In early October 30-year-old Mario Encarnación was found dead in his Taipei, Taiwan, apartment from causes unknown. His lonely death, with the lights on and refrigerator door open, ended a tragic journey that began in the dirt-poor town of Bani in the Dominican Republic and concluded on the other side of the world. In between, Encarnación, or “Super Mario,” as he was known on the baseball diamond, was the most highly touted prospect in the Oakland A’s organization, considered better than future American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada. Tejada, also from Bani, paid the freight to bring his friend home from Taiwan. It’s hard to imagine who else from their barrio could have managed to foot the bill.
Encarnación’s death was not even a sidebar in the sports pages of the United States. A 30-year-old playing out his last days in East Asia might as well be invisible.
But he shouldn’t be. As Major League Baseball celebrates its annual fall classic, the World Series, it is increasingly dependent on talent born and bred in Latin America. Twenty-six percent of all players in the major leagues now hail from Latin America, including some of the game’s most popular stars, like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa. Leading the way is the tiny nation of the Dominican Republic. Just five years ago there were sixty-six Dominican-born players on baseball’s Opening Day rosters. This year, there were more than 100. This means roughly one out of every seven major league players was born in the DR, by far the highest number from any country outside the United States. In addition, 30 percent of players in the US minor leagues hail from this tiny Latin American nation, which shares an island with Haiti and has a population roughly the size of New York City’s.
All thirty teams now scout what baseball owners commonly call “the Republic of Baseball,” and a number of teams have elaborate multimillion-dollar “baseball academies.” The teams trumpet these academies. (One executive said, “We have made Fields of Dreams out of the jungle.”) But unmentioned is that for every Tejada there are 100 Encarnacións. And for every Encarnación toiling on the margins of the pro baseball circuit, there are thousands of Dominican players cast aside by a Major League Baseball system that is strip-mining the Dominican Republic for talent. Unmentioned is the overarching relationship Major League Baseball has with the Dominican Republic, harvesting talent on the cheap with no responsibility for who gets left behind. Unmentioned is what Major League Baseball is doing–or is not doing–for a country with 60 percent of its population living below the poverty line. As American sports agent Joe Kehoskie says in Stealing Home, a PBS documentary, “Traditionally in the Latin market, I would say players sign for about 5 to 10 cents on the dollar compared to their US counterparts.” He also points out that “a lot of times kids just quit school at 10, 11, 12, and play baseball full-time. It’s great, it’s great for the kids that make it because they become superstars and get millions of dollars in the big leagues. But for ninety-eight kids out of 100, it results in a kid that is 18, 19, with no education.”
Considering both the poverty rate and the endless trumpeting of rags-to-riches stories of those like Sosa and Tejada, it’s no wonder the academies are so attractive to young Dominicans. Most young athletes in the DR play without shoes, using cut-out milk cartons for gloves, rolled-up cloth for balls, and sticks and branches for bats. The academies offer good equipment, nice uniforms and the dream of a better life.