Major League Baseball’s a business, which means team owners are always going to be watching out for their bottom line. That’s just the name of the game in our economic system, and it’s why baseball’s rank-and-file – that is, the athletes who put millions of dollars into ownership’s pockets – formed the Major League Baseball Players Association back in 1966. But the push-and-pull between profit margins and players’ best interest continues to this day, and now its the MLB’s foreign-born prospects (read: Dominicans, Venezuelans) who are pushing back against questionable decisions from up top.
The latest controversy involves the MLB’s announcement that they would be phasing in a two-day, 10-round international draft and shaking up the league’s overseas recruitment system. At present, the league’s Latin American talent is recruited through an informal network of trainers – also called “buscones” – who scope local communities for young talent and cultivate standout athletes. Along the way, trainers cover vital living expenses for their players and even offer cash incentives to families that can total several thousand dollars.
It’s a system that developed in response to the region’s lack of sports infrastructure and the dire economic needs of many of these prospects, but the system has also been ripe for abuse and corruption. Over the years, buscones have caught a reputation for shady ethical practices, from human smuggling to demanding finders fees that are otherwise prohibited by league rules. Under this pretext, the MLB has decided to take international talent development entirely under their purview by opening league-operated academies in the Dominican Republic from which teams could pull promising young prospects.
Critics have pointed out that the MLB simply does not have the local knowledge to cull talent from Latin America’s ad hoc baseball infrastructure, and the training academies would disincentivize poor prospects deciding between pursuing their baseball dreams and putting food on the family table. The abuses that characterize the current system, they claim, could be solved without imposing a draft, and they’ve been quick to point out that this new system would incidentally save ownership millions in yearly signing bonuses.
As a response, some of the league’s top prospects boycotted a recent Dominican showcase with support from MLB scouts, forcing the league to cancel the event, and another boycott is expected for an upcoming showcase in Panama for Venezuelan players. Whether these bold statements will have any affect on the business-minded club owners is doubtful, but many fear that in these short-sighted decisions could have devastating long-term effects on Latin American representation in the league.
As a teaching example, many doubters have simply pointed to the case of Puerto Rico, which has seen its numbers in the MLB dwindle since Boricua peloteros were incorporated into the draft back in 1990. If that’s the case, Latin American players truly do face a grim outlook, but maybe, just maybe, pressure from below can convince owners to look past their immediate balance sheets, and toward the long term health of their league.