Exploiting Latinos: Baseball Owners and Big Media Strike Out on Decency

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

Bart Giamatti, the late Major League Baseball Commissioner famous for banishing Pete Rose from the game, believed that social justice ought to be a concern of management. He said, “on matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”

Since Giamatti’s death in 1989, decency’s been in a slump. If anything, baseball’s indecency exploits deserve hall of shame induction. Team owners pursue greed agendas with a swagger that rivals Shoeless Joe Jackson. Milwaukee, for example, is only one of many cities victimized by the “build us a new stadium at taxpayer expense or we leave” routine. One of the most sordid national scandals of our time is the ease with which cities of crumbling infrastructures and dilapidated schools can be compelled to take an economic fastball in the teeth for the team. Or more accurately, for the team ownership.

The greed agenda results in lavish “naming rights” deals that diss tradition and turn the act of attending a game into an exercise in having obnoxious advertising thrown right in your face. And while the image of Brian McNamee injecting Roger Clemens’ butt with Human Growth Hormone is enough to make fans throw up their overpriced ballpark hot dogs, let’s not forget that the owners’ greed agenda enabled the players’ juicing regimen.

Young males in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are prey for MLB management. Dave Zirin shows how baseball strip mines the Domican Republic.

For its part, big media is like an indecent baseball owner on steroids. If the media titans won’t dedicate the resources necessary to investigate corporate abuses in general, it should hardly be surprising that the specific business of baseball is able to hide some of its major league misdeeds in the bullpen. Case in point: the shameful exploitation of Latino players.

Almost thirty percent of all major league baseball players were born in Latin America, including last year’s American League batting champion Magglio Ordonez (Venezuela). Last year’s Colorado Rockies, an underdog team that won 21 of its last 22 regular season games and almost took the World Series, did it with Latino talent. According to MLB.com: “Where would the Rockies be without starters Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales and closer Manny Corpas? How can you replace the contributions from catcher Yorvit Torrealba and center fielder Willy Taveras in the NLCS? You can't. It's that simple.”

Mostly hidden from the public is the fact that the Rockies, like almost all big league teams, set up exploitative baseball “academies” in Latin America. The Dominican Republic (DR), a third world country of 8.8 million people, provides nearly 10 percent of all major league baseball players and almost 25 percent of minor leaguers. ESPN.com reports that some of the DR academies include the Oakland Athletics’ "Campo Juan Marichal" in La Victoria, one hour north of Santo Domingo; the Chicago Cubs’ "Ciudad de Beisbol" in Boca Chica, east of Santo Domingo; the Dodgers’ Campo Las Palmas; and the Reds’ "Loma del Sueno Liga."

There is nothing “academic” about these academies. They are simply ways for major league clubs to harvest talent on the cheap. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarría, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Yale and author of a history of Cuban baseball, wrote in the New York Times, “For every Pedro Martinez, there are hundreds of Dominican boys who are cannon fodder -- academies are stocked with young players who even the coaches likely realize have no chance at the big time, but who are needed to fill out rosters.” Youth in these “baseball factories” are sold the dream of stardom, receiving no education or job training while they serve the needs of American baseball owners. The same is true in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez’ insistence that American teams offer just compensation for ravaging the nation’s youth was met with derision by the owners. The Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and San Diego Padres all left Venezuela before regulations were even put in place.

In mainstream media, most sports reporting has degenerated into a kind of glorified locker room or saloon chatter. Exploitation of Latino players is not something that gets the kind of pointed and sustained coverage and commentary necessary to end the injustice. The best reporting on this travesty is by independent sports journalist Dave Zirin (pronounced Zeye-rin; see his website at www.edgeofsports.com). His brilliant 2007 book Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket Books) includes a stunning chapter on “Beisbol: How the Major Leagues Eat Their Young.” Zirin places the issue in the proper social justice frame: “The question we need to ask is this: Does baseball have a broader responsibility to the Dominican Republic and these ten and eleven-year-old kids who think they have a better chance of emerging from desperately poor conditions with a stick and milk-carton glove than by staying in school? Does a highly profitable organization like Major League Baseball have an obligation to cushion the crash landing that awaits 99.9 percent of DR kids with big league dreams, or the 95 percent of players who are good enough to be chosen by the academy but are summarily discarded with nothing but a kick out of the door?”

We know the answer is “yes.” But given the incestuous relationship of the big leagues and big media, on matters of decency independent media will have to lead the way.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.