Latin America gets a lot less than it gives from baseball.
Written By Kyle Magin
Latin America supplies baseball with some of its best players and most passionate fans. In return, it gets jack shit. Events over the course of this offseason are illustrative:
- Vlad Guerrero got his Hall of Fame call from a lackey translator.
Baseball is played in two languages, English and Spanish*. Thirty percent of the league is made up of Latinos, and a Latin influence in the sport can be traced back to a pre-Ruthian era of big leaguers barnstorming against guys in Mexico and Puerto Rico during the winter. WHY THEN, when did Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson have to enlist the services of an interpreter to let Vladimir Guerrero know he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last week? Listen, my Spanish is piss-poor, but I think I could have bothered to learn how to say “Congrats, Vladimir, you’ve been elected to the Hall of Fame” (per Google translate: “Felicitaciones, Vladimir, has sido elegido para el Salón de la fama.”) to announce his induction to a museum representing the pinnacle of his life’s work. The fact that the Hall couldn’t rustle up someone to bring the news of Vlad’s achievement to him in a language a third of the sport speaks reeks with disrespect and ethnocentrism.
*I’d entertain arguments for that list’s expansion to include Japanese, Papiamento, French (MLB’s first official second language), Mandarin, and anything anyone else speaks who plays the game.
- The Marlins may suck in perpetuity.
Miami has been called the capital of Latin America by the BBC, Time, the New York Times, and any number of other gringo publications. The reputation is well deserved—sitting at the top of the Caribbean, Miami represents the endpoint for immigrants from across Latin America, plus a multi-generational home for Cuban-, Haitian-, and Dominican-Americans. It’s the region’s wealthiest and most culturally diverse city, in addition to being something of a fashion (If Ed Hardy shirts are your thing?) and party capital. Baseball talent practically drips from the city’s rain-drenched eaves, from Alex Rodriguez to JD Martinez and Manny Machado. In short, it should be a baseball mecca, with a natural fan- and talent-base. Why oh why, then, does Major League Baseball continue to allow a succession of buffoons to run this organization?
Derek Jeter’s ownership group bought the team last year from notable asshole Jeffrey Loria, who used to hold a quadrennial fire sale of a roster replete with young talent just to pick up a little extra cash. Jeter’s first act as president of the operation was to do the same thing, since the group he bought the team for $1.2 billion with went $400 million into debt to make the purchase. Marlins fans (the handful who pay to watch the team play, anyway) got to watch big bopper Giancarlo Stanton, outfielder extraordinaire Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, maybe the best left fielder in baseball, all get traded away by the new ownership group in a bid to slash payroll. MLB’s other owners could have made Loria wait longer for a better-funded deal, but instead, they saddled a sleeping giant of a baseball market with Jeter and co.
- New bonus rules keep Latinos from getting paid right out of the gate.
One of the things baseball did that benefitted Latinos substantially was to make anyone not born in the U.S., Puerto Rico, or Canada a free agent at like, 17. While most North Americans had to go through a draft that regulated salaries, Latin guys could sell their services to anyone for any price they were willing to pay.
When a glut of Cubanos hit the market over the past few years, that often meant free agent classes of about 100 guys split up over $250 million, with big, big dollars going to the studs. In 2012, Yasiel Puig got $12 million just to sign with the Dodgers, and Yoenis Cespedes got $36 million for four years from the Oakland Athletics. In 2017, MLB and its newly inept union signed a collective bargaining agreement that capped each team’s international free agent spending at $4.75 million a season, or just over $8 million if they wanted to rob Peter to pay Paul and forgo their money for the next year. That means big league-ready Latinos and wunderkind prospects will have to toil for clubs for, at absolute best, about 75% of what Puig made on his signing bonus alone. It puts them about on par with a draft class in terms of first-contract earning potential. But, where American kids come with at least a high school education and from families who largely live in homes with clean water, with a median income of about $60,000, Latin guys have almost none of that. A family in Venezuela brings home about $12,000 before the kids go to work as young teens, and a family in the Dominican Republic does about $28,000. Simply put, more capital is needed to build lives that have been thoroughly wracked by poverty.
The 30 rich guys who own MLB teams could give a fuck, but the least they could do is allow their greed to keep pushing them to throw money at kids with abandon for looking like they could be a big leaguer after eating regular meals for a few years. Caging that tiger will be bad for everyone, especially when some cheapskate dipshit owner like the Pirates’ Robert Nutting can run into the next Guerrero because he happens to have the international cap space that year. The least we could do is not export our weird sports socialism to countries who let that shit run on the free market, baby! Anyway, Latin guys will notice when they’re behind lesser-qualified Americans in their early salaries and years of arbitration, and perhaps their countrymen will, too. With soccer’s athlete-stealing pulse beating just south of Colombia and Venezuela, and on the east of the Caribbean in Mexico, baseball cannot afford to look cheap as other options open up. MLB’s union should go to bat for young Latinos in the next CBA (2021) to show solidarity with their plight.
If they don’t, the results could be unpleasant. A generation of African Americans was fucked-over by a sport that only played their very, very best players (leaving the mediocre middle off big league rosters in favor of less-skilled white players, frequently) and usually underpaid them. Now African Americans make up just seven percent of the league’s population, a drastic drop from 27 percent in 1975. A defection of Latin Americans of that scale would cripple baseball, maybe irreparably. You apparently can survive losing a potential future Jackie Robinson. Can you survive if both he and Pedro Martinez never played, though?
Baseball’s future doesn’t look real great among Americans, where 50 percent of fans are 55 years old and older, and 83 percent are white in a country where white is steadily decreasing. MLB needs to expand its reach and find capital in new places, and a sure way to do that is by holding onto Latinos and maybe even expanding the sports’ reach South of the Border (Mexico looks like a goldmine of fans and talent, if you squint).
Baseball needs to reposition itself in Latin America, culturally, locally, and economically.
Do yourself a favor and watch the Caribbean Series if you can this weekend and next week. Puerto Rico plays Mexico today at 6 p.m. PST.