STILL AGILE and sure-handed at 53, Jesus "Pepe" Frias, a major-league infielder for nine years, is having another errorless day. The Dominican Republic native and current resident is taking hard-hit grounders at the Friendship Playground ball field in Washington, D.C., where 200 youngsters, ages 5 to 12, are in summer camp. From the baselines, they watch every move of the nimble Frias, whose weeklong stint at the camp is sponsored by Elementary Baseball, a Washington nonprofit devoted to inner-city literacy and sports.
(Disclosure: Elementary Baseball, which has received federal and foundation funding, is run by my son John, a former minor-leaguer in the Baltimore Orioles organization.)
Personable and attentive to the campers he coaches during the day, Frias is from Consuelo, a sugarcane village near the larger town of San Pedro de Macoris. Per capita, the area is the world's mother lode for baseball talent. Sammy Sosa, a shoe-shining urchin who was befriended in his boyhood by Frias, is from San Pedro, along with Juan Samuel, Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin and scores of others. This year, the Dominican Republic, whose destitute people have endured decades of corrupt government and the might of absentee corporations, has more than 1,600 players under contract to major-league teams.
Only in recent years have dispassionate assessments been made about the non-baseball side of this phenomenon-the financial, cultural and ethical considerations that come into play when Third World talent is sought to increase First World wealth.
Who benefits the most? Are any marketplace regulations in place to assure fairness and deter exploitation? Are Dominican teen-agers recruited as commodities or as human beings?
The story of Pepe Frias offers clues. The youngest of 15 children, whose father earned $1.50 a day as a sugarcane worker, Frias left school in third grade to toil in a tractor shed near the cane fields. The family survived on food from its fruit and vegetable garden. For recreation, Frias, like nearly all Dominican boys, played baseball. Often shoeless and shirtless, they cut tree limbs and shaved them into bats. Gloves were made from scraps of canvas or cardboard. On grassless, hardpan patches of dirt, future big-leaguers played thousands of games with other children of poverty. Frias didn't possess a glove until age 19.
That was 1967, when a San Francisco Giants scout, spotting a skinny kid with quick hands and fast feet, signed Frias for $500. The family would live off the money for two years. After a summer playing Class A ball in Illinois, Frias was released. The next year, the Los Angeles Dodgers brought him to spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. He was cut. The Giants took him back in l969, then released him again.
Discouraged, Frias all but quit. An older brother urged him to try once more, saying he was "the only hope for the family." A team in Canada needed players. Frias went north. A Montreal Expo scout saw him and offered a contract but no money. For three years, he rode minor-league buses. In 1973, the Expos brought him up to the majors - for $7,000, minimum pay. A
utility infielder, Frias played six years for Montreal, then one each for the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers. He played in 723 games, had a career batting average of .240 and .951 in the field. His peak salary, with the Braves, was $35,000.
During a lunch break at the camp last week, Frias, married and the father of four, recalls the economics of his playing days: "General managers would say to me, 'This is your salary this year.' I didn't argue. I was scared. If I was pushy, I thought they might send me back to the minors. I was a utility infielder. If I had been a regular player, I could have demanded more pay. It was this way with many of us Dominican players. We were happy just to be in the big leagues. I think they took advantage of me."
Back now for 20 years in Consuelo, Frias has a major-league monthly pension of $2,700. Sizable by Dominican standards, the sum supports Frias' own family of five and helps a half-dozen brothers who are poor.
Are Dominican players exploited? One observer who agrees with Pepe Frias is Brendan Sullivan III, a Washingtonian and Stanford University graduate who played five seasons in the San Diego Padres system. A pitcher, he finished in 2000 in Triple A with the Las Vegas Stars.
Sullivan says he had more than 20 Dominican teammates over five years: "Sure, they were thrilled to have gone from dirt lots in the Dominican to playing in a U.S. stadium before fans and getting paychecks every two weeks. But once a team decides a Dominican won't make it to the big leagues, he is discarded as an unprofitable resource. That's true for U.S. players, but at least they have a high school diploma, and often college, and thus have fallback skills. Most Dominicans don't. They go home to the poverty they came from or try to eke out an existence at menial labor in the States, with nothing left over except tales of their playing days and chasing the dream."
The ethics of the billion-dollar-plus baseball industry are grounded in the reality of profits, not dreams of glory. With a near-limitless supply of impoverished, undernourished and ill-educated Dominican teen-agers fantasizing that they are the next Sammy Sosa, a major-league organization need not extend itself to treat the newest employees that well. In baseball's sweatshops, entry-level salaries are low, accommodations bare-bones.
"With the enormous sums of money that teams spend on players at the big-league level - and that includes multimillion dollar salaries even for mediocre talent, charter flights, fine hotels, postgame food spreads - why can't management divert some of that money to effective language classes and assimilation programs for Dominican recruits?" Sullivan asks. "I played with a Dominican outfielder who, after three years with the organization, couldn't order a pizza over the phone. I had a catcher with four years' experience but I couldn't communicate with him."
Beyond the chance that an 18-year-old Dominican could someday be a profit-producing employee for the club, there hasn't been much interest over the years in the recruits as human beings. How released Dominican minor-leaguers survive for the rest of their lives is of little concern to the front office.
Amends are being made. Josh Byrnes, a well-regarded assistant general manager of the Colorado Rockies and Haverford College graduate who has made several visits to his team's baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, believes that "more and more teams are seeing that the personal development of a recruited player can be as important as skill development. Teams now have academies where young players are taught English, math, nutrition and sex education. The goal is to prepare them to function as well-rounded people, not only as baseball players."
This summer the Rockies' Dominican academy has 35 players. In addition, 12 are in the minors and three with the team in Denver. Byrnes acknowledges that a difference exists between Dominican and U.S. recruits. "Physically, emotionally and intellectually, a Dominican at 16 is behind an American l6-year-old. The Dominican kids are grateful to be in a structured environment at an academy - three meals, air conditioning. It's a long way to the top for both them and Americans. But a lot of the rigors of minor-league life - the travel, being away from home - are not seen as a hardship, as it might be for an American youngster who grew up in comparative comfort. A Dominican's level of desire is strong. But that shouldn't give an agent or club the right to take advantage."
For his part, Frias tries to counsel the youngsters in Consuelo. Do they always listen? He isn't sure. How much can he tell them, he wonders, when the choice is stark: baseball or the cane fields?
These days, Frias works with Elementary Baseball to coordinate a weeklong clinic every November for 300 Dominican children. His ally is Sister Lenore Gibb, a Catholic missionary from Canada on the island for more than 40 years. The nun, who runs a school, is said to have taught more big-leaguers - at least 25 - than any teacher in the world.
At the summer camp in Washington last week, Frias told the youngsters that he is planning to run for mayor of Consuelo. The kids cheered wildly. Tears came to Frias' eyes. He hadn't heard cheering like that since his days in the majors. This time was better. The cheers were from friends inspired by him as a person, not mere fans who saw him as a shortstop.
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, 450l Van Ness St., Washington, D.C. 20016. He teaches courses on nonviolence at three universities, two high schools and a prison.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun