Where A Good Arm Is A Golden Ticket In the Dominican Republic baseball is more than just a sport, it's a national past time. It's also the golden ticket for some children to break into the world of major league baseball. Host Michel Martin talks to Patrick Madden, a reporter from NPR member station WAMU, about his reporting trip to the Dominican Republic, where he investigated the impact of baseball on the Caribbean country, and the heavy price many young players have to pay to get a single shot at making it.

Where A Good Arm Is A Golden Ticket

Where A Good Arm Is A Golden Ticket

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In the Dominican Republic baseball is more than just a sport, it's a national past time. It's also the golden ticket for some children to break into the world of major league baseball. Host Michel Martin talks to Patrick Madden, a reporter from NPR member station WAMU, about his reporting trip to the Dominican Republic, where he investigated the impact of baseball on the Caribbean country, and the heavy price many young players have to pay to get a single shot at making it.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, for many new moms, the decision to stay home with their children is emotionally rewarding and challenging, but so is the choice to return to the paid workforce. We'll hear the story of one woman's experience of jumping back on the career track after 17 years at home. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, today's baseball regular season kicks off with 26 different teams playing nationwide. And you may have noticed that over the years more and more of baseball's star players come from the Dominican Republic. Last year alone, 139 players from the Dominican Republic played in the Major Leagues.

Now, in that Caribbean country, baseball can be the golden ticket to the good life for boys growing up in poverty. But that ticket can come with a high price, from steroid use to fake documents to financial scams, many of these young players and their struggling families have become prey for corrupt recruiters and coaches.

Reporter Patrick Madden of member station WAMU traveled to the Dominican Republic to investigate and he joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

PATRICK MADDEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, how did you get the idea for this?

MADDEN: Well, I mean, it's something I'd always been interested. I mean, I follow baseball a lot. I mean, and some of my I'm a Mets fan. Some of my favorite players are Dominican, like, Jose Reyes. You know, and I've always...

MARTIN: You just wondered.

MADDEN: Yeah. I've just always been interested in sort of why there are so many Dominican players in Major League Baseball.

MARTIN: Why are there so many Dominican players in Major League Baseball? I mean, just because baseball is a worldwide sport now, so why this one little country become such a, sort of almost the fountainhead for baseball talent?

MADDEN: Well, the first thing I realized when I traveled to the Dominican Republic is everyone is playing baseball. And you travel around the country and you see baseball fields everywhere. You know, you can see it when you travel around. You see the billboards. It was the campaign season down there. And at least, you know, I recognize five of the candidates for mayor or the legislature that were former baseball players. I mean, it really, just, it permeates everything.

MARTIN: So, I guess one of the things that you wanted to tell here is that there is a good news story in that a lot of people truly love the game. It really is an economic engine for some lucky few. But you're saying that that comes with a price. And part of the price is that there's a lot of, what's the word, lying that goes on. And one of the people you interviewed is Charlie Farrell, he's the co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy. Here's what he told you. I'm just going to play a short clip.

Mr. CHARLIE FARRELL (Co-Founder, Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy): To me it was called (foreign language spoken), the good lie. If I take steroids and lie about it, but I make it to the big leagues, then it was a good lie. I've had success. If I lie about my age and I'm able to compete and make it to the Big Leagues, then it was a good lie because I provided for my family.

MARTIN: How widespread a practice do you think that is?

MADDEN: I mean, it's incredibly widespread. And the statistics bear that out. I mean, a disproportionate number of Dominican baseball players are testing positive for steroids. I mean, if you look at the minor leagues, I think a quarter of all the players are Dominican. But I think it's around 60 or two-thirds of the players who tested positive were Dominican.

So, steroids is a major problem down there right now. And one of the problems is just how easy it is to get steroids. And I document this in one my stories, walk into a pharmacy, you know, throw down $40 or $50 and walk out with anabolic steroids. And there are veterinary steroids that are a lot cheaper and probably a lot more dangerous because they're, you know, designed for horses and cattle.

MARTIN: Why are they using steroids? I mean, in this country we generally think of steroids as something that aging players turn to as their bodies break down so that they can heal more quickly to get back into the game. But it isn't something that we associate with younger players. So why are these very young players using steroids? Why are coaches providing them to these young people?

MADDEN: Well, there's an interesting system in the Dominican Republic where players can sign a contract with Major League Baseball when they turn 16. Because of the poverty there, because of, you know, the intense pressure to make it to the big leagues, young kids, their agents, you know, sometimes even their families are in on this, are turning to steroids and other means to make as much as they can when they sign a contract at 16. I mean, steroids trainers told us this can add five miles to your fast ball. They can help you hit the ball a lot farther.

MARTIN: So, it's for strength.

MADDEN: It's for strength.

MARTIN: And the other thing you pointed out, we keep talking about the age of these players something that people have been scandalized by in little league play, for example, that some of these players are not as young as they are claiming to be. Why is there this pressure to claim to be so young?

MADDEN: And, again, it's the same thing as why young kids are using steroids. If you're 20 years old, if you can create a fake birth certificate, you come off a lot more physically developed, a lot bigger, and therefore, your value is a lot stronger. It all comes down to just trying to make as much money as you can when you're trying to sign that bonus.

MARTIN: Sometimes for these kids it comes down to, you know, one bad day, when they get a look by a Major League scouter. Here's Coach Homero Lajara talking about this experience.

Mr. HOMERO LAJARA (Baseball Coach): Some kids can lose out just by that day they woke up with a headache, they didn't wake up well. And they didn't look well, by the way, they lose it. It's incredible. I mean, the tryouts is you have to have talent and you have to have a lot of luck.

MARTIN: What happens to the kids who try out and don't make it?

MADDEN: Well, Michel, I think, you know, besides the steroid and the fraud, this is the real problem with the baseball system in the Dominican Republic. You have young kids, you know, leaving school at 12, 13 to train for baseball full time. The facts are only a few of them are ever going to make it. And, you know, the reality is if these players, and many of them will not make it, few of them, very few of them are going to go back to high school or middle school to, you know, to resume their education.

And a lot of them, you know, when I talk to the coaches, say they end up on the street. You know, the game of baseball, you know, it offers incredible riches, but it comes at just this, you know, it's a make it at all cost type of deal.

MARTIN: I got the impression that you didn't it's not like you had to sneak around to get this report. You were operating openly. So, it wasn't like people were hiding all of this. They weren't hiding any of this.

MADDEN: No, no.

MARTIN: So, if this is an open system, would you say that the kids down there, the parents, the families, everybody knows the deal? It may be a raw deal, but everybody knows the deal.

MADDEN: Yeah. I mean, definitely this is a system that everyone is aware of. And I had the impression that this is their system and it's the best system they have. I mean, at least these kids have a shot. But I think that baseball can do more in the Dominican Republic. And for the Dominican Republic, I think the country needs to take a look at the system. There is such a focus on baseball at the expense of everything else that it's - I think it's hurting the country in the long term.


MADDEN: Because so many kids are leaving school early. They're not investing as much in education. You see these gorgeous ball fields next to schools that look sort of rundown. And if they do that, there'll be a tradeoff, of course. I mean, the Dominican Republic will probably send less players to the Major Leagues, and I think that'll be tough as well.

MARTIN: Do you think most of the people that as we mentioned, it's opening day do you think most people in the stands know about this or think about it?

MADDEN: I definitely think people have no idea. I think they just think the Dominicans are exceptional, you know, baseball players. But I don't think they realize the system in place of how these players got here facing, you know, incredible odds - and the amount of players that didn't make it.

MARTIN: Patrick Madden is a reporter from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. He traveled to the Dominican Republic on an investigative fellowship directed by the International Center for Journalists. And he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio just down the road from his studio. Patrick Madden, thanks so much for joining us.

MADDEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: To watch Patrick's two-part video series, please go to the program page at NPR.org and select TELL ME MORE.

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