Bartolo Colon’s major league career was on a roll. From 1998 through 2005 he won 135 games, leading the league in 2005 with a 21-8 record and 3.49ERA. Then it all came to a crashing halt. The man who averaged 17 wins per season for eight years managed a total of 17 wins over the next few seasons, including an erratic stint with the Red Sox in 2008. He disappeared from the MLB map entirely in 2010 before re-emerging as a reliable starter for the Yankees last year (8-10, 4.00ERA). His fifty game suspension for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) may explain his resurgence.
Just a week earlier, of course, Melky Cabrera was also suspended for 50 games for taking PED. Cabrera was enjoying the best season of his career hitting .346/.390/.516 and earning his first All Star nod. The career .752 OPS hitter was leading the league in hits at the time of his suspension (and still is). His success may have first been attributed to reaching “baseball prime” (ages 28-32) at the same time as enjoying his first shot at free agency this offseason but now we see a different story.
Over the weekend Cabrera’s story took a well publicized but bizarre twist. It has been revealed that Cabrera or someone associated with him had a fake website built with the intention of providing Cabrera an “I did not know what I was buying” alibi. The almost comical revelation lent credence to those who care to cry “cheaters gonna cheat.”
If only it were that simple.
Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines earlier this week to discuss the issue. Breton has been writing about Latin Americans in Major League Baseball for a long time and that unique perspective led to his presence on the OTL segment on Cabrera’s suspension. Breton offered an explanation for Cabrera and others like him who fall into this temptation.
You see, Cabrera and Colon are linked by more than the fact that they received a 50-game ban from MLB for using PED in the past week. They also share a common roots in the Dominican Republic.
This is the tip of the explanation that Breton offers. (Note: this is not an excuse for cheating but an explanation of how it came about.) In its simplest form the explanation is that there is an entire community linked to those Dominican players who make it to MLB and who will rise and fall based on their success. The pressure for these men to succeed is far beyond anything we experience in our American culture.
The Dominican Republic comprises the larger half of the Caribbean island next to Puerto Rico. The overwhelming majority of the nearly eleven million people of the D.R. live in squalor. Outside the most prosperous cities a typical family lives in a home constructed from palm trees with a corrugated roof. The families are large and often an extended family (parents, grandparents, cousins) all occupy one of these “homes”. Unfortunately, many Dominicans are unemployed except for seasonal agricultural work.
Dominicans also lack citizenship and its benefits. No school. No public system of support. Few chances to advance beyond the palm branch walls. Making matters worse, what little infrastructure once existed in the Dominican Republic was disrupted in the devastating earthquake with its epicenter in Haiti. Remember that I mentioned that the Dominican Republic is the larger half of the island next to Puerto Rico? Well, the Dominican is the other half. It’s difficult to paint a picture of how challenging the circumstances are for the combined peoples of these island nations.
The Dominican Republic was dominated by Spain for the majority of the last four hundred years. Under Spanish dominion a caste-like system developed that graded people primarily by the color of their skin. The prosperous cities, as a result, are largely populated by the lighter-skinned former rulers of the island. Now think for a minute: where do you imagine that the Dominican men playing major league baseball fit into their nation’s culture prior to signing that contract?
Over time a system developed in the Dominican Republic that fed talented youngsters to MLB scouts. ”Talent agents” watched for athletic young men and lured them from their families with promises of MLB fortunes. Families often encouraged the boys along the way hoping for a better situation for all. Unfortunately the “agents” do little for the boys except try to sell them to MLB scouts and if the “product” ends up damaged then it’s tossed aside.
From a consumer standpoint the system has worked well. Of roughly 800 players in MLB almost one in 8 hails from the tiny island nation.
From a human perspective, it’s little more than a new Trail of Tears. Boys lose what little chance they have to learn a trade in hopes of a big pay day. When the blank check bypasses them there is nothing to which they can return.
Perhaps with that as a background you might get a hint at why there is so much pressure to succeed on players like Cabrera, Colon, and Sammy Sosa before them. Watching great stars like Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz return home to build hospitals and schools for the areas in which they live is not simply a humanitarian effort, it’s an expression of the hopes of the islanders for a better future.
I learned most of this when I had the privilege to help Children of the Nations (COTNI) with their website. COTNI has a presence in several third world countries including the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican they have established <a href=”http://www.cotni.org/pages/i-love-baseball”>a program called “I Love Baseball”</a> that not only helps train aspiring young athletes but also provides them food and education. Their goal is to help change the culture by offering the children a balanced hope and a future.
Why can we hope that Colon and Cabrera can change a culture like this? Because now you know. Whether it’s COTNI or another organization, find a place that you can support the people who become athletes and occasionally find their way onto the roster of your favorite baseball team.