Leones D’Chaca League players leave their equipment on the ground while they warm up before starting play at the Félix Sánchez Olympic Stadium in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 8, 2023. (Photo by Trilce Estrada Olvera/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — It’s a breezy Friday afternoon in early March at Estadio Olimpico Felix Sanchez in the capital city of the Dominican Republic, as the sun begins to set.
Balls are flying. The clink of aluminum bats echoes in the distance. Players dash between bases.
Three groups are holding practice at this four-diamond complex. Miranda Liga, Esmeralda Liga and the Pimentel Baseball Academy share the site so children can chase their dreams of becoming the next great Major League Baseball player from the Dominican Republic. They hope to follow in the footsteps of players like Miami Marlins pitcher and 2022 Cy Young winner Sandy Alcántara.
Children as young as 7 years old suit up and train, hoping to climb to stardom.
That’s because, in the Dominican Republic, “la pelota” is king.
Jorge Torres, the technical director of the Dominican Republic Baseball League, who has been working with young players for 25 years, described how much the sport means in the Dominican Republic.
“There is something here that occurs from the moment a child is born,” Torres said. “And it is that the father says, ‘A baseball player was born.’”
The sport is so woven into the country’s culture that it ranked third in the world for most Google searches for baseball in 2022, behind Cuba and Japan, according to the publication FiveThirtyEight.
At the beginning of the 2023 season, 104 players from the Dominican Republic were on an MLB roster. That’s the most for any country outside of the United States and 11% of the entire MLB. Not bad for a country whose land mass, at 18,704 square miles, is only larger than nine U.S. states and whose total number of inhabitants is equal to just 3% of the U.S. population.
Some of the game’s most famous players over the years, like Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols, all hail from here. Four of those five are in Hall of the Fame. The last one, Pujols, is likely to be a first-ballot inductee once he becomes eligible in 2028.
The next crop is just as exciting, with players like Julio Rodriguez, Juan Soto and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. building successful careers.
“For me it is everything,” said Aryeli Moises Rojas Polanco, a 13-year-old baseball player from Santo Domingo who dreams of reaching the MLB. “I can’t think of anything else, or any other sport. I love it so much. I watch videos to learn more about it all the time. It’s just everything.”
But baseball is more than just a sport in the Dominican Republic. It’s a point of pride. For many in the country, it gives the small Caribbean island nation an identity on the global stage.
The diamond is often viewed as a path to instant riches – a direct line to securing financial freedom, which is hard to come by in the Dominican Republic. Remittances from baseball players are sent back to the country. Families, just like Rojas Polanco’s, invest in their sons to play the sport with the hopes of big financial returns.
“They have spent their money on me, to see my future … signing,” Rojas Polanco said.
Economic growth in the Dominican Republic has been among the highest in Latin America over the past decade, fueled by tourism and foreign investment. Yet the poverty rate was still 21.8 % in 2020 with 5.6 % of 11.3 million residents living in extreme poverty. A single major league signing bonus can lift the economic prospects of multiple people, not just the player.
This leads to a highly competitive environment, with prospects doing anything and everything they can to stand out to the next scout who will be watching.
Cristian Bolívar Pimentel Pérez was one of those children who was trying to make it as a professional baseball player. But, like many young Dominican men, Pimentel did not reach his dreams.
Pimentel decided to stay involved with the game in another way. He began coaching the next generation of baseball players.
“Well, this really started very small around 28 years ago … as an academy for young children, which is called Liga Deportiva Pimentel, that is, Pimentel Sport League,” Pimentel said. “There it starts … Twenty years later, then, those children who were developing in my league, we proceeded to transfer them to the academy so that they could finish their development.”
After a year of construction, Pimentel Baseball Academy was born. Since then, it has been the home for many young aspiring MLB players over the years. Eloy Jimenez, who currently plays for the Chicago White Sox, came through Pimentel.
The academy system is a vital component of the infrastructure of the sport in the country, and it also shows how crucial the region has become to the major leagues. All 30 MLB clubs have their own academy on the island. The National Basketball Association is beginning to take interest in the Dominican Republic, but no professional teams from other major league sports leagues have a presence.
While the arrival of MLB teams was an obvious boost to the country, the league office in New York offered little oversight.
After years of unchecked regulation of academies within the Dominican Republic, allegations of abuse and misconduct arose. The MLB stepped in and introduced a training partnership with academies to establish a sense of authenticity and legitimacy.
There are 58 academies in the Dominican Republic associated with the MLB. Pimentel Baseball Academy is one of those in the partnership.
The academy is situated about 25 miles outside of the business district of Santo Domingo, in the countryside, 2 miles down an unpaved dirt road. The rural location choice is strategic.
“Now, when they come here, they live here,” Pimentel, 45, said. “And they do not go to their homes every day, but we try to make it a bit far away so that they can concentrate on what the practice is and focus on their work.”
The academy features three full baseball diamonds and a central building where the children live and eat. There is a “gym,” although equipment is relatively limited.
The goal for Pimentel is to mold these young men into attractive enough prospects to then market to MLB teams.
While at the academy, prospects are subjected to a routine similar to that of a professional. In addition to Dominican players, Pimentel recruits out-of-country prospects, like 14-year-old Juan Carlos Saavedra from Guatemala City and 16-year-old Ramsés Camargo from Colombia.
“Their day is made up of a work routine starting in the morning, after getting up and having breakfast,” Pimentel said. “After the gym, they begin their work routines with defense, with batting – a different teaching methodology in each of the skills. How to throw the ball, how to field a ball. The different ways to attack a rolling (ball) – to work on hitting, how to grip a bat, the weight distribution. We try to do what the industry demands at the moment.”
At noon, Pimentel explains, the boys bathe, have lunch and rest until 4 p.m. Then another practice session begins, aimed at skills the players struggled with in the morning session.
The training schedule is rigorous and represents the significance of the culture of the sport in the country. There is a whole ecosystem built around it.
“For me, baseball is everything,” Pimentel said. “Everything I have today I owe to baseball.”
Gerardo Morban, 57, has been involved with baseball for as long as he can remember. He now runs the eponymous Morban Academy as well as helping out with a league, Esmeralda. His passion for the game runs deep and echoes the sentiment that many share across the country.
“It is part of my life,” Morban said. “It’s in my blood. I believe that without baseball I would not survive as such. We breathe baseball everywhere.”
With the academy system playing such an integral role in the infrastructure of the sport within the country, it has attracted attention from outside of the Dominican Republic. Teenagers from foreign countries are uprooting their lives in pursuit of bettering their lives and those around them.
Juan Carlos Saavedra was just 13 when he left his hometown of Guatemala City. Pimentel recruited Saavedra to come to the academy. Saavedra, who like Morban said baseball “is in his blood,” is aiming to make it to the MLB.
“Well, it’s been a very long journey, really,” Saavedra said. “It has crossed my mind that leaving my home, leaving everything I had in Guatemala to come here, fighting for a dream, has been very difficult. But I know that this is going to be good for me and to be able to sign and to be able to support my family.”
With a 2020 poverty rate above 59% in Guatemala, according t0 the World Bank, and a gross domestic product of just $5,025 per capita, the pressure to deliver for his family is heavy on the 13-year-old.
While Saavedra said he has enjoyed his time at Pimentel Academy, the thought of supporting his family is something that is on his mind constantly. It’s clear that this teenager is focused on one thing, and one thing only after moving 1,386 miles from home: Putting his name on a dotted line.
“It has been very difficult for me to be away from home, to be away, but here Mr. Pimentel and my coaches have told me that this is going to be difficult, but it is going to be good for me,” Saavedra said. “I work hard and someday (may) be able to sign and that’s why I’m here. That I have come to fight for a signature … My goal is to sign one day and get to my mother and tell her that I have done it. That I have succeeded.”
Remittances – money sent home from relatives working in foreign countries – are a significant factor in the global economy. In 2022, remittances to low- and middle-income countries grew to an estimated $626 billion worldwide, according to the World Bank.
In the Dominican Republic, the country’s central bank reported that remittances reached $417 million for the first five months of 2023.
According to the Borgen Project, a humanitarian organization focused on poverty, “Remittances make up a significant part of the Dominican Republic’s economy, with estimates placing the value of remittances at about 8% of the total GDP in 2019 — double the average of most low-income countries. While some remittances come from Europe and other Latin American countries, a staggering 75% come from the United States.”
With the median income at just $10.63 per day in the Dominican Republic, a single signing bonus can impact a family for generations to come.
“The most important thing is the passion of the child and the parents to change their economic situation,” said Brauilo Miranda, 56, who runs a youth baseball league in Santo Domingo. “Most of the famous baseball players here in our country, such as Albert Pujols, Pedro Martínez, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada and countless other players were born in a form of poverty and today are a symbol of Dominican baseball and of the major leagues.”
Considering that the MLB just revamped its pay scale for minor league players, the impact the money can have is even greater than it was before.
For rookies, the salary will rise from $4,800 to $19,800. At Low Class A, salaries will grow from $11,000 to $26,200 while High Class A will grow from $13,800 to $27,300. Triple-A players will go from $17,500 to $35,800.
Even at the lowest level, $19,800 could last a long time in the Dominican Republic and provide support for many family members.
If a player makes it to the top level, the money is life-changing.
Of the top 50 international players signed this year, 30 – or roughly 60% – were from the Dominican Republic. Out of those signings, figures ranged from $4.7 million at the top end to $900,000 at the lower end.
These kinds of numbers paint an image for young Dominicans.
“Well, it means a great dream because with baseball if I get to sign, I’m going to help my family and get well myself,” said 14-year-old baseball player Darlin Yandel, who lives in Santo Domingo and is aspiring to make it to the MLB.
But, with so much money involved, some on the periphery try to cash in.
“Buscones,” essentially “finders,” are a phenomenon in the Dominican Republic that have become part of the baseball ecosystem. Buscones serve as personal coaches, managers and agents to young players. Some represent players in negotiations with professional leagues. According to various news reports, some buscones take advantage of players by demanding a high percentage of their signing bonus or salary.
At Pimentel Academy, buscones are something that Pimentel deals with. But once they are at the academy, Pimentel said he does his best to protect the players and family.
“Automatically when a buscone brings a child to our academy, the contractual relationship is already between the parents and us, and the buscone is left out of what are the agreements that entail,” Pimentel said.
Alan Klein – a professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Northeastern University who has written two books on baseball in the Dominican Republic – said anybody who isn’t directly associated with the MLB is considered to be a buscone.
During his time spent living in the country while researching and writing his two books, Klein has come across many in the spectrum of baseball in the Dominican Republic.
“I have seen academies with six people, and I’ve seen academies with 60 people,” Klein said. “I’ve seen academies run by guys who are suspicious, and then I’ve seen many academies run by guys who have legitimate operations.”
Once a player has made it through the academy system and reached that sought-after moment of signing a contract, there are still more steps to complete to start the American journey. The visa process is something they all must complete as they leave the country.
Athletes must go through the U.S. Embassy. Gabriel Hurst, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, said most professional athletes apply under a P-1 visa, which is designated for professional or amateur athletes. Hurst said a majority of these applications are for baseball players.
“Generally, their employer, i.e. their team, files Form I-129 Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker with USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services),” Hurst said in a statement. “Once the petition is approved, the applicant completes the online DS-160 application and then schedules an interview appointment at the Embassy. They complete an in-person interview, and if approved, they receive their visa and can then travel to the U.S. port of entry and apply for admission to the United States with Customs and Border Protection.”
But it is not always a smooth process.
“Visa issues” is a phrase commonly used by media outlets when it comes to signing international prospects. This can mean a variety of things.
“U.S. law generally requires visa applicants to be interviewed by a consular officer at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate,” Hurst said. “After relevant information is reviewed, the application is approved or denied, based on standards established in U.S. law. Consular officers deny visa applications if an applicant is found ineligible under the Immigration and Nationality Act or other provisions of U.S. law.
“An application may be denied because the consular officer does not have all of the information required to determine if the applicant is eligible to receive a visa and must await further documentation, because the applicant does not qualify for the visa category for which they applied or because the information reviewed indicates the applicant falls within the scope of one of the inadmissibility or ineligibility grounds of the law.”
While Hurst said that a majority of P-1 visas are approved, this is a moment that can still cause stress on those involved.
Andres Julio Duran Sanchez, a 35-year-old baseball instructor who works for the Pimentel Academy, highlighted the passion for the sport and the desire to make it to the MLB that makes this visa process so high-stakes.
“Baseball for me is everything, because practically for us Dominicans, it takes us out of what is the environment of the streets … our minds are occupied with what baseball is.”