Fifth Place Writing – Sports


Astronomical odds

Like all Dominican teen prospects, 17-year-old Miguel Almonte, a Blue Jays signee, has the weight of his family, neighborhood and country on his shoulders as he dreams of being the next Jose Reyes. Despite his sweet swing and cannon arm, odds are more likely that life will get worse, not better.
By Faiz Siddiqui

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – A year after signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Gipsy Veras sat shotgun in his new ’92 Camry, sipping a 40-ounce Presidente beer as the man driving took a swig of Johnnie Walker, Black Label.

It was a fitting end to a sleepless weekend, the conclusion of a 72-hour beach getaway that had the men sleeping with more women than they could remember, running up obscene tabs. The men jumped from city to city, stopping ashore in Cabarete, Puerto Plata, Gaspar Hernandez. They drank rum and Cokes and pina coladas on the water as their real girlfriends awaited them 200 miles away in Coutí. In one weekend, Veras alone blew more than 50,000 pesos, about $3,000.

Alone on the open road, and still wearing baseball pants they put on three days earlier, they shared memories of the mini-vacation as the aqua-colored Toyota whisked around S-shaped turns at 70 mph. Exhausted, Veras leaned his head on the cold car window and fell asleep.

Minutes later, his heavy eyelids opened back up.

“Where are we?”

A tree stump laid arms-length away, the new car resting calmly against the trunk. The car’s hood smashed in. Blackness engulfed them.

“Mi carro,” Gipsy thought to himself. “Mi carro.”

The men were just lucky they didn’t plunge off the cliff.

If Gipsy’s foster brother Frank hadn’t hit a tree, the two of them might have been dead, and Gipsy never would have become a pitching coach in the Blue Jays’ system, his most recent job. He wouldn’t become someone who took all those pills.

He wouldn’t have become anything.

And nearly 20 years later, prospect Miguel Almonte wants to become something.

• • •

Yewri Guillén’s head wouldn’t stop throbbing. A free clinic doctor diagnosed the 18-year-old Washington Nationals signee with bacterial meningitis almost three years ago, but because the terms of his deal weren’t yet complete, he couldn’t foot the bill for a $1,300 stay at a private hospital. And the headaches continued.

The MLB investigated Guillén for identity fraud and suspended him for a year before he lay ill in a hospital bed, with the league claiming he lied about his birthday to increase his signing bonus. Guillén was supposed to travel to Florida to play for the Nationals’ rookie league team there in mid-April, after the MLB authorized his contract. But he never made it. Instead of flying to the United States April 15, 2011 as planned, he died in a clinic that day, according to a March story in Mother Jones.

Long before the incident came to light, Major League Baseball’s relationship with the island nation was regarded as predatory by critics Dominican and American. Five years ago, the MLB sent activist Charles Farrell to Santo Domingo to examine the issues surrounding baseball in the country. What he found was a system that destroyed young lives: scouts, known as buscones or searchers, taking large cuts of players’ signing bonuses for themselves. Trainers pumping illegal substances into players to increase their chances of success. Players with no sense of money or how to manage it blowing their entire bonus checks in a matter of years, even in just a few months. Players routinely lied about their names and ages to increase their chances of being signed. MLB officials would never know his real name, but Gipsy Veras fell into nearly every trap.

The problem is simple: MLB teams like the Blue Jays treat Dominican players as investments, looking at the country as an arm of a larger $4 billion business model. And the minimum age to sign Dominican players, 16, – “and they’d take them younger if they could,” Farrell says – reflects the league’s attitude. Players in the United States must be 18, or have completed high school to sign. Teams regard the Dominican Republic as an unregulated free agent pool. And young Dominicans feed into it.

They want to have it made. Problem is, on opening day last year, only 83 of their countrymen appeared on rosters. One out of 50 signees will ever make it to the majors. And that’s just for a single day, a cup of coffee. For many, the journey to get there – or the aftermath of getting cut – will be the most difficult part.

The question now is where baseball will take 17-year-olds like Almonte, a Blue Jays prospect who signed a $100,000 contract July 2. The odds facing kids like him are long – “astronomical,” in Farrell’s eyes.

The fates of thousands like Gipsy, on the other hand, have already been sealed. After stints as pitching coach with the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers and most recently the Blue Jays, the 35-year-old is now working as a trainer and scout for young Dominican players. But for him, life after baseball almost didn’t happen at all.

Like him, thousands will return to the Dominican Republic after seeing their Major League dreams fail, with little money, no education and no professional skills.

Miguel Almonte just hopes he’s not one of them.

Miguel Almonte has worked at making it to the United States to play baseball since he was 7. For many in his position, there’s weight to succeed from birth, to lead families out of poverty and be the salvation for entire neighborhoods and villages in the country.

• • •

“Leading off for the Blue Jays, shortstop…”

The announcers still haven’t learned how to say his name. Maybe, they never will. But at age 17, Miguel Almonte is already batting ahead of all-stars José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación.

The manager had to bench the teenager’s favorite player, Jose Reyes, to make this lineup possible. But early on into the season, the move is paying dividends. Through a few months of play, Almonte bats .315 with 10 homers. The 5-foot-11, 186-pound teen is one of the most feared hitters in the American League East. He’s dominating.

The fantasy is getting more real by the day. And sure, it’s only possible in video game form right now – Miguel, still stuck playing and managing his MLB 2K11 Blue Jays team. But lately, the dream’s been starting to feel tangible.

On a muggy December afternoon in east Santo Domingo, the acne-ridden teenager sits in his mom’s patio hair salon, swiping through pictures on his smartphone before baseball practice. He’s easily the best-dressed person in the neighborhood today, wearing a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves, fitted blue jeans and a silver wristwatch.

“This one is cheap,” he says, referring to the timepiece, the label on which reads “Bell.”

As his mother applies rollers to a woman’s hair, he begins scrolling down the website of fashion label Nautica. Moments later, the kid with the chinstrap beard pulls up a picture of a chrome-faced watch with a blue leather strap, and a set of smaller gauges.

“Eeesstyle,” the 17-year-old says, hesitantly in English. “It’s $350. I’m think I’m going to buy it.”

Coaches have warned Miguel about purchases like these. But sometimes, he says, it’s hard not to treat himself.

On July 2, the 17-year-old inked a $100,000 minor league contract with the Blue Jays. A fourth of his signing bonus went to his coach, Augustine Ramos of the Neftali Cruz development league, where he was discovered. Fifty thousand dollars is being put away for his mother’s new five-bedroom home in an upscale Santo Domingo neighborhood.

With the rest of the money, Miguel says he wants to buy himself a car – something practical.

Maybe a Camry.

• • •

The first thing that strikes you about Gipsy Veras is his cleanly pressed Gucci polo, with red and green trimming on the sleeves and collar, conforming perfectly to a bulging chest, rounded belly, and toned arms. Stress pulls at the 35-year-old’s drooping eyes, the lines running up his forehead and escaping onto a hairless scalp. He wears lime green fitted slacks. The links of his stainless steel wristwatch glimmer like the silver cross adorning his neck. Gipsy could not afford to buy the outfit he’s wearing today.

The parallels between him and a 17-year-old on the other side of town are hard to ignore. Like Miguel, Gipsy signed a six-figure contract to play professionally as a teen. Like Miguel, he put a large chunk of his bonus money into a house for Mom. Like Miguel, he indulged in the latest fashions right away, constantly trying to outdo friends in the neighborhood.

Like Miguel, Gipsy was going to be famous.

Isn’t everyone?

Gipsy’s story is about poverty and wealth and how wealth can cause poverty all over again. It’s about having nicer clothes than your teenage friends, the Nautica watch and Nikes, and doing favors – 100 pesos here to buy lunch for a neighbor, another 500 there to pay his rent – favors for everyone but yourself. It’s a story about when dreams consume people, and swallow them whole. All while executives in tall buildings a country away, less than a 1,000 miles away, cash in on the successes of the lucky few, on the talent of your countrymen, mired in a limited economic system.

This is a story about sitting in your childhood bedroom and facing yourself once you’ve lost everything.

• • •

Every day at 8 a.m., Miguel rolls out of bed and takes a long look in the mirror before baseball practice. He slips his mirrored sunglasses over his freshly cut three-quarter fade, kept perfect by weekly barbershop visits. He squirts Axe body spray onto his chest before throwing the can into his retro Toronto Blue Jays duffle bag.

After a breakfast of corn flakes, he leaves the house and heads for the metro station. In his Blue Jays cap and shirt, his Blue Jays shorts and his blue Nikes, the 17-year-old looks as if he’s headed straight for the Rogers Centre. Actually, he’s walking past colmados, the iconic Dominican street markets, passing a slew of check cashing shops and fruit stands and beggars on his way to Centro Olimpico baseball stadium, a field better known as the one-time playground of national heroes David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero.

Recently, Miguel says, something weird has been happening on his way to the train. People recognize him now, and they stop him.

“Hola. Qué lo que?”

He knows he shouldn’t stop, but he likes the attention.

Until, “They start talking, and talking for a while and they say, ‘How’s it going?’ Miguel says. “And then they say, ‘Bro, do you have 15,000 pesos you can lend me to take care of something?’ ”

At the baseball field he takes batting practice with Augustine Ramos, his longtime coach. Taking a hundred swings. Fielding dozens of groundballs. Throwing laser after laser to first from deep short.

Once, he bombed a meatball all the way to the adjacent bus station, clearing the 330-foot fence by a long shot and nearly landing on Avenida John F. Kennedy. Today, it’s all line drives and fly balls, but Ramos doesn’t mind. The coach says he wants four things out of his players:

Arm strength
Miguel’s got them down. He’ll run a 6.5-second 60-yard dash when he leaves the academy in time for the MLB’s Dominican Summer League in June. He can beam a one-hopper to first in a split second. His baseball IQ is above-average for someone his age, though he receives only four hours of schooling every week, well below the standard for American players. At 5-feet-11-inches, he almost has the same frame as Reyes, the current Blue Jays shortstop.

More than anything, Miguel hates when people doubt him.

One time last year, his manager in a select tournament put him at ninth in the batting order. Miguel threatened not to bat if he wasn’t moved up. He even cried.

When he got up to the plate in the final inning, Miguel squared up, cocked his bat and launched a walk-off home run into the stands.

• • •

Gipsy beamed as they wrote the checks. Every Dominican boy wants to build his mom a new house.

After signing with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1997, Gipsy decided to make good on a long-held vow: remodel his family home. It started out as two cement rooms in the Paraíso de Herrera neighborhood, the kind of place a Santo Domingo cop and housewife raising four kids could afford. Only half the house was finished. There were blueprints for what the other side should look like, but the family didn’t have enough money to make it livable.

Now, it’s three stories, with a balcony overlooking the street, mahogany furniture and patterned sofas. Gipsy and Jose, now a $4 million per year relief pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, bought the family its first washing machine around the time of their signing.

“I want a stove,” their mother would say, and it’d be there the next day.

The brothers must have poured $20,000 into the house.

Gipsy’s spending didn’t stop there. At parties, he’d bring extra clothes along to ensure he was prepared if someone was dressed better than him. He was blowing through $100,000 like it was nothing, like it was replaceable.

All the while, he was splitting time between the United States and the Dominican Republic, trying to, at the very least, make it onto the High-A roster. His growth was impressing coaches in the Gulf Coast. His fastball had gone from 86 mph to 88 in a matter of months, then 90, 91 during the next few years.

In his mind, he was making it. Living his dream.

Then he got traded.

• • •

A stack of boxes reaches almost to the ceiling in the family’s living room, making the couch nearly unsittable. A dark hallway leads to the cramped kitchen, where the family’s supply of cereals, bread, granola bars sits atop a yellowing fridge. Miguel’s hole-in-the-wall room sits off to the side, next to the sliver that serves as the family bathroom. A spigot poking out of the wall serves as the family shower.

But soon, the Almontes will leave their cramped quarters for a five-bedroom house in another neighborhood. The kind of place where Negra has dreamed of opening a new salon for years. She opened her current one four years ago after her husband was laid off.

To save money before Miguel signed his contract, she says, she’d go days at a time without eating. Miguel remembers a time she didn’t eat for three whole days. Now, thanks in part to the salon carved out of the family garage, the Almontes are in better financial standing.

Standing over a torn up, black leather chair, she applies coloring to a woman’s hair, trying to make conversation over the buzz of a fan on its highest setting. Miguel looks on from the armchair next to the salon’s iron gate.

“I don’t want her to be here anymore.”

• • •

After saving his first game with the San Francisco Giants’ rookie league affiliate, Gipsy was convinced the move to Arizona would work out after all. But, he says, managers soon proved him wrong.

Just days after Gipsy arrived, he says, the scout who signed him began traveling on team business.

“From then on, everything turned into a nightmare,” Gipsy says.

He’d go 20 days without playing, then the manager would send him into the game with no warm up. His fastball began to slow down. A searing pain shot up his right arm. He had no scout, no ally, to advocate for him. And he barely spoke English, which made it harder to defend himself.

But the man who says he was a Summer League leader in saves the year before didn’t want to risk complaining. Those who complained might be dropped from the team a day after registering a win. It happened to Dominican players all the time. His brother Jose says Dominican players would routinely gather in hotels rooms and bawl their eyes out after seeing friends sent home.

Gipsy reached a point, he says, where no one believed in him anymore. Even Jose, who was well on his way to making the 40-man roster, says he stopped answering his brother’s calls, not wanting to be distracted by negative thoughts.

Gipsy says prejudice factored into to the way he was treated.

“The manager I got didn’t treat me well,” he says. “It seemed like he didn’t like Latino baseball players too much. He liked the baseball players, like they say, ‘from the farm.’ ”

Now, Gipsy started feeling the pressure to inject.

“I wanted to throw faster,” he says. “I wanted to compete with those above my level. And yes, it did cross my mind.”

But then he began to think about the consequences, the embarrassment to his family.

“Don’t do it. It’s going to turn out bad. You can die, you can get a heart attack.”

He never did do steroids, he says, and his fastball lost a little more of its punch every day. Still, there were flashes of promise toward the end of his season in Arizona.

“I remember I pitched six innings with no runs, six innings with no runs,” Gipsy said.

He received the news a day later. Stormed out of the stadium still wearing his uniform. The flight was already arranged. Within 24 hours, he’d be back on a plane to Santo Domingo.

“The last one to find out is you.”

• • •

“Tomorrow, I go from being a normal baseball player to being a professional baseball player. A professional player.”

The night before his signing, Miguel lies in bed picturing big league stadiums – Rogers Centre, Fenway, Wrigley – unable to sleep. Already imagining the stroke of the pen that would change his life.

“I wanted to sign already,” he said. “I wanted to feel that joy already.”

His trainers had informed him of the Blue Jays’ decision weeks before it was made official. But still, Miguel couldn’t shake the possibilities from his mind. People were going to see him as a professional baseball player.

Ever since Neftali Cruz took him under his wing at 7, he’d been working for this moment. He’d devoted his life to baseball, and now it was finally paying off.

Only two years earlier, he’d lie awake on this mattress, stomach growling, unable to sleep on an empty stomach.

“A professional baseball player.”

• • •

Farrell says the average career of a Dominican signee lasts between two and three years. He said there’s weight on Dominican boys to succeed from birth, to lead their families out of poverty and be the salvation for entire villages and neighborhoods in the country. Those who don’t succeed are immediately regarded as failures. The pressure on signees is immense.

“There’s a saying in Dominican baseball that ‘If I don’t succeed in baseball, the devil takes me away,'” Farrell said. “It’s like if their soul has been consumed. And you can see it in the eyes of some of these kids sometimes. You ask them, ‘What are you going to the do with the rest of your life?’ And it’s, ‘I have no rest of my life. My life is over because I did not succeed in baseball.’ ”

If such a system were to be implemented in the United States, Farrell said, there’d be mass paranoia. Nowhere else in sports is an industry solely based on the skills of 16-year-old kids. Nowhere else is exploitation so ingrained in the fabric of a sport.

“You’d have chaos if suddenly 13-, 14-year-olds were dropping out of school to become NBA players of NFL players,” he said. “It just would not happen.”

Farrell says the sport destroys more than it saves.

Go to any taxi stand in the Dominican Republic and see for yourself, he says, the burly men lined up waiting to tell the stories of how their careers ended abruptly, without warning.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that tells you you’re a failure at age 20.”

• • •

“You are not a baseball player anymore. You’re nobody.’ ”

Now, back in his mother’s home in Santo Domingo, a home his bonus check had expanded and remodeled, Veras laid in bed unresponsive. Saliva drenched his pillow.

He’d spent the day’s early hours locked in his bedroom, crying often, refusing food. Just getting out of bed seemed a monumental task. More than once, his mother came by to check on him.

“Gipsy,” she said, “Gipsy. You have to eat something.”

Gipsy remembered looking into the mirror, the feelings of failure as he made out the stocky figure reflected within it. Embarrassment overtook him. Shock.

Finally, he rose with sights set on his mother’s medicine cabinet. He grabbed the first bottle he could find, retreating to his dark bedroom. One by one, he slipped the unmarked prescription pills into his mouth until he started feeling dizzy. He faded soon after the nausea set in.

Hours passed, and darkness fell on Santo Domingo, Gipsy lying there unnoticed.

Life in the pressure cooker of the Major League farm system had taken its toll. The pain in his right arm – his pitching arm – had become unbearable. The money that fueled weekend-long beach getaways in the northern Dominican Republic had long ago disappeared. Now, back home with no Major League contract, no education and no professional skills, Gipsy had nowhere to go. Baseball was his life for 15 years. He didn’t know anything else.

He woke up. Confused, alive.

Days after his failed suicide attempt, he attended a church group with his close friend César. The group went out to eat, and everyone started talking about work. Except Gipsy.

“They were all talking about their professions and I joked saying, “So who’s going to talk baseball with me?”

“No one.”

It was like a joke, Gipsy said, no one cared to give attention to.

“And it got me thinking. They were doctors, graduates, architects, medicine, lawyers…

“Oh, how are you doing at the university?”

“I’m doing well.”

“Oh, I’m in this university,”

“I’m in this other one.”

“And so I asked myself, ‘What are you?’ ”

• • •

Almonte and his mentor Neftali Cruz sit in the stands of an empty Estadio Quisqueya, talking baseball. Cruz has an arm around the 17-year-old. They’re watching the Licey Tigers’ batting practice, looking on as minor leaguers and Dominican prospects and marginal major leaguers send longballs over the sea of Presidente ads making up the fence.

“Carlos Beltran used to take 500 swings a day,” Cruz tells him. “Sosa took two hours of batting practice before every game.”

Cruz, a Blue Jays scout who spent 14 years in the Pirates’ farm system, says he likes working with Dominican prospects because of their raw, unmatched desire to succeed.

“When they’re hungry,” he says, “they can learn. This game is repetition. You have to put in the brain. It’s like going to school. You study before you take the test. Baseball is the same way. If you don’t put in the mind, 50,000 people are going to be disappointed.”

Later, Miguel stands and looks on as the Escogido Lions prepare for a 7 p.m. game. Standing in batter’s eye relation to home plate, he begins listing off the Dominican MLB players he thinks have the best sounding names. Pedro Martinez. Robinson Cano. Albert Pujols.

Miguel grabs onto the backstop and leans into the net. He glances at the corners of the stadium, its 335-foot foul poles. Then he stares into the outfield, silent, imagining.

“It’s a good name for a baseball player,” he says. “Miguel Almonte.”