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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS
Inside Baseball's Sweatshop
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel
Arturo J. Marcano Guevara and David P. Fidler. Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, 252 pages, $27.95, cloth.
I've never heard of Alexis Quiroz. But then, I've never heard of most of the other 738 Venezuelan players under minor league contracts, or the 1,536 Dominicans, either. If you're like me, you may well have viewed the voracious MLB scouting influence in Latin America as a largely benign phenomenon, offering skilled but impoverished young ballplayers that lottery-like chance to bring their talents to The Show.
Was it a tough row to hoe? Sure. Did some fall by the wayside? You bet. Were there unscrupulous scouts trying to take advantage of naive young country boys? When has it ever been different?
Yet Marcano Guevara and Fidler do a very effective job at taking us past any hazily colonial-romantic notions of Latin baseball and into the deeper sweatshop exploitation of a generation of would-be heroes. Just as Nike chews 'em up and spits 'em out in their shoe factories, our favorite hometown teams do the same to boy after boy, family after family, town after town.
This book offers an interesting approach to the topic. It combines a relatively brief, but effective, scholarly overview of the demographics and procedures surrounding the Latin American portion of the talent pool (most of whom fall beyond the purview of the amateur draft), along with the long, poignant tale of one particular player struggling to break through. This combination punch not only provides us with the deep legal and statistical background of what's happening in the Caribbean Rim, but it personalizes the matter in a way that is pretty hard to shrug off. Like the title says, this isn't just a matter of effectively locating and exploiting "talent"; this is familiar American names and faces who are, frankly, "stealing lives."
While there is blame enough to go around throughout MLB, I would warn Cub fans that you will not emerge from this book feeling good about your team. There are individual heroes, of course, but the organization sure comes off looking like its reputation for being lovable losers is only half correctthe latter half. If the Quiroz story is at all representative, it makes one wonder just how many other fine prospects have been ground into the dirt or turned into frustrated cynics. Andy MacPhail's family has been running teams for generations. This is the best they can do?
I won't take up a great deal of space recounting the sad saga of Alexis Quiroz, though I will say that this is the heart of the book and it is well presented. The authors stick to a fairly dispassionate straight-time sequencing, almost as if they were presenting evidence in court. In part, this is because Marcano Guevara is, in fact, a lawyer, but it's also because Quiroz's story is uniqueprimarily because of its excellent supporting documentation. By giving us all the names and dates and corroborating evidence, the authors are trying to move the reader past any sense of "But that's just your story," which is the line that poor Quiroz encounters on several occasions when trying to tell his tale to team executives.
One of the delicious ironies of the story is that, while it's by no means evident that young Quiroz would ever have made the majors, the viciousness of his treatmentand the patent lies and legal maneuverings engaged in by the Cubsdrive him to attend law school and emerge with a fresh set of weapons in his pocket to attack future injustice in his homeland.
While reading the book, I found myself repeatedly marking passages for future reference, thinking that it would make for an effective review. Now, at the end, I'm not sure that's what is most salient. To be sure, there are astonishing accounts of life in the Latin baseball academies (complete with a drunken manager threatening mayhem with a pistol, a twelve-year-old kid making out lineups, and grotesque treatments for injuries) and well-delivered scenes on Alexis Quiroz's yellow brick road to nightmare (note the contrast between the Cubs' minor league facilities in Mesa, Arizona, and those in the Dominican Republic), but those are details for readers to discover for themselves.
The human saga is nicely bracketed by what is probably David Fidler's work on, first, the globalization of baseball and, second, repair strategies that could be implemented by MLB. How about "a transnational players association to protect and promote the interests of Latin [or any] minor league players?"
Not that I'd bet on anything changing very much, though there are any number of low-cost, commonsense solutions to some of this: things like providing Spanish translations of contracts and other team directives; ensuring that a trainer is present at each academy site; offering adequate shower facilities and meals so that players can perform at their best. Surely invoking even a minimum set of standards would attract any number of fine young Latin players to sign with your team as opposed to somebody else's. This isn't just humanitarian (though that alone should be adequate grounds for change); it's smart business.
Given the shortsighted nature of most team owners, I don't hold out a lot of hope for them seeing the light. But I can't, for the life of me, understand what is stopping the major Latin stars from speaking out. Surely they all went through the systemdid it not have an impact on them? The authors attempted to interview any number of other hardscrabbling minor league Latin players for this book. Most declined to be interviewed, citing a well-founded fear of being blackballed or released. Their posture is understandable. But what's stopping Sammy Sosa from talking? Even after having shot himself in the foot this spring with his corked bat escapade, Sosa has enough clout that he could focus an extremely harsh lens on the machinations of the Cubs operations. I'm sure that every single team has at least one Latin star who could do the same. Time to stand up and be counted, guys.
One final tidbit of irony: "The Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz" begins with him as a twelve-year-old driving past a sandlot game and telling his dad, "Papa, I want to play baseball!" A twelve-year-old who's never played before. Four years later he's got major league scouts trying to sign him to contracts. In fact, it's said that every kid playing ball in the Latin countries has had a major league scout watching him by the time he's sixteen. While the downside of all this is the cheap, shabby treatment so many prospects receive, I couldn't help thinking that at least they get a shot! My boys started playing league ball at the age of seven. Ten years later, they would love to have encountered a major league scout checking them out. But U.S. prospects are way too expensive to risk mistaken signings. As the Padres' scouting director says, "You can . . . run your whole [Latin American] academy for a year on what it takes to sign a first-round draft choice now."
Foreign-born players account for more than a quarter of big leaguers. Most of them come from Latin America. If you're curious about how that works and what it feels like if you're one of the crowd, this is a very instructive book. And hey, if you're a young player who wants to get noticed by a scout, you'll actually have more of a chance by brushing up on your Spanish and heading for the Caribbean. Just don't plan to spend any time complaining about conditions once you're there.
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