|Posted on Tue, Jul. 23, 2002|
Search for Dominican talent no longer a hit-or-miss affair
Players with big-league potential are bound to get noticed.
Inquirer Staff Writer
Third of four parts
GUANUMA, Dominican Republic - Sammy Mejias' road to the major leagues began one day in 1970. A friend in his hometown of Santiago was headed off to a tryout being run by the Milwaukee Brewers, and he urged Mejias, an 18-year-old outfielder with a strong arm and a big dream, to grab his glove and come along.
"The tryout was 15 miles away," Mejias recalled recently. "We had no money, so we hitchhiked. The only ride we got was from a guy driving a truck filled with cows. We had to lie down headfirst on the cab and hold on. The cows didn't smell too good, but at least we made it to the tryout."
Mejias landed a $4,000 signing bonus and a professional contract because of that tryout. He went on to live his boyhood dream, playing 334 games over six seasons in the National League.
Today, Mejias, who was the Seattle Mariners' first-base coach and outfield instructor from 1993 to 1999, is back home in the Dominican Republic, doing what he likes best - working with young players who dream of making it to the big leagues as he once did. Mejias, 50, heads up instruction at the Phillies' developmental academy in the Dominican.
The young players under Mejias' care - they range from age 16 to 21 - didn't have to ride on the tops of foul-smelling trucks to get noticed by major-league scouts. These days, the scouting and development of young players in the Dominican Republic has become big business. If a kid in Azua has a good arm, he'll be found, and through a network of independent and affiliated scouts, he will end up in an academy run by a major-league team.
The nearly 40 players spending this summer at the Phillies' new Dominican academy were seen by the three full-time Phils scouts based in the Dominican, as well as by Sal Agostinelli, the team's international scouting boss, before signing contracts.
"It's like a sieve," said Narcisco "El Socio" Sanchez, who, with longtime sidekick Radhames Manon, scours the countryside for young talent. "We see a player, and if we like him, we pass him on."
Once a player is singled out by El Socio (The Associate) and Manon, Wil Tejada, the top Phillies scout in the Dominican, and Agostinelli take a look. If they like what they see, they attempt to sign the player.
Rooting out the talent
However, long before the Phillies or any other team look at a player, that player's talents have already been discovered by unaffiliated scouts called buscones.
Throw a scout, an agent, a coach and an entrepreneur into a blender, then mix, and you have a buscone (boo-SCONE-ay). The term comes from the Spanish verb meaning "to seek" or "to find." And that's exactly what these buscones, who are also known as bird dogs, do. They seek out young talent in all corners of this fertile, baseball-loving land. They invest time and money nurturing that talent, sometimes for years. By the time a player is 161/2, the buscone hopes to have raised a baseball-playing commodity worthy of shopping to the highest-bidding major-league team.
Sometimes it's a dirty business, with some buscones handling young, naive, often uneducated teenagers as if they were raw materials and taking large percentages of their signing bonuses - sometimes as much as 50 percent - as commission.
But Dominican youngsters aren't eligible for major-league baseball's first-year player draft. That simple reality, coupled with their desire to get to the United States and become as rich and famous as countryman Sammy Sosa, has fueled the buscone industry.
"Down here," said Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development, "it's a lot like the pre-draft days in the States. You have to do a lot of networking with the local bird dogs so they'll bring you good players."
El Socio, 51, and Manon, 44, are native Dominicans, and they know all the buscones. After all, they were longtime buscones themselves before joining the Phillies organization in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
"Many organizations wanted us," El Socio said. "The Phillies gave us a good deal."
El Socio and Manon have been educated in the Phillies' way of scouting: Look for athletes who can be made into baseball players. Look for speed - lots of it. Look for strong throwing arms. In hitters, look for short, powerful swings. In infielders, look for soft hands and strong throwing arms. In pitchers, look for lanky bodies with long arms, big hands and good deliveries. Try to envision what a youngster will look like and what kind of player he will be in three, four or five years.
"That's one of the most important things - educating the scouts," Arbuckle said. "Don't bring us the 5-9 kid throwing 89 [m.p.h.]. Bring us the 6-2 kid throwing 87 who, with his frame and delivery, might throw 92 in three years."
Manon used to search for talent in the Dominican Republic - which is about twice the size of New Hampshire - on a motorcycle. Part of his deal with the Phillies was that he would be given a car. He is on his third one, a blue Toyota Camry with a front license plate emblazoned with the word PHILLIES.
El Socio, when he's not riding shotgun with Manon, prefers to use public transportation to go see young players and visit with buscones.
Cultivating relationships with the buscones is vital because they know where the talent is and, in many cases, control where it ends up.
Case in point: Francisco Javier was once a player at the Phillies' previous Dominican academy, which was located in La Vega. After he was released, he became a buscone. Tejada has remained close with Javier and gives him old balls and bats for his players to use. Last month, Javier delivered an exciting young pitching prospect, 17-year-old Rony Torres, to the Phillies.
Not all buscones give up their independence to join a major-league team's organization full-time, as Manon and El Socio did.
On a recent afternoon, Manon and El Socio visited one of the buscones, Alselmo Charas, as he put some of his teenage charges through a workout at a run-down old field in La Victoria.
There was a large penitentiary across the street, but the players were oblivious to it and to the prisoners milling in the yard. They also don't seem to mind playing with dirty, tattered balls, outdated aluminum bats, and taped-up wood bats. They knew that two scouts from Los Filis de Filadelfia had stopped by, and they were eager to impress them.
Charas has 128 players under his control, ranging from ages 9 to 21. They work out six days a week and dream of playing in the major leagues, like Cincinnati pitcher Carlos Almanzar, a protege of Charas.
How did Charas assemble such a large group of players?
"Because I am the best around," he said confidently.
Best of the dealmakers
It's a good thing that Enrique Soto didn't hear him say that.
Soto, 42, is the king of Dominican buscones, an outspoken, aggressive and controversial figure who knows how to spot young talent, develop it, and strike big-money deals, some exceeding $1 million, with big-league clubs. He found and helped develop Miguel Tejada, the star shortstop for the Oakland Athletics. But he has been accused of dipping a little too deeply into his players' signing bonuses.
"I am not a buscone," he declared. "I am a baseball trainer - the best baseball trainer in the Dominican."
Soto runs his own academy in Bani. He houses, feeds and trains 60 players. When they are ready to be shopped, he delivers them to the highest bidder and takes his cut.
The members of the Phillies' Dominican contingent have an excellent relationship with Soto, even if they feel that the prices he sets on his players are exorbitant. Several of the Phils' top Dominican prospects, including third baseman Juan Richardson and pitchers Franklin Perez, Robinson Tejeda and Martire Franco, are graduates of Soto's academy.
Tejeda received a $225,000 signing bonus in November 1998. Richardson, a power-hitting prospect now at single-A Clearwater, was signed for $40,000 - and Soto never fails to remind the Phillies what a bargain he gave them.
"You robbed me," Soto told Agostinelli during a tryout at the Phils' academy in May.
Agostinelli, who is as feisty and aggressive as Soto, laughed and waved off the king of the buscones.
"And Martire Franco has a better curveball than anyone on the Phillies' big-league team," added Soto, referring to the minor-league pitcher he delivered to the Phillies for $6,500 in July 1998.
Buscones have had a great influence on Dominican baseball, even beyond steering their charges to certain big-league teams. It used to be that the Dominican Republic was known mostly for producing slick-fielding infielders and hard-hitting outfielders. But more and more pitchers are being produced now. Why? That's where the money is.
"Now you're seeing a lot more pitchers," Arbuckle said. "We think it's because of the bird dogs. As soon as they see a good athlete with a good arm, they put him on the mound and show him to us as a pitcher. It takes longer to develop at shortstop because of the hitting.
"More and more players who would be good position players are signing as pitchers because the bird dog gets his money quicker."
When Mejias jumped on top of that truck filled with cows in 1970, getting rich wasn't his motivation. Playing in the big leagues - like the Alou brothers, Rico Carty and Manny Mota, his heroes - was. He senses that things are different now.
"Kids here still love baseball, but they also know there's a lot of money involved," he said. "The bird dogs make sure the kids know that. [The kids] love the game just as much as we did, but in the back of their mind, they know the money is there and they want to go get it."
According to Soto, there is nothing wrong with that.
"A person who cuts sugarcane should earn $80 a day, but they only get $7," he said. "Who's going to cut sugarcane when they see Alex Rodriguez [of the Texas Rangers] get $252 million? It's very clear: You play baseball.
"But in reality, these kids love the game. If you don't love it, you won't play well, and if you don't play well, you won't get the money."
Contact Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomorrow: The buscones bring their players to the Phillies' camp for a tryout.