Dominican teens have American dreams
Ultimate goal of a pro baseball contract pervades culture
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Rene Gayo pulls out his pen and yellow evaluation cards, which aren't much larger than your standard index card. He summons over one of the about 80 teenage boys who have gathered at the field on Wednesday morning, each hopeful that today's tryout could be the one.
Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, looks at the boy and begins his questions.
Name? Position? Age? The questions are always the same.
The boy, donning a Rangers cap, a navy shirt and matching red belt and socks, stumbles on the third one. He tells Gayo he's 17. When Gayo asks for a birthdate, the boy goes back and forth on the year.
Gayo stops writing and turns his face away from the boy.
"I'm already like, 'Hmmm," he says to those gathered around him. "When someone asks me when I was born, I know the date."
The questioning continues, but it's evident that Gayo already has his mind made up. In fact, he seems a bit humored when the boy also informs him that he is a lawyer.
This boy is one of two that Gayo came specifically to see on this day, a day in which Gayo will hold two tryouts in the area around Santo Domingo as is his normal routine when he is in the country. This boy is actually Venezuelan, however, having come to the Dominican Republic to try out in front of Major League scouts.
Gayo is interested in more than just raw talent, however, and with the way the introduction between the two begins, the teenager's fate seems sealed before he is able to show off his arm or take a swing.
"He's a liar," Gayo says, as the boy walks away.
It is shortly before 11 a.m. Atlantic Standard Time when Gayo steps out of his car and begins walking toward a sea of eager faces. Wednesday's tryout, held just outside the capital city of a country that has become a hotbed for Major League talent, has been set up by a "buscon," the term for the men who serve as agents and coaches for budding talent in the Dominican Republic.
Gayo has signed three players from this buscon, Christian Batistia, in the past. And though Gayo is here primarily with his eye on a select few, he will stay and watch every boy that wants to show off his skills. Most of the players train with the buscon. Some will just show up off the street. But as Gayo explains, he watches them all, because there are times when an unexpected talent emerges.
"My job is to be able to find the guy touched by God," Gayo says. "You've got to be able to wing it."
The buscones in the Dominican Republic number in the thousands -- "and those are only the official ones," Gayo explains. Many are former players, including Ray Polanco, a native who never made it out of Seattle's farm system years ago, and who is at the field on Wednesday to showcase one of his young clients.
There are no high school baseball coaches and very little in the way of organized baseball. Most béisbol, as they call it, is played on sandlot-type fields, often with sticks for bats and cloth for bases. Cattle often graze in the outfield.
As a result, these buscones act as coaches first, and then eventually as agents.
Batistia is like most buscones. He has a staff, which he houses and pays, as well as five cooks to prepare food for his staff and players. A total of 137 of his players have signed with professional teams since 2000, with a portion of each signing bonus going to Batistia. He owns and runs the field where Wednesday's tryout takes place.
"Buscones are really what motivates a lot of the baseball play in the Dominican Republic," Gayo explains. "It's not a motivation to win. It's a motivation to sell players."
The field is a ways off the main road and is certainly not built to sustain the late-morning rain that disrupts the tryout. Fading advertisements line the worn-down outfield walls.
This facility -- if it can legitimately be called that -- contains one full field and a half-field, and it belonged to the Cleveland Indians until around 2003-04. In fact, it's where current Indians players Jhonny Peralta and Fausto Carmona were discovered.
There are no comfortable grandstands, no looming light towers. To get from right field to the batting cages, players have to dodge old tires that look as if they were dropped off and never touched again.
It's a setting for baseball being played in its rawest form.
The field is nestled below hills of deteriorating homes and dilapidated infrastructure. Gayo points to the homes, letting the visitors know that part of town is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country.
In a way, it's a fitting dichotomy for such a tryout. The immense poverty trapped in that hillside fuels the motivation for many of these boys. Baseball, they will tell you, is their only hope out.
Gayo pulls out his stopwatch, and the tryout officially begins with the 60-yard dash. The prospective players here range from ages 13-19 -- or so they should -- and Gayo uses the timed dash to evaluate raw athletic speed.
Most boys finish a hair over the seven-second mark. A 16-year-old wearing a Blue Jays cap runs it in 6.7 seconds, earning a surprised, but pleased, glance from Gayo. Another 16-year-old, this one dressed mostly in black and who Gayo is here specifically to watch, runs the distance twice, clocking in with a faster time (6.99 seconds) in his second run than in his first.
After the speeds are clocked, Gayo evaluates their arms. The 16-year-old who ran the fastest sprint also impresses with his arm. After a few throws from the outfield to third base, Gayo stops him to ask if he's ever pitched. The boy shakes his head, no. Gayo has seen his swing, which he describes as "too long," but he hopes to try the boy out as a pitcher on another day. He sees potential.
Gayo then watches Batistia's prized prospect, a 16-year-old from the city of Romana, take ground balls at short. The throws are a bit erratic at first, an evident sign of nerves. But Gayo likes what he sees. His assistant scouts have watched this boy on four different occasions. For Gayo, this is his second look.
"I come in to make the decision," says Gayo, the one with the power to pay the signing bonuses.
A rainstorm interrupts and then cancels play on the field before the tryout is complete. After sitting on the side patiently for hours, about 70 players never get a chance to perform in front of Gayo. They'll have to wait for another day.
These boys, many of whom wear passed down logoed baseball gear, have gotten used to the process. Many of them will be showcased in front of scouts from more than a dozen teams in the coming weeks, just waiting for one offer.
With the median income in the country around $3,000, even the faintest hope at being signed keeps them going. This is a country, a culture, built around baseball.
"Every day here is like the middle of July," Gayo says, attempting to put into perspective what he witnesses daily. "There's no basketball here. It's baseball season 12 months a year."
Very few of the boys who hoped for a chance on Wednesday go to school. Baseball isn't just a way of life -- it is life.
Of the 80 players at the field, one, however, won't be going to another tryout. And he won't be going back to his family on Wednesday night. The rain may have cut the tryout short, but Gayo saw all that he wanted to see from the 16-year-old shortstop from Romana.
Gayo approaches Batistia and tells him that the Pirates would like to sign the young boy. Batistia asks for a signing bonus of $200,000. Gayo says $80,000 will have to do. The two shake hands. A verbal agreement is struck.
The period for signing 16-year-olds out of Latin America doesn't actually begin until July 2. Therefore, there will be no written agreement on Wednesday, nor will there be any money exchanging hands. But there is no reason for Gayo not to believe the verbal agreement won't stand.
"Giving your word down here means something," he explains. "I know [the buscon] who I'm dealing with. We have a history together."
One of Gayo's assistants takes the boy from the field to the Pirates' new Dominican facility, where the shortstop will live and train under the organization's supervision. Under Latin American scouting and signing rules, teams are allowed to house unsigned players for a month. After that month is up, the boys have to leave for a 15-day period. When that ends, they can then return for another month.
The joy on the young boy's face is evident. His family lives in extreme poverty. His father recently abandoned his family for the second time. But now, he's being given a shot at his dream.
"[Out of] all these players, they pick me," he says, speaking through Gayo as a translator. "I feel good. I feel that I have to progress to get me to where God wants me to go."
When he's done answering questions, Gayo turns to the boy one more time. They exchange a fist-pump. And then Gayo offers some advice.
"Our staff has done something for him," Gayo says, relaying what he said to the boy. "Now he has to do something for us. This is just the first step."
Then, Gayo prepares to leave. His next workout is scheduled to begin in less than three hours.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.