Sunset Strip was hallowed ground in the 80’s. It was a cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, along with healthy doses of Aquanet, leopard print, and androgyny. Hair metal was everything. Motley Crue, Poison, L.A. Guns (who would later birth Guns N Roses), Great White, Warrant, and nearly any other assembly of dudes with long hair, trashy attire, and a half ounce of talent were snatched up and given massive amounts of money, cocaine, and women by every big record label in America.
It was the scene. You were not going to succeed as a record label in reaching the youth demographic in America if you didn’t have a successful stable of hair bands on your imprint, and Sunset Strip was the place to find them all. You needn’t look very hard either. They were pouring out of all the iconic venues: the Whiskey, Roxy, Troubadour, and Rainbow Room. It was a classic win-win for bands and labels alike; the right place and the right time applied equally to both sides. If you were the average, run-of-the-mill hair band, you wanted to be on Sunset to be “discovered.” Likewise, if you were the average label “suit” wanting to move up the proverbial ladder, you also wanted to be on Sunset, because that’s where the scene was.
The G-N-R cheese ballad ‘ParadiseCity’ summed the Sunset scene up perfectly. In baseball circles, the song title could also serve as an appropriate nickname for the Dominican Republic, Major League’s equivalent to the Sunset Strip of the 80’s.
The Dominican Republic championship at the recent World Baseball Classic was not the start of something new, rather it was the exclamation point on a phenomenon that has taken over the sport of baseball over the past decade. To borrow from another hair band classic: they rocked the world like a hurricane (a category five at that).
The D.R. has become the premier purveyor of Major League talent in the world. It’s surpassed all the traditional powerhouses [Japan, Cuba, and (yes) the U.S.], and it’s by no accident. This country literally creates ballplayers the way Mr. Miyagi creates karate masters; by raising and training young boys across the country as soon as they are able to throw and catch a ball.
Trevor Martin’s Ballplayer: Pelotero ably explores the inner-workings of scouting talent in the D.R. The film follows two premier prospects, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, both at the age of 16, when Major League teams can legally sign players to contracts (both went on to sign lucrative deals; Sano with the Minnesota Twins and Batista with the Houston Astros). The process of building young Dominican ballplayers up to Major League ready talent is intentional and focused, with a trainer taking a handful of young boys under his wing and working with them daily in academies set up all over the country. The film (available for streaming on Netflix) also makes the claim that 20 percent of all professional baseball players in the U.S. hail from the D.R.
If indeed true, it might explain why the list of current Dominicans in the Majors reads like an all star lineup. Albert Pujols. Robinson Cano. Jose Reyes. Adrian Beltre. Hanley Ramirez. Jose Bautista. Melky Cabrera. Alfonso Soriano. David Ortiz. Carlos Santana. You could toss in Ubaldo Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez, Edinson Volquez, Michael Pineda (if healthy) and Ervin Santana as your starters, Fernando Rodney and Rafael Soriano as your primary relievers, and you’ve got a team that would win a series against most MLB teams.
And it doesn’t stop there, either. The next wave of Dominican stars is already on the way.
Catcher Gary Sanchez (Yankees); shortstop Dorsyss Paulino (Indians); the abovementioned third baseman Sano (Twins); outfielders Oscar Tavares (Cardinals), Rymer Liriano (Padres), and Gregory Polanco (Pirates); and pitchers Yordano Ventura (Royals) and Carlos Martinez (Cardinals) are on most top-100 prospect lists and many could see big league call-ups when rosters expand at the end of the season. Sanchez, Tavarez, and Sano, in particular, are already penciled in on future all-star ballots by scouts all over.
If there’s a massive upside to the scouting frenzy in the D.R. for pro-ball clubs, there’s an equally massive downside to the upbringing for most young, aspiring Dominican ball players. In fact, more than one has made the claim that the conditions these boys endure and the physically strenuous workouts they are put through daily are hardly different from the conditions that young laborers are forced to endure in sweatshops around the globe. The similarities are not all that different to some extent, with the obvious difference being the potential for lucrative payoffs in the form of Major League contracts that don’t exist for child laborers handcrafting t-shirts.
Martin’s film alludes to the dark underbelly of the Dominican prospect factory. Age is currency, and the younger a pro-ready prospect, the better. This has led to many prospects understating their age in hopes of making themselves more enticing to teams. Sano was a prime example of this, as it took a lengthy and damaging MLB investigation into his age before a team could sign him. Likewise, there have been a host of players in the Majors already who have had their actual age questioned (Albert Pujols is one who has had his name pop up in rumors from time to time, though no actual evidence has been presented to validate such a claim). This seems minute in comparison to some of the other measures young boys are taking to make them seem more viable as players. If PEDs are a problem on the Major League circuit, they are as big a problem with these ballplayers. It’s the double edged sword of scouting in the Dominican Republic. Teams want players as young as possible, but they want them with big-league physical tools. Obviously, the sixteen year old that has Paul Bunyan’s body, Usain Bolt’s speed, or the fastball velocity of an asteroid isn’t commonplace. To achieve these qualities, steroids, HGH, and/or anything that comes from deer parts are used by more than a handful of young Dominican stars eager to get a leg up on their competition.
Let’s not forget that even a paltry (by Major League standards) $50,000 signing bonus is enough to take a young boy’s family out of poverty and into nice homes. It’s why parents are so willing to allow their young boys to go through with potentially harmful practices. Their hope lies in their kids.
Look, I get it. There’s a sense of responsibility to family that these young ball players feel. I can’t say I’d feel it any less than they do. With that responsibility and desire to better your family’s way of living, you’re going to feel added pressure and you’re going to want to do all you can to ensure you get that Major League contract. If there’s something I can take/inject/apply that can make me rich instead of following the same path towards poverty my parents did, I’m probably going to take/inject/apply the damn thing. But, I know the long-term risks associated with such use, especially on a still-developing body. Many of these kids don’t. That’s where MLB needs to step in and ensure they are doing their part by properly educating these kids on the risks of using PEDs. There also should be a standard drug test applied before any contract is signed.
But, to focus on the dark side is to miss the bigger picture. Yes, there are some changes needed, but hat being said, the big story here is that the Dominican Republic, a country with an estimated 10.37 million (roughly the population of Los Angeles county) is producing an astounding 20% of professional baseball players in the United States. Twenty percent! And, not only are they producing quantity, they are producing quality, as evidenced by the above mentioned players.
The Dominican Republic is here, and their global baseball presence is only going to continue to grow. Unlike Sunset Strip hair metal, baseball isn’t a fad and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. As Dominican trainers and MLB scouts fine tune their methods, with the assistance of the higher ups regulating the scene, we could potentially see the Dominican Republic as scouted as American high schools, and with good cause. Oh, Sweet Child O’ Mine.