On Oct. 25, 1971, a fifth child was born to Dominicans Paolino Martinez, a janitor, and Leopoldina Martinez, a laundress—a couple who had to raise their children in a dwelling that had a tin roof and dirt floors. Forty years and nearly $150 million in career earnings later, that child would return to his hometown Manoguayabo to build schools, roads, homes and churches through a charity he founded.
The story of Pedro Martinez, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball’s history, spurs innumerable poor Dominican youths to play the game. Poverty and poor economic prospects motivates them to put in the requisite hours of practice, and a large baseball infrastructure, which includes training academies developed by Major League teams, validates these youths’ dreams of wealth.
Or maybe the numbers alone are validation.
An article in the International Business Times reported the average salary of major leaguers to be $3.4 million. Compare that to the annual income of a Dominican worker: $5,130.
Of the 224 foreigners playing for Major League Baseball in 2014, 83 hail from the Dominican Republic. The DR beat historical baseball powerhouses Cuba (19), Puerto Rico (11) and Venezuela (59) for the title of top overseas producer of major leaguers.
It is unclear if this success will translate into significant poverty reduction back in the DR.
Certainly, the DR’s economy has been growing in the recent past. If one ignores the relatively minor economic crisis of 2003 – “minor” in terms of impact on GDP – GDP growth has been impressive in past years: “9.5 percent in 2005, 10.7 percent in 2006 and 8 percent in 2007,” according to one study.
However, that same study concluded the MLB’s impact on this economic growth was marginal compared to the effect of remittances and the development of a tourist economy, though the construction of baseball academies does always create jobs.
In any case, poverty has remained a persistent problem in the DR despite the country’s economic growth. 40.9 percent of the population is at or below the national poverty line. Half of all children are impoverished. The tourist economy has failed to create jobs for the masses of poor, with unemployment at 15 percent.
Thus, the MLB will continue to be a source of hope for many Dominicans. To Dominican players, a signing bonus of $5,000-$8,000 on its own is worth the time investment. Should their career end shortly after receiving such a bonus, at least they received enough money to support their families or to invest in a business enterprise.
And, of course, each player might just be the next Pedro Martinez.
Unfortunately, the hope that such possibilities inspire is intermixed with desperation. In their hunger to secure a better life for themselves and for their families, many Dominican players have turned to using steroids, which are relatively easy to procure in the DR. Drug usage is seen by many young Dominicans as a way to “cheat the system,” and wherever desperation exists, people are likely to try to cheat.
“Buscones” are another source of controversy in Dominican baseball. These player agents find talent, develop it and take a cut of any signing bonuses. The players that make it to the MLB mostly express their gratitude to these agents, but buscones also “have been accused of corruption, embezzlement and feeding steroid drugs to young prospects,” according to an article by Palash Ghosh at the International Business Times.
One cannot conclude from all of this that the MLB will have much to do with the eradication of poverty in the DR, but one also cannot deny the organization’s potential to do both good and bad in the country.
– Ryan Yanke