Nearly eleven million baseball fans are expected to tune in to watch the Major League Baseball’s (MLB) best and most beloved take the field at the All-Star game this evening. Almost 40 percent of these players who were fan-voted to represent the league are from a Latin American country, marking the highest proportion in more than a decade. However, underlying this seemingly positive statistic for hopeful Latin American prospects are the often overlooked and controversial mechanisms operated by major league teams to peddle out players in these countries.

A myriad of stories and data reveals that recruiting and training practices across Latin America have been both exploitative and blanketed in false promises, often leaving young men jobless and uneducated, while exacerbating injuries and—in extreme cases—contributing to death.

As attention shifts to the spectacle that celebrates the league, thousands of aspiring players across Latin America as young as 13 years old are being recruited and encouraged to trade education for baseball, often living in overcrowded facilities with inadequate oversight by the MLB and its clubs, as they attempt to follow in the footsteps of all-stars like David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes.

Baseball’s False Beacon of Hope

Over the past few years, Latin American players have made up between 23 and 34 percent of All-Star teams, and composed more than 25 percent of players across the league. Since a number of the countries from which the players hail struggle with unemployment and economic instability, many citizens see baseball as one of the only means to achieve widespread success. However, access to the MLB is immensely limited, and scouts fail to inform prospects of these realities.

In the Dominican Republic (D.R.), which produces the highest number of MLB players out of any Latin American country and has forty training facilities run by major league clubs, baseball is revered as a pathway out of poverty. With more than 40 percent of citizens living below the federal poverty line and nearly 15 percent of the population unemployed, there are limited options to attain financial and professional prosperity.

Though the MLB has served as an example of the success Dominicans like Albert Pujols—who is currently in a ten-year, $240 million contract with the Anaheim Angels—can achieve, major league teams’ practice of integrating Dominican players has been inconsistent, making Pujols an anomaly, not the trend.

“This is the proposition presented to Dominican families: Have your child give up school at age twelve for a 3 percent chance to play in the Majors.”

An in-depth report into the training facilities found that of the 832 Dominican players at the academies throughout the country in 2006, less than half made it to the U.S. Rookie Leagues, and a mere 2.6 percent went on to compete in the majors. In 2015, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder and D.R. native Jose Bautista reinforced that this data has remained similar in the past decade, writing: “This is the proposition presented to Dominican families: Have your child give up school at age twelve for a 3 percent chance to play in the Majors.”

Though the chances of being a professional athlete are low, scouts and representatives of major league teams paint this far-fetched dream as realistic, encouraging thousands of potential prospects from Latin America to devote their lives to the game. These scouts—who serve as a bridge between the league and the region—emphasize the glory attainable through baseball, and fail to ensure that these prospects continue to receive education throughout their training. As a result, a majority of the 97 percent of prospects who won’t become careered athletes end up rejoining the labor force with below high school education levels.

Funneling players into baseball academies while disregarding components such as education that lie at the core of personal development has grown even more dire in Venezuela, the second-highest producer of professional players in the region. As the country has faced economic turmoil in recent years and is now teetering on the edge of a collapse, Venezuelans have become increasingly desperate to identify and pursue a means to stability, such as baseball.

As a result, families are encouraging their children at as young as 13 years old to drop out of schools to join baseball academies. Some prospects have also reportedly been accepting deals worth a fraction of their potential earnings to ensure agreements are locked down. Ben Badler, a journalist who has studied MLB scouting extensively, points to the way in which this “desperation breeds talent,” a harsh reality that the $36 billion professional baseball industry has fueled.

Though there has not been decisive action taken by the MLB to mitigate these concerns, attorney Adam Wasch has proposed that the League adapt a corporate policy mandating clubs to provide a formal education to the child-employees within the Latin American baseball academies. Modeled on the policies employed by a number of multinational companies who had struggled with scandals in their plants in certain countries, this legislation may open the door to conversations on how to address the issues taking place at these academies.

From Academies to “Sweatshops”

While baseball facilities devoted to training prospects across the region vary in quality, reports backed by personal accounts reveal that many of these outlets employ what critics have referred to as “sweatshop” conditions—employing young children, overcrowding facilities, providing inadequate food and medical oversight to prospects, all compounded by a general lack of oversight. Blue Jays star Bautista referred to these facilities as “baseball farms,” in which the only things you do are play baseball and sleep.

Kids playing baseball in a plot in a small village of Trinidad, Cuba.
Kids playing baseball in a plot in a small village of Trinidad, Cuba.

Reports have found that scouts and representatives under major league teams regularly make contact with Latin American prospects as young as 10 years old, and establish tentative agreements with them at approximately 16 years old. Though this behavior violates a number of MLB rules that restrict teams from having young players at facilities and signing players until 17 years old, the MLB Commissioner’s Office and the league as a whole have often overlooked these infractions and left them unpunished.

Reflections from Training Academies

Alexis Quiroz was age 17 when he signed with the Chicago Cubs in the mid-1990s and was sent to a training facility in the Dominican Republic from his home in Venezuela. At this academy, Quiroz, along with an additional two dozen young men, often put in twelve-hour days with the prospect of MLB success dangling in front of them. Quiroz, whose story was chronicled in Stealing Lives, described how he lived in a house, which often had no running water, that crowded ten players to a room, and was fed just two meals a day.

When Quiroz injured his shoulder diving for a line drive, the team’s trainer reportedly exacerbated the injury that ended the young man’s career through his harsh and improper medical response. A number of first-hand accounts and experts have concluded that Quiroz’s story is more common than not throughout the facilities in the region, and critics have maintained that little has changed in the past few decades.

In a more recent tragedy, 18-year-old Washington Nationals prospect Yewri Guillen died in 2011 after a short battle with bacterial meningitis that broke out while he was training at one of the Nationals’ academies in the D.R. Though the infection caused the young man’s death, there was neither a certified athletic trainer nor a doctor at the facility to examine Guillen when he began reporting symptoms.

Though the MLB, in cooperation with the team, concluded that the Nationals club had followed proper protocol, it would not be a stretch to surmise that a team worth approximately $1.2 billion may have been able to provide more support to an up-and-coming prospect.

MLB’s Race to the Bottom

Mistreatment of prospects not only occurs at training facilities, but are taking place at other fields of play operated by major league clubs, like at its 160 minor league affiliations. In the minor leagues, where approximately half of players are Latin American, there has been significant issues surrounding fair wages.

During the five month-season, minor league players put in between fifty and seventy hour work weeks while earning anywhere from $3,000—$7,000 yearly—which amounts to $4 an hour, or just above minimum wage.

During the five month-season, minor league players put in between fifty and seventy hour work weeks while earning anywhere from $3,000—$7,000 yearly—which amounts to $4 an hour, or just above minimum wage.

These meager wages partly stem from the highly unregulated scouting market in Latin America, a driving factor and influence because of the sheer volume of players from the region in the League. Prospects from these countries aren’t required to go through the amateur draft process, and don’t have any concrete agreements with the MLB regarding transfers. As co-authors of Stealing Lives Arturo Marcano and David Fidler recently wrote, these standards make the “MLB recruitment in Latin America … a free-agency system that is essentially unregulated.”

Though the notoriously powerful MLB Players Association has remained silent in regards to the baseball market in Latin America and its potential impact on driving down wages, other players have begun taking a stand.

Earlier this year, a number of minor league players banded together to sue Major and Minor League Baseball to increase wages. Yet, in response, Save America’s Pastime Act was introduced in the House June 24 in an effort to amend existing labor laws to exempt the 7,500 minor league players from minimum wage guarantees or overtime pay. Though this bill is losing traction, the battle represents the struggle players face to regain protected rights from their employer, the MLB.

Rethinking “America’s Pastime”

While these incidents just scrape the surface of some of the issues prevalent in major league-run academies throughout Latin America, they touch upon the normalization of what many in the industry have written off as business as usual over the past two decades. Upon further examination, however, these tactics may more aptly be described as infringements on general labor rights and laws.

Professor Rub Ruck, senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Raceball, wrote that “left to themselves, major league teams will enact measures that drive down player development costs and minimize the embarrassment of any scandals.”

As the public turns to celebrate what has been dubbed the national pastime this week, baseball fans, players, and the public at large may want to look beyond the players on the field and instead question how they got there.