Tragic Week In Dominican Baseball


It’s been a bad week in Dominican baseball. First it broke that Dominican bonus baby Angel Villalona had turned himself into authorities as the main suspect in a shooting killing in La Romana, D.R., followed days later by reports that the St. Louis Cardinals had voided a $3.1 million contract with 2009 signee Wagner Mateo over a pre-existing medical condition. Meanwhile, Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times published a must-read piece on the dangers facing Dominican baseball. I'd planned to resume my examination of an international draft with a piece on Puerto Rico's inclusion in the Rule 4 draft, but decided instead to delve into recent events. Puerto Rico's not going anywhere, right?

For those who missed it, San Francisco Giants farmhand Angel Villalona surrendered to authorities on Sunday, Sept. 20 following a Saturday night shooting death in a La Romana nightclub. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but from what I can glean from the Dominican dailies, Mario Félix de Jesús Valette was allegedly shot dead after a dispute with Villalona’s entourage at a nightclub called D’Tony’s Superfría.* Villalona, a 19-year-old first baseman who signed a headline-getting bonus of $2.1 million in 2006, denies that he is responsible for the death.

* Is that a mural of Tony Montana on the front door?

Andrew Baggarly of the Mercury News has some reactions from Villalona’s teammates at San Jose, including big leaguers Buster Posey and Waldis Jaoquin (for more on whom, see R.J.’s piece at Fangraphs), who notes the ubiquity of handguns in the Dominican Republic. Having spent a couple months in the D.R. last spring, I can concur, and recall riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle on a tour of the farming center of Constanza. After several minutes of wondering what was digging into my pelvis, I asked the gentleman to adjust his pistol.

***

While we don’t know the half of the Villalona story, it’s nonetheless hard not to think of Cesar Cedeño. Signed as a 16-year-old in 1967, in ‘72 the Astros 21-year-old centerfielder posted a wOBA of .421 and won what would be the first of five consecutive gold gloves.

Cedeño put up a wOBA of .417 in ’73, but that winter would be a difficult one for the budding superstar. According to published accounts, Cedeño and his girlfriend, Altagracia de la Cruz, were struggling over a loaded handgun in a Santo Domingo motel room when the gun went off, killing de la Cruz. A paraffin test ultimately determined that de la Cruz’ pulled the trigger and Cedeño was let off with a nominal fine, but it is often thought that the incident dogged the Hall of Very Gooder throughout his career.

"It never affected my playing," Cedeño told Peter Gammons for a 1977 Sports Illustrated piece, an assertion Rob Neyer seconds in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups:

"Cedeño actually played quite well from 1974 through ’77. Then, after missing most of ’78 with an injury and struggling in ’79, Cedeño bounced back with a fine 1980. At that point, he was still on a Hall of Fame path."

It was a broken ankle, says Neyer, sustained in Game 3 of the 1980 NLCS, that marked the turning point in Cedeño’s career.

***

According to Will Carroll, Wagner Mateo’s is another sort of tragedy. Signed by the Cardinals to the richest July 2 deal of the summer, the Redbirds have apparently voided the $3.1 million contract they had previously awarded the lefty center fielder after his medical examination revealed a degenerative eye condition.

Ben Badler has details and reactions at Baseball America. What sticks out for me is this quote:


"I’ve got doctors who say he does things better with his eye vision than normal players," [Edgar] Mercedes said. "What he makes up for with having 20/30 vision is above-normal depth perception. So it’s going to be a legal issue."


Mercedes, who represents Mateo, is the Dominican proprietor of the Born To Play Academy, the Haina, D.R.-based program that produced Michael Ynoa in 2008; he’s also the owner of 40 or so legal sports betting locations around the nation.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it’s striking for me to see a Dominican adviser contemplating legal action against a club. Historically marginalized as so-call buscones, men filling the role of Mercedes have become increasingly sophisticated as the market has become more profitable, and I like to hope a more sophisticated adviser wins the Dominican prospect a fairer shake in his dealings with clubs (not to mention a fairer shake with his own adviser).

***

We need more stories like this one in the national media, which has generally underreported and misunderstood (frankly, it’s hard to understand) the world of Latin American baseball. 

Baxter identifies three plagues—PEDs, age-fraud and bonus-skimming—that threaten to destroy the Dominican baseball industry.

There’s a lot of information in one place here—59 percent of the minor-leaguers busted for PEDs in the last year-and-a-half have been Dominican; since 2001, an average of 145 ID-fraud cases have come out of the D.R. yearly—and the whole the thing is worth a read.

That said, the tone may be a bit alarmist—talent usually plays, doesn’t it?—for instance, this:

"’Baseball in the Dominican Republic is in jeopardy,’ says Charles Farrell, a former Washington Post journalist and co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy (DRSEA). ‘Just from the integrity issue. There's no simple solution.’"

Still, when Farrell talks, I listen; he’s the rare source for Latin American baseball knowledge that does not work for MLB, its clubs or develop prospects for profit.

In a recent newsletter (Volume II, Isuue 15), Farrell offered a novel approach to the age-fraud problem:
"Why not start a fingerprinting program for boys in the fifth grade (or earlier), and create a data base against which identities can be checked in six years, with 16 being the age when Dominican males can sign with Major League Baseball teams?"
Farrell says the idea was pitched to him by a baseball exec who noted that Venezuelans are fingerprinted when they apply for their national identification cards, usually at the age of 9 or 10.

Putting aside for the moment any moral-qualms about fingerprinting children, the immediate practical concern is, who pays?

I’m often surprised to hear baseball folk lay problems with identity-fraud at the foot of the Dominican government. Haven’t they been to the D.R.? Education is only mandatory to the fifth grade, the average salary is something like $9,000 and even in middle class sections of the capital city, electricity is spotty at best.

At the same time, baseball brings millions upon millions into the country, and in spite of the riches that MLB reaps from the D.R., I’m not sure that the league should be charged with tackling national infrastructural problems.

So in the style of the much-esteemed Tommy Bennett, a weekend discussion question: who pays? And with regards to PEDs, age-fraud and bonus-skimming, whose problems are these?

 

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