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.
Sacramento Bee sportswriter Marcos Breton’s book Home Is Everything: The Latino Baseball Story highlights the appeal of the academies: “Teams house their players in dormitories and feed their prospects balanced meals. Often it’s the first time these boys will sleep under clean sheets or eat nutritious meals. The firsts don’t stop there: Some of these boys encounter a toilet for the first time. Or an indoor shower. They are taught discipline, the importance of being on time, of following instructions.”
The competition to get into the “baseball factories,” as they are often referred to, is fierce. Sports anthropologist Alan Klein describes, in Stealing Home, the scene in front of one of the academies:
Every morning you would drive to the Academy, you would see fifteen, twenty kids out there, not one of them had a uniform, they all had pieces of one uniform or another, poor equipment, they would be right at the gate waiting for the security people to open up the gates and they would go in for their tryout. If they got signed, they were happy. If they didn’t get signed, it didn’t even deter them for a minute; they would be on the road hitchhiking to the next location. And they would eventually find one of those 20-some clubs that would eventually pick them up. And if not, then they might return to amateur baseball.
Yet even the ones who make it through the academy doors often find themselves little more than supporting players in a system designed to help pro teams ferret out the few potential stars. As Roberto González Echevarría, a Cuban baseball historian who also appears in the documentary, says, “I take a dim view of what the major leagues are doing in the Dominican Republic with these so-called baseball academies, where children are being signed at a very early age and not being cared for. Most of them are providing the context for the stars to emerge; if you take 100 baseball players in those academies, or 100 baseball players anywhere, only one of them will play even an inning in the major leagues. The others are there as a supporting cast.”
And little is done for those very select few who make it into a major league farm system to protect them from the likely fall to the hard concrete floor of failure.
Brendan Sullivan III, a pitcher who played five seasons for the San Diego Padres, told author Colman McCarthy, “Sure, they were thrilled to have gone from dirt lots to playing in a US stadium before fans and getting paychecks every two weeks. But once a team decides a Dominican won’t make it to the big leagues, he is discarded as an unprofitable resource. That’s true for US players, but at least they have a high school diploma, and often college, and thus have fallback skills. Most Dominicans don’t. They go home to the poverty they came from or try to eke out an existence at menial labor in the States, with nothing left over except tales of their playing days chasing the dream.”
Major League Baseball seems unconcerned and uninterested in the situation it has a central role in shaping. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry speaks of the “special relationship Major League Baseball has with the people of the Dominican Republic,” but it’s unclear whether he believes the Bosox and Major League Baseball have any responsibilities regarding the players they employ and the families left behind.
Al Avila, assistant general manager of the Detroit Tigers, whose father, Ralph, operated the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dominican academy for decades, told ESPN.com, “Baseball is the best way out of poverty for most of these kids and their families. They see on television and read in the newspapers how many of their countrymen have made it. For parents that have kids, they have them playing from early on. The numbers show that the dream is within reach. And even if they don’t make it, these Dominican academies house, feed and educate these kids in English. They become acclimated to a new culture, which is always positive. At the very least, even if they don’t make it as a player, they could get different doors opened, like becoming a coach.”
The question we need to ask is, Does baseball have a broader responsibility to the Dominican Republic and these 10- and 11-year-old kids who think they have a better chance of emerging from desperately poor conditions with a stick and a milk-carton glove than by staying in school? Does the highly profitable Major League Baseball have any responsibility to cushion the crash landing that awaits 99.9 percent of DR kids with big-league dreams, or the 95 percent of players who are good enough to be chosen for the academy but are summarily discarded with nothing but a kick out the door? We can probably surmise where the family and friends of Mario Encarnación fall on this question.
The death of “Super Mario” went unnoticed in the US press with one exception, a heart-wrenching column on October 6 in the Sacramento Bee by his friend Marcos Breton, who wrote, “Mario wasn’t a warped athlete like we’ve come to expect in most ballplayers. He was big-hearted, fun-loving, a good friend…. The pressure of succeeding and lifting his family out of poverty was a weight that soon stooped Encarnación’s massive shoulders.”
Should it have been his responsibility alone to shoulder such a burden?