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The Youth Market
2004-02-11 16:19
by Jon Weisman

Raul Mondesi's agreement with Mario Guerrero, that bound him to pay a percentage of his career earnings to his former coach, is symptomatic of a widespread effort by Dominican Republic coaches to get a greater "return on investment" for their efforts in tutoring childhood ballplayers, according to baseball writer and broadcaster Carlos J. Lugo:

Lugo, who told me in an e-mail that Mondesi "had actually signed a written agreenment with Guerrero," according to other news reports, put the case in perspective:

What's in the background of this (not specifically in this case in particular but in general) I think is more interesting. Our country is transformed into a baseball player factory or some sort of assembly line. Everywhere you can see young kids playing ball, and the sad part is that they're not exactly playing for the fun of it (as I did and as you did) but trying to become professional baseball players.

As a consequence, an informal industry has arisen around the MLB teams academies and operations. The lack of a more formal or structured development chain - like school or little leagues in the U.S. - resulted in some kind of "informal development chain" that started in disorganized little league teams, where the "coach" gave the basic training to the kids until they approached 15 to 17 years of age, an age when they show if they're signable...

These "coaches" are the first ones looking for some sort of "return on investment," and what they're doing lately is signing some sort of formal contract where they get the player to share one fraction of their signing bonuses, or, if they're as wise and lucky as Guerrero, hit the jackpot with a guy that eventually make it to the big leagues and becomes a regular player.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for a local publication about the "Little Leagues" in the San Pedro de Macorís area ... and was kind of surprised to what I found. My goal was to do some research and see where guys like Pedro Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Tony Fernandez or Alfonso Soriano came from, and how it is. What I found was a bunch of "coaches" trying to explain me how this nine-year old child had good hands and a good bat and was "projectable" to be a great shortstop and a chance to be signed in six or seven years.

Those people are pretty much doing the same thing as Mario Guerrero, identifying guys with athletic ability and trying to produce a pro-baseball player and see if they can make good money in the process. I don't know if this is unethical because that's "their job," that's what "they do," but there's no doubt that money is a more important factor than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Aside from having my curiosity about Dominican Republic baseball renewed this week, my immediate thought upon reading Lugo's report was about coaches, kids and parents in the United States. Somewhere, there must be a youth coach, one who previously only dreamed of a paid trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and some national television exposure with the Little League World Series, now dreaming of getting a renewable early-bird fee for sheperding a future major leaguer. Will U.S. coaches now dream about becoming so valuable as baseball instructors that they will try to convince parents of nine-year-old children to sign long-term deals giving the coach a percentage of their career earnings?

On the one hand, it seems far-fetched. On the other, this country certainly has families who can't afford the flat fee for extra baseball tutoring but would be willing to gamble on future earnings. After all, 1 percent is still only 1 percent.

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