How MLB treats children like commodities

by Apr 10, 4:26 PM
AFP / Getty

For years, baseball fans believed that on July 22, 1887, 14-year-old Fred Chapman pitched in a Major League game for the Philadelphia Athletics against the Cleveland Blues. The youngest player ever to appear at such a high level threw for five innings, giving up eight hits and four earned runs.

For 21st-Century fans, it was a funny anecdote from a distant past when child labor laws barely existed and Major League Baseball wasn’t earning billions of dollars from television deals. The problem is it’s not remotely true. In reality, a pitcher named Frank Chapman started for the Athletics in that game. He was much older than Fred.

This is the issue with baseball’s sparsely documented history. We’re put into a position in which we’re forced to trust a limited number of sources, or not believe a story at all. It’s a problem that persists in baseball, beyond the worries of the game’s historians.

While American players — Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Hal McRae to name a few — have been lying about their age for as long as professional contracts have been offered, we tend to associate the practice most with athletes from the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries. Rafael Furcal, Roberto Hernandez, Wandy Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada all took advantage of their country’s lax documentation policies to either lie about their age or use another’s identity in the hope of appearing younger and earning a larger signing bonus with a Major League.

Eventually, their deception caught up to them, and they were shamed by baseball fans and writers with little idea of what obstacles they had to overcome just to get to a position in which lying would give them an advantage. Recently, ESPN’s Dan Le Batard wrote about the culture shock Latin American players experience when making the transition from their homeland to Major League Baseball, and he paints a more sympathetic picture than what many of us imagine.

Knowing what these players face doesn’t absolve them of fraud, but it does reveal how otherworldly professional baseball in the United States must seem to them. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the contrast in our response to the players who lie and the organizations that hire them. False documentation isn’t the only baseball problem related to Latin America, it’s just the one more likely to irk fans.

Why do we get so mad about athletes deceiving billionaires while giving organizations — that those very same billionaires own and operate — a free pass to exploit Latin American youths?

On Thursday, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reported on how baseball’s current policies pertaining to Latin American youth players incite teams to aggressively scout teenagers, which in turn prompts local agents/trainers to seek out even younger players to showcase for big league clubs.

“He looks like he could be a guy,” said an agent, using the industry nomenclature for a legitimate prospect.

The player is 13 years old, international class of 2016. It’s a school day, but instead he’s here, taking infield on a professional diamond. If the agent doesn’t get him now, someone else will. By paying a family and his youth league coach a few thousand dollars today, a trainer can secure in the neighborhood of 20-40 percent of a player’s future signing bonus.

Major League Baseball interfering in the lives of ridiculously young Latin American prospects is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early nineties, the process for finding talent in Central America — almost exclusively from nations and territories whose histories included U.S. invasion (either militarily or commercially) — was likened to the West African slave trade of the 17th Century.

The difference between the official league rules and generally accepted practice came to the fore in 1999 when it was revealed that the Los Angeles Dodgers had signed a 15-year-old player from the Dominican Republic in 1994. When the organization was questioned for its past violation of MLB rules — which set the minimum age for transactions at 17 — Dodgers officials cited a kindergartener's defense: everybody else was doing it.

Further studies revealed at least 50 under-aged players who had been prematurely signed to contracts. For its brazen dismissal of the rules, the Los Angeles club was fined $50,000 and ordered to close its Dominican training center. Meanwhile, the player, who was making his MLB debut at the time, would go on to become one of the best third basemen of his generation. Adrian Beltre, now 35-years old, continues to make a case for his eventual inclusion in the baseball Hall of Fame with the Texas Rangers.

The current discrepancy between the written rules and actual practice has to do with MLB’s international signing period beginning on July 2nd. In his piece for Baseball America, Badler points out that agreements are often in place weeks or months prior to this date, which in itself is not a bad thing for young players. However, clubs consistently back out of these accords without penalty or restitution.

Badler also suggests that the cap placed on international signings in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between players and owners has increased competitiveness among Major League teams prospect hunting in Latin America.

By July 2 last year, some organizations had already committed their entire 2013-14 bonus pools. With many of those deals in place months in advance, teams knew they wouldn’t be able to sign any players for more than $50,000 (each team gets six signings of $50,000 or less that are exempt from the bonus pools) for more than a year. Once their budgets were tapped out for the 2013-14 signing period, rather than wasting time scouting eligible players they couldn’t sign, teams turned their focus to 2014 players, scouting them more aggressively and trying to get them to commit to earlier deals. Now some teams already have their bonus pools committed for 2014 players — and especially with the $50,000 exemptions being eliminated in the next signing period — so they have moved on to the 2015 class.

Whether it’s the Moneyball mantra of exploiting market inefficiencies or adapting the practice of arbitrage to fit player acquisitions and retentions, baseball’s recent history is littered with attempts at gaming the system. It’s a celebrated phenomenon. Ripping off another team in a trade or making a good signing on the free agent market sometimes rouses more cheers from fans than home runs or important strikeouts.

I’ll never forget going out for drinks in Toronto on the night of the Blue Jays signing Melky Cabrera to what appeared to be favorable terms last offseason. Chants of MELKY! MELKY! MELKY! erupted every 30 minutes, and it wasn’t even a sports bar.

As fans, our vicarious relationship with the players on the field representing our favorite team disappears the moment that uniform comes off. When we refer to good contracts, it almost always means good for the team, which translates into lousy for the player.

We’re loyal to the team, to a fault. Our negligence in siding with the wealthier isn’t so bad when it’s a matter of millionaire players versus billionaire owners (god forbid a player’s union ever organizes a work stoppage), but it’s a bit different when it gets extended to impoverished youths versus billion dollar organizations, whose practices have fostered a spin off industry of unscrupulous agents and trainers.

Those who condemn players for lying about their age are the very same ones who fail to recognize the corrupt practices that bring those players to Major League Baseball.

What we’re essentially saying — by making a big deal out of one issue, and ignoring the other — is that it’s all right for the comfortable to use conditions outside of an athlete’s control against them to save money, but not okay for poorer individuals to attempt to game a system that’s entirely controlled by those who benefit by it most.

Major League Baseball has enjoyed a tremendous amount of financial success in recent years. Asking any money-making organization to act in an altruistic manner is likely naive, but what’s perhaps most bothersome about this issue is that a great sacrifice from MLB isn’t even necessary.

All that’s needed is to adapt current policies and practices to give foreign and domestic prospects a more equal chance at earning what they deserve without leeches or exploitation. The solution is as easy as an international draft or the creation of stricter signing rules that are actually enforced.

Otherwise, the vicarious relationship between fan and team that the sport depends on gets a little bit harder for us to willingly enter. Just like the story of the youngest player to ever play the game, we discover it’s based on a myth. Suddenly, our favorite teams aren’t the good guys anymore, and no one wants to cheer on a team that gets ahead by cheating the less fortunate. 

That sounds a lot like the bad guys.

Feature photo courtesy of AFP / Getty