gayo compared him to Starling Marte and proclaimed, as only Gayo could, “I LOVE THE BOY!” it was a cherished moment. Today, when he slipped on that gray Pirate uniform with the No. 24 for the first time, he noticed that his hands were shaking.

Yondry Contreras comes off the field for a drink of water during the Pirates season opener against the Yankees on May 30, 2015.

The Pirates aren’t wasting anytime with Contreras. He bats second. His parents and older sister have made the drive down from Santiago, a Northern city about two hours from Santo Domingo, to watch. Maritza and Ramon Contreras are actually a part of why the Pirates decided to sign Yondry for so much money. Ramon is a colonel in the Santiago police department, and he and Maritza’s marriage gave Yondry a stable upbringing.

This year has not been easy for the family. Maritza remembers last July 2, when they brought Yondry to the official signing ceremony at the academy. She was unaware that the Pirates expected her son to move in that day, and she became emotional that she wouldn’t have at least another week with him. She gathered herself, pulled him aside and delivered a message.

“I have been asking all this time, ‘Is this what you really want?’ ” Maritza recalls telling him. “And you have answered ‘Yes,’ all the time. This is the moment when you have to act as a professional. Even though you are still very young, 16. This is the only activity that I know where they pay you before. And if someone pays you before, you have to answer for that, for that money. It doesn’t matter if it is 50 dollars or 50 million dollars. You have to answer for that. Now you have to show what you have.”

Today, Yondry plays with fervor. He constantly chatters in the outfield with a high-pitched voice and reaches base more often than not in a Pirates victory over the Yankees. Maritza says she likes his new maturity.

The Pirates pile back into the bus, looking and sounding more like kids who just won a game than professionals. To this point, Maritza has not found Yondry, but there he is, poking his head out of a window and reaching for his mother. They hold hands briefly before the bus pushes off.

After getting on the bus to return to the Pirates Academy, Yondry Contreras leans out of a window to say goodbye to his mother, Maritza Ramos, on May 30, 2015.


A scout’s lesson

A new week begins in Santo Domingo at another ball field concealed from the road. This time, Rene Gayo plants himself along the first-base line, where he’s softly singing Merle Haggard’s “My Own Kind of Hat” to himself.

Cowboys and outlaws, right guys and southpaws
Good dogs and all kinds of cats
Dirt roads and white lines and all kinds of stop signs
But I stand right here where I’m at
‘Cause I wear my own kind of hat.

In this Dominican morality play, Gayo believes there is a line that exists for everyone, and if you choose to cross it, there’s no going back to the other side. But what if the line is so far blurred that you can’t see it anymore? What if it becomes impossible to know where you’re standing?

Gayo trusts one man to keep his side clean, and that man is standing behind the batting cage wearing a gold Pirates cap. Juan Mercado supervises the team’s Dominican-based scouts, and if he doesn’t sign off on a player’s ability and character, then Gayo will never see the boy. Like college assistant coaches in America, Mercado and his team are the ones who know how Mom’s chicken and rice tastes.

Mercado has brought Gayo to visit one of their most trusted buscones, Raul “Banana” Valera, so that Rene can see a lanky and lean 16-year-old shortstop named Fidel Castro. Gayo hired Mercado about four years ago, gave him a raise to join the Pirates after years finding gems like Jose Reyes, Carlos Gomez and Carlos Martinez for the Mets and Cardinals. Some think Mercado is the best scout in the Dominican, but it wasn’t so long ago that he was just a struggling player in the Dodgers’ academy, so worried about being cut that he would wash the coaches’ and officials’ cars early in the morning to show his gratitude.

Buscone Raul "Banana" Valera, right, gives batting instructions to Fidel Castro, 16, on June 1, 2015.

Today, Mercado continues to put in the extra work. He gets to know the players he scouts to the point that he cares for them like the five children of his own, and boy did he once fall hard for a player named Oscar Taveras.

Waiting for Castro’s tryout to start, Mercado tells Taveras’ story. The kid was one of the best players on the island, raised on the northern shore in a tourist area called Puerto Plata. The hype around the young outfielder had reach; he was nicknamed “El Fenomeno,” or, “The Phenomenon.” Mercado wanted to sign him, but he was cautious.

“We mostly know when athletes will be able to handle the big amount of money and the responsibility that comes with it,” Mercado says. “We can tell by the prospect’s background and family. For example, we knew we could put $400,000 on the table for Yondry Contreras, and it will be handled correctly because of the family support. In Oscar Taveras’ case, his parents were separate, his father lives in Canada, and it was a total mess.”

Back in 2008, Mercado signed Taveras to be a Cardinal for $145,000 — a heck of a deal given his talent. By 2014, at age 22, Taveras played in 80 games for St. Louis and was a cornerstone of the franchise’s future. But those who knew Oscar feared that it all could spiral out of control, and, less than two weeks after the season was over, on Oct. 26, 2014, Taveras and his girlfriend tragically died in a car accident in Puerto Plata. Later, suspicions that he had been driving under the influence of alcohol were confirmed.

“I felt like I had lost a son,” Mercado says. “Deep down inside, we saw a situation like Oscar’s coming.”

Mercado pauses. His mind is somewhere else now, lost in the dark cloud that Taveras’ death has left behind.

Out there in the grass just beyond shortstop, his tryout moments away, Fidel Castro has taken a knee to pray.

Players at Banana Academy, run by buscone Raul Valera, go through practice on June 1, 2015.


A future at risk

The Banana Academy players are back at their boarding house, lounging on black leather sofas as they watch a bootlegged Will Smith movie called “Focus” with Chinese subtitles. Daniel, a friendly college student to whom buscone Raul “Banana” Valera pays about $225 a month to play house dad, says that Banana’s chef is off today, so he has made chicken and rice for lunch. The boys wolf it down.

Banana Academy players, including in the upper right hand corner Fidel Castro, watch a movie at the boarding house where they stay on June 1, 2015.

Each night, a dozen of them will sleep in a sparse room on barracks-style bunk beds. They keep their belongings in lockers. Daniel says that he helps them study for their weekend Cenapec classes when they aren’t playing baseball or lifting weights in the first floor of the adjacent building, which Banana also owns.

It is there, in the workout room with an old, rickety weight set, where light only enters through holes in the wall, that Fidel Castro goes over his Pirates tryout in his head.

“It wasn’t a bad performance,” he says. “But I know I could have done better.”

Even with the July 2 pressure mounting, he sees the big picture.

“I’m thankful that I am able to do these things that I wasn’t able to do before,” Fidel says. “My life has changed a lot by coming here. I used to be really hyper and undisciplined, but now being here Banana has helped me to be more disciplined. My life was a little crazy.”

At home, Fidel’s father, Fidel Perez Mendez, is a truck driver who is currently unemployed. His mother, Rosa Maribel Castro, works as a janitor at a school.

Banana Academy players change after practice at the boarding house where they stay on June 1, 2015.

“Hopefully if I get a signing bonus I will help my mom get a house,” Fidel says, “and help my dad get a job. The main reason for my hard work is to be someone in the future.”

At 14, when the opportunity came for Fidel to begin playing for a buscone named Edwin “Ray” Castillo, his mother did not approve of him leaving home. But Fidel was resolute in his desire to pursue a baseball career, and she relented. Five months ago, in an effort to get Fidel ready to be sold to scouts, Ray brought the boy to Banana, who has more connections to scouts and a reputation for developing prospects. According to Banana, the men came to an agreement that Ray would receive a “small percentage” of whatever Banana gets for Fidel — a practice that is common between buscones of varying pedigrees.

Fidel Castro connects with a ball at batting practice at Edwin "Ray" Castillo’s academy practice on June 4, 2015. Castillo has an agreement with another academy where they share Castro.

Since going to Banana, Fidel has moved from outfield to shortstop and has stopped switch hitting, batting only from the left side.

“When Fidel Castro was first brought in here,” Banana says, “he had the ability, the desire, was hungry, but he needed to mold some aspects of the game. Now, thank God, we have fulfilled those areas.”

Today, Fidel Castro speaks only of Banana. He does not mention Ray Castillo’s name. That omission becomes even more surprising when you meet Fidel’s parents at their house in the poor Los Mameyes neighborhood.

“I do not know Banana,” Rosa Castro says.

“I trust in Ray. Ray trains him. Fidel is at Ray’s boarding house.”

The elder Fidel knows more about the arrangement than Rosa. She is confused by the news her son is spending time at Banana’s boarding house.

“We cannot say what we do not know,” she says.

Rosa Maribel Castro Scoto, mother of Fidel Castro, holds her other son Fidel Assael Perez Castro, 3, at their home on June 2, 2015.

Rosa and the elder Fidel, the two people who would benefit most from their son getting signed, say they have always been “distant of that process.” A man Rosa has never met, Banana, is negotiating her son’s best chance at improving their lot.

For his part, Banana does seem devoted to getting the best value for Fidel (of course, the more Fidel gets, the more Banana gets). He is willing to continue housing the boy past July 2, because he believes Fidel is raw and could yield a larger signing bonus at 17. As a successful buscone, Banana does not have to act out of desperation.

A visit to Ray Castillo’s field confirms Banana’s explanation. Three days after Fidel’s tryout with the Pirates at Banana’s field, you see him practicing with Ray.

“We have a partnership with mutual benefits, Banana and I,” Ray says. “We are always exchanging. If the player is mine, [Banana] receives a percentage from me. We do it that way. Fidel is mine, and he has been with Banana since October or December.”

So, Banana says Ray will get a small percentage of what he gets for Fidel. And Ray says that Fidel is his and that Banana will get a percentage from him. You can see how this could go wrong for Fidel and his family. How will his parents know the official amount of the signing bonus when they are so disconnected and two buscones are looking for their cut?

“There is no need to tell them all the time,” Ray says. “They trust us. They know all we do is for his own benefit.”

The Pirates are interested in Fidel Castro, along with a few other teams. He would like to sign on July 2 and start his new life at an MLB academy, but he is not the one pulling the strings. It could be a long month.

Carlos Garcia, right, and his elder brother, also named Carlos, play chess in his room on June 5, 2015.


A father has control

Raymond Garcia doesn’t leave anything to chance. He wakes up his son, Carlos, every morning at 5 a.m., practically drags the boy into the car and drives over to Centro Olympico to toss batting practice before the actual batting practice with his buscone, Papiro.

Many mornings, when that’s over, Raymond will take Carlos to get a massage. Then he drops Carlos off at school and heads to his day job as an accountant (like most Dominican men of his generation, Raymond is just a ballplayer at his core).

The elder Carlos Garcia, left, and his father, Raymond Garcia, watch the younger Carlos play at Ramon "Papiro" Genao's Academy at Centro Olympico on June 4, 2015.

“Back in the old days,” Raymond says, “my mother didn’t want me to be a baseball player because that was not an economically rewarding profession. Now, it’s totally outrageous, the amount of money at such a young age, like 16-year-old millionaires.”

Raymond, always toting that Rene Gayo business card around in his back pocket, is doing everything he can to help Carlos achieve his goals without the boy losing his childhood.

“I prefer to sacrifice myself,” Raymond says, “with driving Carlos around to all his baseball related commitments rather than having him in a boarding program away from home with a once-per-week Cenapec high-school program.”

All you have to do is look at Raymond’s eldest son, also named Carlos, to know that younger Carlos will be OK no matter what happens with baseball. The elder Carlos played baseball, too, but did not get signed and is now enrolled at a university to study accounting like his dad.

Carlos Garcia, right, and his elder brother, also named Carlos, play an MLB video game in Garcia's room on June 6, 2015.

Carlos’ mother, Rosaire Velez, left Raymond several years ago and has since remarried and moved to the Orlando, Fla., area. On a recent night in early June, Rosaire has returned to Santo Domingo and is staying with the Garcia men for the next month, until July 3. She hopes to join in the family celebration for any good news that could be made official July 2. While she would like Carlos to be signed by one of the Florida MLB teams, “Carlos’ heart is with the Pirates,” Raymond says.

“Carlos wants to play with Starling Marte,” Raymond adds.

Carlos was just starting his training with Papiro when this 18-year-old named Starling Marte showed up at Centro Olympico, looking for one last shot. Now, as Carlos plays his baseball video game using Marte’s avatar, as he looks to his bedroom wall to see a Marte poster, as he recalls the day at Wrigley Field when Marte recognized him and signed his ball, it is all too easy to forget the truth about his hero — a truth that should provide Carlos some solace amid the looming uncertainty of July 2:

There was a time when Starling Marte was convinced — for good reason — that no team would ever want him.

This is the view from the shack that Juan "Pelotero" de La Rosa lives in, adjacent to the field where he coaches in Villa Mella, with his two children and their mother, on June 1, 2015.


Marte's miracle

The man who coached Starling Marte for 10 years lives above the neighborhood ball field’s equipment room in a converted tin-roof shack. The man who coached Marte for two months lives in a two-story penthouse with elegant winding stairs and a flowered balcony overlooking the city. Both men say they have a father’s love for Starling, and the stark contrast of their paths since Marte signed with the Pirates shows that deep affection only takes you so far.

You can find Juan de La Rosa on a smoldering June afternoon at the same field in Villa Mella where Starling’s father dropped off his only son as a 7-year old, surrounded by a rowdy army of kids aged 5 to 13 years old. They call him “Pelotero,” which means baseball player, and all told, he says, he is working with about 150 kids from the community each week.

“This is where the big league begins!” he shouts playfully.

Pelotero, whose real name is Juan de La Rosa, poses for a portrait in his home where he lives with his two children adjacent to the field where he coaches on June 1, 2015. Pelotero was Starling Marte's youth coach. After the death of Marte's mother, he became a father figure in Marte's life.

Pelotero is basically a Little League coach, but with a Dominican twist: It is his sole vocation, even though there is no guaranteed money in it for him. Coaching so many children, how could one ever stick out from the crowd? The assumption would be that only superior talent could get his attention, but the truth of it was, Pelotero’s heart broke for Starling Marte.

Starling’s mother died when he was just 9 years old. She worked in a kitchen, and the family says that exposure to chemicals in the restaurant slowly destroyed her body. Starling was never given an explanation for why the most important person in his world was gone, leaving him with two younger sisters, one of whom was just a baby. Starling’s father was as present as he could be working multiple shifts a day in a slaughterhouse, but Starling and his sisters moved in with their grandmother, Ponga Brigida, who had so many grandchildren (40) and great grandchildren (44) that she struggled to remember all their names.

After Starling’s mother died, he did not want to leave his room, not even to play baseball. But Pelotero would come by every morning, rouse the boy from bed and take him to the field.

“I became a father to him, and he was my son,” Pelotero, 45, says, the tears gathering behind his sunglasses.

Starling’s gifts were undeniable playing for Pelotero as a teenager, but they would soon discover the large gulf between dominance in Villa Mella and impressing major league scouts. At 16, Starling’s problem was that he didn’t look like a ballplayer. He was skinny and malnourished.

“The other boys joked with him, telling him that he was ugly, that he was poor, that he was going nowhere,’ ” says Hilda Gonzalez, Starling’s aunt.

Starling could see that his youngest sister, Luz del Carmen Marte, wasn’t getting enough food either. He was going to have to be the one to get it for her.

Starling Marte's grandmother Brigida Gonzalez (Ponga), 85, and his sister Luz del Carmen Marte Heredia, 17, speak with the Post-Gazette about Marte from his aunt's home in Villa Mella on June 1, 2015.

Pelotero and Starling had no car to get to tryouts and no money for transportation, but they cobbled together enough through their resourcefulness to put him on display. One time, they went all the way to San Cristobal, about an hour’s drive from Villa Mella, with no plan for how to get back. They were able to hitch a ride to Centro Olympico and then trade a baseball for the approximately $2 fare back home.

To put in so much effort and never hear any positive feedback took its toll.

“We often got a low self esteem because the scouts did not say anything to us,” Pelotero says. “He had some relatives that told him not to continue, to stop his training, telling him that he was 18 years old and to get a job. I told him, ‘No, follow me.’ ”

But, as much as it pained him, Pelotero realized that there was a limit to how far he could take Starling. All their work had brought in just a $7,000 offer from Oakland, and the kid was worth so much more. So Pelotero first shopped Marte to a low-level buscone named Lucas, and later came to an agreement with an old friend, Ramon “Papiro” Genao, who saw enough in Marte to attempt a finishing touch.

“The first time we met,” Papiro says, “I felt how humble he was, a rejected and abandoned boy, and Marte was about to give up. I told him, ‘I am going to sign you in.’ ”

Starling was dubious of Papiro, but when Pelotero told him this was the right thing, he listened. Living with Papiro, Marte began to eat better and gain strength. Papiro also noticed that Marte, a right-handed batter, did not know how to hit the ball to right field, a skill that the scouts want to see. To make it easier on Marte, Papiro started throwing him softballs on the outside part of the plate, so he could repeat the sensation of hitting the opposite way.

Youth players age 5-14 stretch out at a practice with coach "Pelotero," whose real name is Juan de La Rosa, Starling Marte's youth coach that was unable to get him signed, on June 1, 2015.

Soon, Papiro would stage a tryout with the White Sox at Centro Olympico. The improved Marte dazzled. But Starling’s first buscone, Lucas, heard that Papiro was promoting him to Chicago and arrived at the field, enraged that his player had been stolen.

“The White Sox scout offered me $70,000,” Papiro recalls. “And then almost at the same time, Lucas arrived with a gun.”

As Starling watched in shock, Papiro stood his ground with Lucas, telling him that he had squandered his chance with Marte and to leave the boy alone. No shots were fired, but the White Sox scout pulled his offer and hightailed it out of Centro Olympico.

“I was scared, and I was crying,” Marte says, “because that was my opportunity, and I did not know if I would get another one.”

Papiro believed there would be others. Two weeks later, he set up a tryout with the Pirates’ Rene Gayo. Marte had already played for Gayo four times and not been signed, so, to him, the proposition felt hopeless.

“When they saw you,” Papiro told him, “you were not a baseball player. Now, you are a baseball player.”

Gayo had actually liked Marte. But his supervising scout, Josue Herrera, felt that Marte had potential character issues and wasn’t worth the risk. Plus, he was well over 18.

“Everybody was treating him like he's a 50-year-old has-been," Gayo says.

Marte had tried out for Gayo before as a shortstop and did not show much defensively. Luckily, Papiro had been training Marte as an outfielder, too, and when Gayo saw him throw from out there, his eyes opened wide.

“He’s graceful,” Gayo says. “He was just such a great athlete. He did everything so easy. When he ran, he ran beautiful.”

Gayo told Herrera that he was going to sign Marte. Gayo recalls Herrera (who is now a buscone) saying, “I don’t want my name on this guy.” Gayo was fine with taking the credit for Marte, offering Papiro $85,000 on the spot. Of course, Papiro took it.

Youth players age 5-14 go through practice with coach "Pelotero," not pictured, whose real name is Juan de La Rosa, Starling Marte's youth coach that was unable to get him signed, on June 1, 2015.

“Now you’re a Pirate!” Gayo told Marte.

“I had no words,” Marte says. “I was so happy, I forgot everything.”

“A beautiful story,” Papiro says.

Today, Papiro has built a life on that story. He can tell it from his penthouse while a maid cleans around him and his 24-year-old son, Jonathan, listens in, hoping to take over the family business one day. Papiro is proof that there is plenty of money to go around in the Dominican baseball machine if you are willing to hustle. He took just $10,000 from Marte’s original signing bonus, but he’s capitalized every day on being the man who made Marte.

But, “at the end of the day,” Gayo says, “Pelotero is a lot more responsible.”

Pelotero received $15,000 from the signing, but you can’t see a dime of it in his tiny apartment, where he lives in poverty with his two children and their mother.

“I did not benefit myself from [the bonus],” Pelotero says. “I preferred to help other boys that needed.”

One of those boys that benefited from Pelotero’s reinvesting of the Marte money is named Juan Daniel De Leon. Pelotero coached him until the boy’s father took him to buscone Raul “Banana” Valera. De Leon signed with the Yankees for $2 million in 2014, and Pelotero received nothing. He blames the father for his “evil,” not Banana.

“Juan Daniel used to train with those guys sitting over there,” Pelotero says, pointing to some of his current players.

In 2014, Starling Marte signed a six-year, $31 million extension with the Pirates. He does not want his childhood coach existing this way, and he has offered to do more — but then again, how much should a kid who makes it to the big leagues owe to his Little League coach?

“It’s hard to see him still living there,” Marte says. “That’s not what I wanted. I wanted him to be living in a big house, but he wants to stay there. He’s got a lot of kids to work with every day in the morning, and he thinks that if he leaves, other people will come and take the futures of the kids. I can’t change his mind.”

Says Pelotero, “Many people ask me why I do not request anything from Marte. The point is the way I was raised in my house, the way I grew up. I do not know how to ask for things.”

Pelotero is happy to receive Marte’s frequent gifts of bats, balls and shoes. And he’s still humbled when Marte pops in for a surprise visit, like he did the night of last Dec. 30. They talked for almost two hours, and it felt just like old times, the coach and player discussing what Marte would have to do better in 2015.

“I told him that he has to work hard to get over 20 home runs this year,” Pelotero says.

Elian Peralta, 15, a catcher at Niche Academy, drinks and cools himself off with water from a fountain adjacent to the field in Villa Mella where they play on June 2, 2015.


A buscone wants out

Goosebumps rise on Christian “Niche” Batista’s arms when he thinks of Gregory Polanco.

Batista, a buscone whose field sits across the river from a slum nestled into a green ridge, has turned teenagers into millionaires and put more than 300 boys into MLB academies. But Polanco, the 23-year-old Pirates right fielder who followed in Starling Marte’s footsteps from Villa Mella to the PNC Park outfield, is the one who stands out.

Christian “Niche” Batista runs Niche Academy in Villa Mella. Niche is the buscone that got Gregory Polanco signed by the Pirates for $150,000.

“That was a beautiful time,” Niche says. “The business was not like this when Gregory was with me. That was the golden age of the business.”

The way Niche remembers it, Polanco represents a simpler time. He played softball with Polanco’s father, Virgilio, who decided to bring Gregory to Niche’s academy when the boy was 15. He had promise, but his body hadn’t grown into his uncommon length — “He looked like a sick giraffe,” Rene Gayo recalls — and wouldn’t until Gregory was 17. It was then, in 2009, that Gayo signed Polanco for $150,000, and Niche would take his 30 percent ($45,000).

Niche also brought the Pirates two of their current top prospects in outfielder Willy Garcia, signed in 2010 for $280,000, and infielder Alen Hanson, signed in 2009 for $90,000. Both players are now with Triple-A Indianapolis. Niche is good at his job, but it does not make him happy anymore.

“Listen,” he says, getting ready to vent. “There is a lot of money, and when the parents come here with their kids, they sell them, as prospectors, to us. Parents are very demanding. They want us to pay their rent, buy their cars, their school fees … not all of them, but 90 percent of them. The parents go to all the programs showing their kids, and they leave the boy when they get the best offer for him. They have become agents. The business is spoiled, corrupted, mean.”

Players at Niche Academy in Villa Mella practice on June 2, 2015. Niche is run by Christian Batista, the buscone that got Gregory Polanco signed by the Pirates for $150,000.

In the days of Polanco, Niche says, there were eight to 10 legitimate buscones in Santo Domingo. Now, the competition for players is so fierce it feels like there are buscones on every corner. In response, Niche recently invested $100,000 in upgrades to his boarding house and more money in a new bus — the Dominican version of the college athletics facilities arms race in the U.S. Each year, he sets aside another $100,000 to help him meet parents’ demands for the rights to the players. To foot the bill, Niche had to find an outside investor.

“Now, we have to seek 12-year-old boys,” Niche says. “The business is more expensive, and there are less probabilities of success.”

The Dominican ballplayer, many buscones agree, hits his stride around 18 years old. The further away from that age, the bigger the risk that the player won’t develop into an attractive prospect. Niche can only house a child for so long before he has to make a determination about whether he can get the kid signed for an amount that warrants the investment. He has to let some kids go.

“Most of them are very poor,” he says. “That causes a lot of stress. I have to take two pills every day. It is better to the people involved in this business not to do it with so much passion. It is necessary to have a cold heart.”

Players from Niche Academy move batting nets off the field during practice on June 2, 2015.

Even for the lucky ones who make it to America, nothing is guaranteed. The first player Niche got signed back in 1999, Angel Abreu, now works for him as a coach. Coincidentally, it was Gayo who signed Abreu, an infielder, to the Indians for $22,000. Abreu made it to Single-A before being cut in 2002. He came back to the Dominican Republic, where he had to face his family and friends.

“When you come back,” Abreu says, “they see you different.”

Abreu has a wife and 4-year-old daughter to support. He makes a commission from Niche’s signings, but there’s nothing steady about when the bonus money arrives. Abreu would like to work his way into an organization in the next few years. Having a dependable paycheck would be a huge relief, and maybe it can happen with his former buscone’s help.

Niche hopes to be on the move, too.

“I am going to surprise with this,” Niche says. “I am going to retire in two years.”

Niche, who scouted for the Nationals in 2005, would like to return to that line of work soon. It’s a safer, cleaner life for a baseball man.

Pirates players line up and stretch their necks at the start of a practice in La Gina, Dominican Republic, on June 5, 2015.


One barrio, two worlds

The Pirates’ most obvious neighbors in the Dominican Republic are the Chicago Cubs. In 2012, their National League Central Division rivals joined them in constructing an academy next to the tiny village of La Gina, where electricity is not a given and residents use outdoor toilets called letrinas.

The Pirates and Cubs mark their turf with elaborate signs and a security guard manning the gate. Only those with official clearance can enter their campuses, which has made it hard for Marie Elena Done to get a meeting with the Pirates.

Marie Elena Done, a 25-year-old community leader in La Gina, guides the Post-Gazette on a tour of her village on June 5, 2015.

Done, 25, is president of the neighborhood association. Her top priority is to complete the small chapel that they have been building, brick by brick, for the last six years. She says La Gina (pronounced la heena) needs a chapel because the nearest place of worship is about 6 miles away and most residents don’t have cars. Done thinks the teams should contribute. She has at least been able to make contact with the Cubs and is waiting to hear back.

“I have gone to many places, requesting help without a reply,” Done says.

Done is not a defeatist. Her faith tells her it will happen. La Gina may be small, with about 30 houses mostly comprised by three families who have lived here for a century, but they have a way of getting by, year after year. It seems to her like the arrival of the academies has made the local politicians pay more attention to them; recently, the government began sponsoring cooking classes geared toward teaching little girls how to be housewives.

“The impact of both academies has brought progress to the community,” Done says.

Women in La Gina, the village adjacent to the Pirates' Academy, run a class to teach the girls of their village how to cook on June 5, 2015.

Just look at her mother. The Pirates hired her five years ago to be a janitor. She no longer has to trek the hour into Santo Domingo to be a housekeeper. Many of the adults in La Gina work for the Cubs and Pirates, who employ 34 in non-baseball jobs ranging from grounds crew to maintenance to kitchen staff.

La Gina is colorful and vibrant. A friendly teenage boy rides his bike down a dirt road and picks mangos from a tree. He is 15, a descendant of La Gina’s original settlers, and soon he hopes to be living on the other side of the wall as a signed baseball player.

“I’m a pitcher,” Francis Hichez says.

Hichez’s dad worked on the construction of the Cubs’ academy before the team hired him to do maintenance. His aunt works there, too.

“This neighborhood feels happy about the presence of these MLB academies here,” he says. “Because of them our small town is now on the map and people know we exist. We’re thankful to them.”

Speaking with the people of La Gina, it is clear why the Dominican Republic government rolls out the red carpet for MLB — to the point that the American money that enters the country through signing bonuses is untouched by local taxes. The politicians are willing to look the other way when thousands of boys stop regularly going to school in pursuit of those bonuses because MLB’s presence creates thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tourism.

And certainly, it is clear why Pirates owner Bob Nutting has been willing to invest about $7 million in making his franchise’s Latin American headquarters one of the best in baseball. If you’ve seen Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco patrolling the outfield in Pittsburgh, then you know the gamble is already paying off.

Before the new academy’s opening in 2009, the Pirates trained out of San Pedro de Macoris in a run-down facility. They wanted to be closer to the airport in Boca Chica but also in a remote area with few distractions for the players. They found a match in La Gina with a man named Angel Fabian, who has owned a pig farm on the land for decades and was willing to sell 46 acres to the Pirates.

Inside the gray cement wall that now hems them in from La Gina, the Pirates attempt every day to indoctrinate the 40 or so Latin American young men with baseball dreams into their culture. When the players walk through the front door of the main office and dormitory, there is no confusion about what their goal should be; framed pictures of Roberto Clemente, Marte and Polanco dot the lobby walls, and upstairs, a giant picture of PNC Park serves as a reminder of the stakes.

Slideshow: Pirates Academy at La Gina


The journey from here to MLB is a grind — only four to five percent of the kids signed in Latin America make it to the majors, and just 47 percent will even make it to the U.S. — and one of the Pirates’ biggest challenges is convincing the boys that they haven’t already made it. With sleek lounges, three meals a day in a clean cafeteria, a pool table, a state-of-the-art weight room and three-and-a-half well-manicured ball fields, there is a sense that they are living large, and not everyone has the drive to stay hungry.

Mendy Lopez, the Pirates’ manager here, was signed out of the Dominican by the Royals in 1992. He made his MLB debut in 1998, bounced around for six seasons and has now found his way back to his roots with the Pirates. Sometimes, he can’t believe his eyes with today’s kids.

“They don’t know what passion is,” Lopez says. “These kids right now, they don’t play. They train so they can get a lot of money. When they get here, they don’t know how to run the bases. They don’t know how to play the game. They’re lost. We start from zero. We introduce baseball to them when they get here.

“When you play, and you have a bad game, you go home and you feel bad and your dad is all over you because you didn’t have a good game. You start feeling that. The passion started there. Passion for me is that little kid. I’m 41, but that little kid is still here, in my heart, every time I go out there. The money has changed their mentality.”

Director Gera Alvarez discusses the Pirates Academy in La Gina.

Every morning, at the team’s 7:30 a.m. meeting before hitting the field, Lopez delivers a motivational speech. He wants his love for the game to rub off on them, but wiping away the work of their buscone experience doesn’t happen overnight.

“So now they’ve got money, they’ve got what they’re looking for,” Lopez says. “So why should they go out there and get tired?”

The Pirates keep their prospects busy with much more than baseball. Last school year, they were one of about seven MLB teams to provide Cenapec classes at the 10th, 11th and 12th grade levels in all the main subjects, which is not a requirement for the academies. Kids are in classes four days a week for three hours each, and a degree is the expectation. Since starting their Cenapec program, the Pirates have helped 45 players graduate, according to Juan Carlos Mendoza, the Pirates’ lead administrator at the academy.

Mendoza reports directly to Trevor Gooby, the Pirates’ senior director of Florida operations in Bradenton. Mendoza says Bob Nutting has visited the Dominican facility twice, once for the opening ceremony, but don’t confuse that with being an absentee landlord.

“This is like his little baby, I would say,” Mendoza says.

While Pirates president Frank Coonelly comes down annually to check on things, Mendoza is the primary babysitter. He’s the guy who can make connections with the people of La Gina, the one who Marie Elena Done would like to see someday to talk about finishing her half-completed chapel.

Yondry Contreras stands on the street outside the parking lot/garage his parents purchased as an investment with part of his signing bonus with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 31, 2015.


A country’s never-ending negotiation

That day at Centro Olympico, as Rene Gayo watched young Carlos Garcia swing the bat, he already knew what his negotiation tactic would have to be. Ramon “Papiro” Genao, the man who once brought him Starling Marte, was asking an astronomical amount for Garcia in hopes that Gayo would go higher than he wanted and meet him in the middle. Gayo liked Garcia, sure, but he didn’t love him, so the only solution would be to wait Papiro out.

As the calendar neared July, the waiting weighed heavily on the boy.

“Those last days were very worrying in the case of Carlos Garcia,” Papiro says.

Papiro wasn’t lying to the Pirates when he told them that other teams were interested in Carlos. The Rays, Orioles, Mariners and Marlins were talking with Papiro, too, but the Pirates had the advantage of being Carlos’ chosen team. His dream wasn’t just to be signed; it was to be signed by the Pirates.

As July 2 approached, Carlos and his father, Raymond, just worked harder, sometimes training twice a day.

“He never lost hope,” Raymond says. “Most important, we were faithful to God in the expectation that the important day could take place at any moment.”

Gayo had set his number for Garcia at $110,000, and he wasn’t going to move. And, fact was, Papiro didn’t have an offer that high from any of the other teams, and he was unable to drive the price up on his other suitors.

July 2 passed with no news.

The disappointment was that Carlos’ mother was flying back to her home in Florida the next day, and so she couldn’t celebrate the occasion of his signing as she had planned.

After practice at Ramon "Papiro" Genao's Academy, Carlos Garcia's elder brother, also named Carlos, helps him through stretches on May 29, 2015. The elder Carlos also plays baseball, though he was never signed by an MLB academy. He now goes to college.

On July 3 in the afternoon, Raymond Garcia and his sons were driving her to the airport when his phone rang. It was Papiro, asking Raymond to gather up the necessary documents that MLB required for Carlos to be officially signed — a birth certificate chief among them — because he was closing in on a deal with the Pirates.

“When my dad told me, I became full of happiness, and I cried,” Carlos recalls.

The Garcias left the boys’ mother with a joyful goodbye, sped back to Santo Domingo to deliver the documents to Papiro and then waited at Centro Olympico, where they would receive official confirmation of the signing.

Around 5:30, Papiro arrived with one of the Pirates’ scouts, Victor “Muela” Santana, the man who had been watching Carlos for years. Santana smiled.

“Welcome to the Pirates!” he said.

Many of the Garcias’ longtime friends, their relationships forged in the shared pursuit of this exact elation, were also gathered at the field.

“He grew up at Centro Olympico,” Raymond says. “Everybody knows him. Everybody celebrated that special event with us.”

The signing marks the end of one struggle and the beginning of another. Carlos would soon join the Pirates’ other 10 signees at the academy in La Gina, where they would begin playing games in the “tricky league” (freshly signed players can’t participate in the Dominican Summer League until the next year, so they organize games against other teams’ signees to keep them engaged).

Gayo recently watched his 2015 crop and was displeased with Garcia. Gayo told him so.

“He’s playing badly,” Gayo says. “He doesn’t look like the same guy. He always played relaxed, and now he’s playing in panic mode. I read him the riot act. He’s a good kid, and he can hit. He’ll be a good player. He just … a lot of guys go through that. You’ve been dreaming about something for so long, then it happens for you. It’s tough.”

The odds are against Carlos. They say that he will not make it to the Gulf Coast League in the U.S., much less the major leagues. And yet, Papiro says, “I think in the near future we are going to see a Dominican star, shining in the MLB.”

The point is that nobody knows, but at least Carlos Garcia will have a chance. As of Sept. 10, Fidel Castro, the stringy shortstop the Pirates scouted who is being shopped by two buscones, has not been signed. His wait continues, and certainly, there are more boys in his position than Carlos Garcia’s.

All across the island, you can see the impact of this constant search for the next great ballplayer. It’s there in Santiago, where Yondry Contreras’ parents are using $120,000 of the $400,000 given to them by the Pirates to open a commercial parking lot behind their home, because their neighborhood needs more spots and they feel that they should invest in improving their community. It’s there in the Santo Domingo apartment that Starling Marte bought for his two younger sisters so that they could live in a safe place. It’s there in the hope that lives in every home when a boy first picks up a bat and enters the nation’s new lottery.

Slideshow: Yondry Contreras


“Baseball has helped take hundreds of families out of poverty,” says Hector Cruz, a longtime sportswriter at Listin Diario, a Santo Domingo newspaper, “but more importantly it has served to promote the country. It has developed the Dominican pride. There was no identity, no Dominican pride before.”

The Dominican Republic has made its decision. Baseball is it. Recently, Dominican senator Jose Maria Sosa brought up the idea of making a high-school level education mandatory for a player to be signed, and it was widely rebuffed as a violation of human rights. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal publicly spoke out against him, saying that he never would have been signed if that law existed.

MLB, which opened up a small Santo Domingo office in 2000, becomes more entrenched on the island by the year. What began as a basic effort to regulate team activities — insuring prospects have correct biographical information and that their signing bonuses end up with the players’ families and not their buscones — has morphed into encouraging franchises to provide proper education and offering a program for players who have been released to get help with vocational training, English classes or other avenues that could lead to future employment outside of baseball.

“We understand that we have a role to play,” says Rafael Perez, MLB’s director of Dominican Operations since 2011. “But we also have to understand it’s very hard to replace or to make up the education that they didn’t get in a regular school setting.”

But MLB draws the line at monitoring the buscones. It simply doesn’t have the manpower to police the whole island.

“It becomes a convoluted web at times,” says Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, who oversees Perez from the commissioner’s office in New York.

And so the cycle refreshes each day, with new inputs into the machine, and Papiro will always be there, at the same time and same place, ready to receive them.

On a recent June morning, a father and his 15-year-old son visited Papiro at Centro Olympico to see what the man had to offer them. When practice was over, he pulled them in and motioned to all of his players to gather around as he preached his gospel.

Papiro speaks with Willie Gonzalez, a man who lives 45 minutes from Santo Domingo, and brought his son Willie Jr., at his right, to see Papiro's academy, on June 4, 2015. Papiro then pitched his academy for the following hour, as his players, including Carlos Garcia, left, slowly formed a circle around the group in order to hear Papiro's tale of getting Starling Marte signed.

“My signed athletes for July 2, and the ones that are still waiting, they’re going to be known throughout the USA,” Papiro told them. “They’re going to know these guys and that they came out of Papiro’s academy. … Starling Marte is like a son to me. Right now he’s signed for $31 million U.S., and I can call him up and he answers and has a conversation with me. … I’m 54 years old and have been 40 years in baseball, and I’ve never had an office. All the parents come here to the field to speak to me. …”

Papiro talks for 45 minutes. He didn’t even know the boy’s name, but of course, this speech wasn’t meant for Willie Gonzalez Jr., who pulled the wrapper off his grape soda bottle as Papiro droned on and on.

His father, Willie Sr., came away impressed.

“Because Papiro’s a sincere guy,” Willie Sr. says. “I’m thinking about leaving my son here. That may be the best thing to do. I feel safe.”

His son is in the ninth grade, and it’s a long commute to the city from their home, but Willie Sr. thinks that next year he’ll have Junior practice with Papiro in the mornings and return to his local school for the afternoon. The arrangement seems simple enough, and once more, the dream is alive in Centro Olympico.

Maximo Rosario, of Santo Domingo, provided translation and contributed to this report.
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