When Hugo Chávez struck out in his December referendum aimed at overhauling the Venezuelan political system, a small group of overfed men raised their glasses in triumph: the assorted owners of Major League Baseball.
Edward Bennett Williams once called them a “Den of Idiots,” and for the last decade, the idiots have descended in vulpine fashion on both the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, marauding like free marketers on steroids in their quest for baseball talent on the cheap. Currently, 30 percent of all minor league players are from the DR alone.
Owners love Latin America for the same reason Disney can’t get enough of Haiti: they, can sign children for pennies, treat them like trash when they’re finished, and face contact lens-thin regulations for their troubles.
The impact on the athletes can be devastating. “Super Mario” Encarnación, once the most prized prospect of the Oakland As, was found dead in a Taipei motel room in October 2006, after an apparent drug overdose. He had been playing at the margins of the semi-pro baseball circuit desperate to not return home a failure to the DR. He returned, only when his friend former AL MVP Miguel Tejada, paid to have his body shipped back to their village from Japan.
Encarnación did do better than Lino Ortiz. The nineteen-year-old pitcher was about to be called up to the Majors when he died from taking an animal steroid in the DR looking for an edge. Steroids are actually legal and available over the counter, but their cost makes them prohibitive. Lino bought his from the pet store and met an all-too-early-death.
After the DR, the country that supplies the most talent in Latin America is Venezuela. There are now more than fifty players from Venezuela in Major League Baseball, including superstars like Johan Santana, Magglio Ordoñez and Miguel Cabrera. In the last twenty years, 200 Venezuelans have played in the Major Leagues with more than 1,000 in the minors. And yet despite this bounty of talent, the idiots are starting to scamper from Venezuela because Hugo Chávez is demanding that owners pay for the privilege of their pillage.
Lou Meléndez, MLB’s vice president for international operations, was more than miffed to receive documents that called for instituting employee and player protections and requiring teams to pay out 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Chávez wants to tax MLB for what they take from the country.
“We don’t pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don’t expect to do so. It’s certainly not a way to conduct business,” huffed Meléndez. “When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela.”
As ESPN wrote, “There has been speculation, more internal than public so far, that Chávez, a socialist and self-proclaimed revolutionary who took office in 1999, will turn Venezuela into the next Cuba. In other words, some worry that baseball in Venezuela will serve to illustrate (once again) how politics spills over into sport.”
The hypocrisy is stunning. Heaven forfend, there is nothing “political” about a multibillion-dollar business running roughshod over an entire nation with no accountability for the dashed dreams of the 99 percent who don’t make it stateside. And there is surely nothing political about shutting down your baseball academy for fear that the natives might demand business practices that might approximate the humane.
Already, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and San Diego Padres have cut and run. “We just figured we might as well do it [then] to avoid some of the hassle of having to deal with some of the legislation that Chávez passes down there in hiring coaches, worrying about severance pay, and just getting in and out of the country,” Juan Lara of the Padres told the media.
This tension exposes the rot at the heart of this relationship. Chávez dares demand regulation and the first instinct of the owners is to flee toward more exploitable ground. Not only is Chávez right to pressure baseball to actually give something back, other countries—the Dominican Republic, in particular—should follow his lead.
Every year, millions of Latin American children are shredded as they reach to escape poverty with a bat and a ball. It’s long past time MLB gave something back to the nations they so blithely upend.
Even an idiot can see that.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.