SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.