March 3, 2013
From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 08, 2013
The tiny Caribbean nation Dominican Republic is a conveyor belt of talented young baseball players all dreaming of playing pro in the USA . Seyi Rhodes, from British TV station Channel 4, follows the fortunes of one hopeful 16-year-old.
Patterson Segura is a skinny, acne-ridden 16-year-old. Like virtually every other boy his age in the Dominican Republic, he dreams of becoming a Major League Baseball player in the United States. The difference is he can already throw a baseball at 90mph – as fast as a professional. He turned 16 just three months ago – a key stage in any Dominican baseball player’s life: he can now legally sign his first professional contract. Patterson dropped out of school two yeas ago and joined the Sabino Sports Academy, one of hundreds of baseball factories across this tiny Caribbean nation.
“My grandma told me to stay in school, but all I’ve ever wanted to do was play baseball,” he says. All the scouts are talking about Patterson. They call him ‘seguro Segura’ (secure Segura), because everyone agrees he is a sure bet.
He’s even had a couple of offers from Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, however, the money offered wasn’t enough to tempt him. He’s still desperate to realise his dream, but only if the price is right. “Sometimes I lie in bed at night and say ‘When, God, when will I get to play in the big leagues?’”
Patterson’s manager is Jovanny Sabino, owner and head coach at the Sabino Sports Academy. Jovanny is a classic, macho, Dominican alpha male. Tall, well-built and with a faintly menacing aura, he struts around the baseball field barking orders from behind his sunglasses.
“Patterson is a tremendous talent,” he says. “To throw a ball that fast at his age is phenomenal.”
Jovanny and Patterson are not unique in this baseball-obsessed country. There are over 2,000 independent trainers like Jovanny and tens of thousands of prospects like Patterson, and those that do get signed by MLB teams go on to dominate the sport. Nearly 20 per cent of all the professional players in the American leagues are Dominican.
Jovanny’s academy is based in San Pedro de Macoris, a town that, unbelievably, has produced more MLB players per capita than anywhere else in the world. It has an old feel to it, littered with Spanish colonial buildings in pastel colours. The surrounding fields still grow sugar cane, and carved into a corner of one of them is the baseball field where Patterson has spent most of his waking hours for the last two years.
He shares a house here with five other boys. Jovanny pays the rent but the facilities are fairly basic: two of the three bedrooms are piled high with broken furniture and rubbish, none of the two toilets has a working flush; one is overflowing with faeces.
The prospects sleep and eat here and spend almost every other hour in the baseball field. Jovanny provides them with three meals a day and all their equipment as well as ferrying them to and from matches against other academies and try-outs with US teams.
In return he gets 25 to 30 per cent of their signing bonus – the money they’ll receive up front if they sign with an MLB team.
The boys are taking a huge risk, sacrificing their education for a shot at the majors. But for many it’s the best option. As one of Patterson’s roommates, Cristopher Lobaye, explains: “My area is poor. There are loads of murders. Most members of my family are criminals. I’m the only one who plays baseball. It would be nice to make millions without becoming a drug dealer.”
“My area is poor. There are loads of murders. Most members of my family are criminals. I’m the only one who plays baseball. It would be nice to make millions without becoming a drug dealer.”A young Dominican baseball hopeful.
Life would be very different if these boys were born in America. In the US, children have to graduate from high school before signing an MLB contract. That normally happens when they’re 18 or 19. Or they can wait until after college when they’re in their early 20s. MLB teams would like to sign players younger than 19 – so as to have more time to grow them into brilliant players – but legally they can’t, unless they come to the Dominican Republic.
In this nation, in the Greater Antilles, between Haiti and Puerto Rico, boys can leave school at 14 and sign contracts when they’re just 16. They spend the two years in between at unregulated baseball academies, honing their skills. It’s a perfect situation for the US teams.
The Americans get great players who are cheap and young. If the teams do their jobs correctly they can get ten good years out of each signing before he is either past it or so talented that he’s worth millions of dollars in resale value.
The teams pay the best bonuses to the youngest players – the record is close to US$5 million. On average, 16-year-old prospects get bonuses of $90,000, but by the time they’re 18, when the market is flooded with American high-school graduates, they will struggle to make $20,000. This 16 to 18-year-old window is the only time a Dominican will get signed. Leave it too late and it’s game over.
For Jovanny and Patterson this means numerous try-outs. A recent one was held at the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Dominican academy. Every MLB team has an academy in the Dominican Republic where they train and prepare young players for life in America. The Cardinals’ academy is like a little slice of America in the middle of the Caribbean. Its manicured lawns would compete with any of the country’s best stadia and its pretty painted buildings contain facilities that have Dominican boys wide-eyed in amazement.
“They even have air con in the toilets!” Patterson says on arrival.
His try-out, he hopes, will be a mere formality. A “coronation” as Jovanny likes to call it. Patterson plays three innings against some of the best unsigned players in the country. None of them is able to hit his pitches and, four strikeouts later, he’s back in the dugout, grinning from ear to ear. “It was a perfect session,” he says, “I’m sure they’ll make me an offer.”
Jovanny is so confident that he doesn’t want to drive home. He stops at a roadside restaurant to wait for the call, but two hours later it still hasn’t come and the two of them head home dejected. Two days later the Cardinals finally call to offer $55,000, the same amount Patterson was offered by three other teams. But Jovanny wants more, so he turns it down and arranges more try-outs for the coming week. Patterson is gutted. To keep him focused, Jovanny has told him he can’t go home until he’s signed a contract. For Patterson this has meant three months without seeing his family. And it’s about to get even longer.
Patterson’s grandmother, Juana, has raised him since he was a baby. She lives in a village in the Barahona province, the country’s poorest. She and her family worked in the local sugar factory until privatisation left them and nearly 60 per cent of their village unemployed. Her take on the signing saga is very different to Jovanny’s: “Patterson needs to sign and not think about money so much.
I’ve told him, when he gets to the majors he’ll make millions so he shouldn’t hold out for such a high bonus.”
It turns out she has plenty of experience with baseball coaches. Her son,
Miguel, is now 23. When he was Patterson’s age he too was a top prospect. He had three offers from MLB teams but his trainer turned them all down, hoping for more – and he missed his chance. He’s now way past the optimum signing age and his only hope is to become a trainer like Jovanny and get one of the kids from his village signed up for millions. If Patterson doesn’t sign soon he could end up like his uncle. “Coaches in this country are too greedy,” Miguel says. “They hold out for their own interests and ruin your dreams.”
Back in San Pedro, Jovanny is philosophical. “Its my job to find a star player, not to deal with family issues,” he says. But there’s a problem. Patterson’s latest try-out didn’t go as well as the previous one. After five minutes the scout walks off and says he won’t be making the youngster an offer.
Baseball at this level is very subjective – one expert’s million-dollar signing can look useless to another.
Two weeks later Patterson is allowed to return home to his grandmother. It seems his dream may be over.
Then suddenly there’s a reversal of fortune. Baseball, like any sport, has a knack for the unexpected. In December 2012 Jovanny finally accepts an offer of $60,000 from the Washington Nationals. Patterson has been given a chance to live out his dreams. He may even end up one of MLB’s big stars.
Populous has designed over 20 MLB stadia including Patterson’s new home, Nationals Park.