|Posted on Mon, Jul. 22, 2002|
Special Report: Mining for Dominican Diamonds
Phillies are getting back in the ball game
Once again, they are competing for Dominican talent.
Inquirer Staff Writer
Second of four parts
GUANUMA, Dominican Republic - The drive from Santo Domingo to this not-big-enough-for-most-maps town takes 45 minutes.
That's provided you win all those wild games of chicken at the intersections in the city, haven't busted an axle on one of the crater-sized potholes that pock the roads in the countryside, and, of course, managed to ignore the temptation of an ice-cold Presidente, the ubiquitous local brew that is hawked on just about every street corner.
The drive takes you through scenes of poverty, places where old, sad-looking women sit in front of their homes - shacks, really - and watch the cars and motor scooters go by. Young children, some wearing no clothes, play close to the roadside, oblivious to passing motorists.
The landscape turns green and lush, with pastures, hills and mango trees. There is a dilapidated barn in the distance. One of the locals along for the ride tells you that your destination is near.
Then there is a chicken ranch across the street, and a farmer raises cattle around the bend. You've reached your destination, and it, too, is a farm of sorts. Baseball players are raised here.
This is the Phillies' new Dominican developmental academy, a baseball ranch that the team hopes will produce the next Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero or even Jose Mesa.
The state-of-the-art facility officially opened in May. It sits on a wide expanse of land that is bordered by pastures and hills. It features a beautiful field, dugouts and a pavilion for spectators, covered batting cages, and a practice infield.
A building painted the color of infield clay houses a clubhouse, a weight room, a trainer's room, a kitchen, and a dining room. There is classroom space for English lessons. Upstairs is a dormitory that can house up to 60 players.
"You can't compete in Latin America without something like this," Mike Arbuckle, the Phils' assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development, said at the dedication of the academy.
And if you can't compete in Latin America these days, you'll have trouble competing in the major leagues.
Some of baseball's biggest stars - Martinez, Sosa and Guerrero - hail from this small, baseball-loving Caribbean nation. The Phillies' best-known Dominican player is Mesa, their closer.
At the start of the season, there were 222 players in the major leagues who had been born in foreign countries or Puerto Rico. Seventy-four of them hailed from the Dominican Republic.
No wonder that every team except the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Devil Rays has an academy in the Dominican and fields at least one team in the Dominican Summer League. (The Phils also have an academy in Venezuela and are one of six franchises with teams in both the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues.)
Reestablishing a presence
The Phillies were once big players in scouting and signing young Dominican prospects. Juan Samuel, Julio Franco and George Bell were originally Phillies property, and legend has it that the team once had a youngster from San Pedro de Macoris named Sosa on its radar screen.
But in the mid-to-late 1980s, the Phillies were bypassed by teams that were more aggressive and more willing to deal with the dirty politics frequently encountered in the scouting and signing of players from Latin America. Eventually, the Phils' Latin operations dried up - to the point where, when Arbuckle became the team's scouting director in October 1992, there were just two Latino players in the system.
Knowing the importance of scouting and developing players from Latin America, Arbuckle pushed for the Phillies to increase their presence in the region. Now their system has 116 players from foreign countries or Puerto Rico (the sixth highest total in baseball), including 59 from the Dominican Republic.
"The Phillies understand the economics of what has happened here and have given us a serious chance of competing with other teams," said Sal Agostinelli, the Phils' fiery international scouting supervisor, who spends much of his time stomping around fields in Latin America. "I'm a real pain in the butt, but they've given me anything I need."
In 1994, the Phils' Dominican academy was located in La Vega. Players lived in a small hotel and played at an old stadium in town. La Vega was a fine place to teach and develop young players - this spring, pitcher Miguel Asencio, now with the Kansas City Royals, became the first graduate of that academy to reach the majors - but the Phillies wanted something more. Luring top talent can often come down to the accommodations, and the Phils wanted to make theirs more attractive.
Enter Javier Resivo, a developer from Spain who owned a small hotel in Santo Domingo that the New York Yankees used to house some of their players. Resivo sensed a market for baseball training facilities and, with the hope that the Yankees would lease from him, began building one north of the capital. He completed his project, but the Yankees never committed.
"Once we saw this place, we jumped on it," Arbuckle said.
The Phillies are leasing Resivo's facility for three years. He is responsible for the upkeep as well as for food services. The Phillies are responsible for the baseball equipment, the field and the training staff.
"I like it here," Danny Osvaldo Mosguera, a 17-year-old pitcher who signed in April, said in Spanish. "It's comfortable. It's quiet. They're teaching me a lot of pitching mechanics."
Mosguera is the youngest of 11 children. His smile bridged all languages as he stood there is his red Phillies uniform, ready for a workout.
"I love to play baseball," he said.
A necessary investment
Teams need academies in foreign countries if they are serious about mining those lands for talent. The U.S. government limits the number of training visas that it issues to a team. The Phillies receive 37 of the visas, which are issued to foreign minor-league players. (Major-leaguers receive different types of visas, and there is no limit.)
With six minor-league teams in the United States, the Phillies can exhaust their visa allotment quickly. So they, like other teams, have set up training facilities in the players' home countries.
The Phillies will keep their Dominican players at their academy for up to two years. A player who makes it through that proving ground earns his way onto a minor-league team in the United States.
But not all prospects will make it to the States, and fewer will make it to the majors.
"If you get one out of 20 here to the majors, you're doing well," Arbuckle said.
Even if there were no limit on visas, sending newly signed Latino players, some of whom are as young as 161/2, directly to the United States wouldn't be wise. Organized youth leagues are rare in Latin America, and the players are generally raw, with little game experience.
"These kids are young enough and crude enough that if they were in a league in the States, they'd probably be overmatched," Arbuckle said.
The Dominican Summer League, which runs from June through August, is a rookie-level circuit that offers a solid indoctrination in the professional game.
The Phillies will have between 35 and 40 players in their Dominican academy at one time. All in the current crop have been extensively scouted.
First, local scouts Radhames Manon and Narciso "El Socio" (The Associate) Sanchez will take a look at a player. If they like what they see, then Agostinelli and Wil Tejada, the Phillies' chief scout in the Dominican Republic, will pass judgment.
Because Dominican players don't have to enter the professional ranks through the draft, they can sell their rights to the highest-bidding team. Signing bonuses for the ones currently in the Phillies' academy range from $9,000 to $60,000.
Some players are signed after local street agents - or buscones - bring them to the academy for workouts. Others are signed after tryouts on local sandlots. Still others are signed after being discovered on power-scouting missions - the brainchild of Agostinelli, an aggressive New Yorker and a former minor-league catcher in the Phillies organization who could have starred in Raging Bull had Robert De Niro been busy.
Twice a year, Agostinelli brings all of his 12 Latin American scouts to the Dominican. The country is divided into four regions. For a week, the scouts hold tryout camps at any field they can find. At the end of the week, the best players are brought to the academy and the best of that group are signed.
"You need to be aggressive and go out and find the players before they make it into the capital," Agostinelli said. "A lot of scouts will wait. We try to go see them first."
Agostinelli's passion, hustle and street smarts make him perfect for his job. He also has a degree in Spanish from Slippery Rock University, and that comes in handy.
Because they can't see a player in game action, the Phillies' scouts look for tools - speed, size, build, athleticism. In pitchers, they look for the long arms and big hands that will provide the snap needed to throw a major-league fastball.
Dreams of Philadelphia
Once a player is signed and his name and age are validated by the baseball commissioner's office, he is enrolled at the academy and placed under the supervision of Sammy Mejias, the former major-league outfielder who serves as the manager of the Phils' Dominican Summer League team and the coordinator of instruction and father figure at the academy.
The academy is open nine months a year, and the days are full. Every day starts with English class. There are individual instruction periods and times for stretching, running, throwing, work on fundamentals, and batting practice.
During the summer, games are played in the afternoon. After the games, players lift weights and work on conditioning.
Dinner is from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Afterward, players relax on the veranda and play dominoes. Lights go out by 11, and then come dreams of the major leagues.
"We want to be like Mike Lieberthal and Scott Rolen," said Jeury Diaz, a 21-year-old catcher whose baseball and English have improved after two years at the academy. "They are stars, right?"
But baseball stardom is only half of the Dominican dream. Providing for one's family is the other half. Players hear of the big houses that Sosa and other stars have built on the island. They long for the same comforts.
"My dream is the dream of everyone here - to make it to the big leagues and help my family live a more comfortable life," said Rony Torres, a 17-year-old pitcher who was signed in April.
Because many of the players come from impoverished areas, life at the academy, with three square meals a day and comfortable surroundings, borders on the luxurious. That's why it is so difficult to release a player if he proves not to be a prospect.
"We try not to think about that," Diaz said. "You have to think good things."
For all his hard-charging hustle, Agostinelli is a big softie inside. He loathes saying goodbye to a player.
"It breaks your heart," he said. "But it's part of the business."
"We're always trying to upgrade," Tejada said.
The players are aware of that reality. They see the new talent paraded in for tryouts several times a year. They close their eyes and hope that none of the newcomers are better than they are. They work hard by day, and at night, they dream of the major leagues and a faraway city.
"Philadelphia," Diaz said. "It's our dream to get to Philadelphia."
Contact Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tomorrow: Scouting in the Dominican Republic.