MLB teams utilize the Rule 4 Draft to fill their organizations and then further supplement their rosters with free agent signings. However, the relatively cheap labor sources outside of the U.S. and Canada are where teams can really hit it big. Lisa Carney explores the history of amateur talent acquisition, and how MLB international talent acquisition works in today’s game.
Raise your hand if you can name the first player selected in baseball’s inaugural Free Agent Amateur Draft. If you need a hint, he was picked by the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. Go to the head of the class and take a bow if you said this guy, the center fielder who played 19 years for the A’s (Kansas City and Oakland), Chicago Cubs, and LA Dodgers. Since that pick, thousands of ecstatic young men have heard their names announced by a major league team, creating a steady and formalized flow of talented players to the bigs. However, this pathway is limited by rule to players of American or Canadian origin.
However, baseball makes bold claims such as declaring their championship the WORLD Series. So how does the rest of the globe get invited to play the American born-and-bred game of diamonds? Is there a difference between foreign-born prospects and international free agents? And, with all these different routes to the bigs, is Major League Baseball doing enough to keep a level playing field for the often younger, impoverished international signees, or are long-overdue changes looming?
We’ll try to answer this present question by looking to the past, at how the complex system that exists today emerged and evolved. There’s no better place start than the beginning of baseball, when it, and world politics, first entwined in a symbiotic dance that has changed little through baseball history.
Baseball Drawn From the Melting Pot
Baseball Almanac begins listing statistics for Major League Baseball with the 1876 season, a season played a mere 11 years after the end of the American Civil War. In June of that same year, box scores could be found side-by-side with news from Little Big Horn that Union war hero General George Armstrong Custer had been defeated and slain at the hands of the Sioux. Yes, it’s true. Baseball’s early days really were that long ago. So long ago that America was still at war with the indigenous people and not only was there no Arizona Diamondbacks organization, there was no Arizona.
In the context of that land-grabbing culture, and without the rules of an amateur draft or free agency, acquiring talent for the MLB’s eight teams was a good ol’ free for all. Scouts were sent out on the road for weeks with suitcases of money and one mandate; bring us back gritty, talented boys. The more money a team had to spend, the greater the quantity and quality of talented players signed on the excursion. In those unregulated times, some organizations rose to the top, stockpiling talent and building dynasties, while other teams floundered; the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia A’s were even expelled from the league after forfeiting road games because they couldn’t afford the travel costs.
In the years leading up to 1876, scouts had made their way around the country (but no farther west than Iowa or Missouri) and signed the 108 American-born players who formed the initial season’s rosters. But along their routes, they also came upon sixteen foreign-born players already in the States and eager to play ball. Not that any of these players had flocked here knowing they wanted in on the economic advantages baseball offered; while other parts of the world knew and played the game, Americans were still singular in their passion and vision for the sport. These players had already made the move for completely unrelated reasons, and simply stumbled across the game as a happy accident. It’s also interesting to note that at this same time, the truly native-born Americans were also busy playing baseball. Granted, most of them were being taught by the invaders as a pastime to while away the days/months/years they spent in prison camps across the plains, but they still grew to love the game.
For the next century, the United States grew rapidly in size and experienced multiple revolutionary labor movements along the way. Forty-hour work weeks capped by weekends and the end to child labor were just two of the historic victories claimed by unions. However, despite unions being a part of baseball since 1885, work conditions remained relatively unchanged for the players, with avaricious owners taking repeated advantage of the lopsided balance of power and refusing to cede an inch. The amateur draft first came along in 1965, but it wasn’t until Marvin Miller took strong action in 1968 and worked with the players to negotiate the first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that there was even a hint of fairness to the process. When free agency was granted in 1975, players finally had a voice in their own futures. But one group was left out of this flurry of new rules and relative fairness breaking out everywhere: international free agents.
Who’s Playing Now?
At the start of the 2016 season, 576 MLB players were born in the United States and the rest of the planet contributed 201 players, with the Dominican Republic leading the way at 76. When baseball held its annual amateur draft on June 9th this year, it was only open to residents of the United States, its territories (most prolifically Puerto Rico), and Canada.
So how does a player such as Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who was born in Curacao (country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) manage to be drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 2010 amateur draft, while New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, who was also born a citizen of the Netherlands and even played in the same youth leagues as Simmons, end up ineligible for the amateur draft (and all the protocols and protections it offers young players), and required to sign as an international free agent?
As it turns out, the only difference in their two backgrounds is that Simmons had moved to the US and attended Western Oklahoma State College, which made him eligible to be drafted despite his country of origin. Gregorius never attended high school or college in the States, a detail that kept him ineligible for the amateur draft.
To many, this represents just one of the economic divisions between draft-eligible and international free agent signings. Poor kids from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic can’t afford suitable housing and healthcare, never mind emigrating across an ocean to attend an expensive American college or university. Most international free agents must be discovered at home, usually at a very young age, developed in major-league-sponsored academies, and then assigned to minor-league affiliates of the big-league squad. When Gregorius was scouted and received contract offers, he had a choice of three organizations. San Diego and Seattle wanted him to start his career in one of their overseas academies, while the Cincinnati Reds offered to bring him to their stateside Gulf Coast League affiliate. Gregorius happily chose the Reds.
But even among international free agents, there are significant differences in their paths to MLB. The following chart shows the countries represented by players at the start of the 2016 season (in parentheses). It also shows the percentage of the population in their homelands that lives in poverty:
Seen on the right end of the scale are MLB’s current Taiwanese players, Wei-Yin Chen of the Miami Marlins and the Kansas City Royals Chien-Ming Wang, who come from a country with significantly lower poverty levels than even the US. So why would a player leave a higher standard of living to play ball on another continent?
Then, there are the ten players from Mexico who have escaped a country where over half its citizens live in poverty. It’s easy to see the draw among Mexicans to play for their North American neighbor, but it creates an ethical problem for MLB. Should it be snagging teenagers as young as 15 or 16 from their homes while the amateur draft protects its own teenagers by declaring high school players are eligible “only after graduation, and if they have not attended college”? It makes one wonder if baseball is creating a better way of life for economically disadvantaged kids or just exploiting the resources of the third world countries.
To explore these questions, part 2 will break down the countries currently exporting players to the international market and examine the politics that drive players to chase their dreams to the States. Part 3 will introduce some of the players who have made the journey to America to play for the Boston Red Sox. We’ll let you decide if the system has worked for them.
Lisa Carney has written about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Pedro Martinez, and a Yankee legend who can’t keep his trap shut.
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