Gunnin' for the show

The life of a Dominican minor leaguer

| August 13, 2009

Four hours before the first pitch, Ogren Park at Allegiance Field looks nearly empty. The fans haven't arrived, nor have the umpires, Ollie Osprey or any venders. The only activity takes place on the field as the Missoula Osprey and the Great Falls Voyagers run through pre-game warm-ups. In right field, the Voyagers play catch. Along the third-base line, the Osprey, clad in shorts and Osprey T-shirts, stand poised. On a coach's call, they take off, sprinting hard for center field.

Junior Noboa takes in the scene above the third-base line, standing in a sliver of shade offered by the vacant concession stands. Noboa serves as the director of Latin American operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Osprey's parent club, and he's here to check on one of his prized prospects.

"He's number 48," says Noboa, pointing to Keny Sosa, a lanky, left-handed, power pitcher hailing from Noboa's native Dominican Republic.

Noboa, dressed in jeans and a white D-backs polo, watches Sosa jawing with his teammates after finishing their sprints.

"He has the best chance of making it to the majors," Noboa says. "He's strong. He's fast. He has good form. He should make it."

By "make it," Noboa's referring to the major leagues, or "The Show," as it's commonly called among players. Although Sosa holds promise, the truth is he and his teammates face long odds of ever setting foot in a big league clubhouse. There are currently 20 different minor leagues with about 246 teams feeding players to just 30 major league teams, each with a 40-man roster. According to Steve Densa, director of media relations with Minor League Baseball, just 10 percent of minor league players ever manage to play one game in a big league stadium. The percentage of players who spend their careers in the big leagues is much smaller.

Sosa, 22, knows the odds. But considering what he went through to even arrive in Missoula, he's not intimidated about moving up from rookie ball with the Osprey through three other levels—A, AA and AAA—to the big leagues. Sosa's already fought his way through the most baseball-crazed country on earth, a country whose relationship with the sport is complicated and controversial. Baseball generates immense pride and much-needed wealth for the impoverished Dominican Republic, but also spawns a shady underworld of thieves and leaches who prey on young ballplayers' dreams. For Sosa, he remains focused on the dream: play baseball, reach the majors and send money to family. That's it.

Ozzie Virgil joined the New York Giants in 1953 and became the first Dominican to reach the big leagues. Since then, some of the game's best talent has come from the small Caribbean country. Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa (no relation to Keny) battled Mark McGwire for the home run title during the thrilling 1998 season when both players managed to break Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season home run record of 61. Pedro Martinez won the Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher three times and became just the 15th pitcher of all time to strike out 3,000 hitters. Dodger Manny Ramirez is one of just 25 people ever to have hit more than 500 home runs. The list goes on and on and on. In fact, the Dominican Republic, a country smaller than West Virginia, currently churns out more big leaguers than any other country in the world except the United States.

"It's become part of Dominican identity and culture that's highly valued," says Rob Ruck, a history professor at the University of Pittsburg and the author of the seminal book on Dominican ballplayers, The Tropic of Baseball. "It's become the way that Dominicans have expressed themselves on the global stage."

It's these examples that Sosa hopes to follow, but he's a long way from Cy Young Awards in Missoula.

After a recent Osprey victory, Sosa sits in the Rhinoceros on Ryman Street sipping a glass of Budweiser. Unlike most of his teammates, Sosa's old enough to drink, but he doesn't go out very often. His usual stop after games: the McDonald's drive-thru window.

He's quiet around visitors, but warms up easily. Sosa speaks enough English to communicate with coaches and teammates, but prefers Spanish. When a reporter tells him he's bilingual, he opens up and speaks more freely about his homeland and what it's like living in an isolated mountain town.

The first time he arrived in the United States, Sosa, then 20, landed in the Tucson airport a little after midnight. He boarded a minivan with a driver who didn't speak Spanish and rode directly to the Diamondbacks' spring training facility. He hardly did anything but play baseball, and spent his free time wandering the Tucson mall. Sosa says he never felt more alone in his life.

He's comfortable in Missoula, although he admits that he'd prefer to leave as soon as possible for a promotion to a higher level of baseball. He spends time with his 22-year-old American girlfriend (she's bilingual), but otherwise his schedule revolves entirely around baseball.

After the Rhino, Sosa gives directions to his house, which happen to pass by McDonald's. The restaurant's closed.

"How about Burger King?" he asks.

Sosa finally arrives at his two-bedroom apartment off Railroad Street, a flat he shares with five other Dominican players and Ramon Castillo, a Panamanian catcher. Two single mattresses lay in the front room. There are two more mattresses in one of the bedrooms and three more in another. When Sosa walks in, Castillo chats with friends on Facebook while Henry Zaballa, an Osprey outfielder, listens to his iPod. It's hot in the house and they're all shirtless. The apartment is cramped, but Sosa doesn't care. He's playing professional baseball, "un sueño," he says. A dream.

Sosa comes from Haina, a village in the Dominican Republic near Santo Domingo. He cut his teeth with games of stickball in streets, fields or any space large enough to hold nine fielders and a kid with a bat. Baseball, Sosa says, is in his blood.

He's not the first in his family to come to the United States—or even the first to play minor league baseball. His mother lives in Maryland with one of his five siblings and his father is a freezer mechanic in New York. Four of his cousins played ball with various minor league teams, so Sosa says it was only a matter of time before he joined their ranks. That casual outlook belies the hard work—and luck—that got Sosa to the Diamondbacks' organization.

Baseball arrived in the Dominican Republic from Cuba, but its players, until recently, hailed almost exclusively from a southern Dominican town called San Pedro de Macorís. The reason for this is twofold, according to author Ruck.

"A lot of ballplayers who started to come out of San Pedro de Macorís are the grandsons of cocolos, people who originally came to San Pedro to cut sugar cane," he says.

The English-speaking, Protestant, dark-skinned cocolos followed Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican black nationalist, and lived a "very disciplined" life, Ruck says. They brought this culture to the Dominican Republic and applied it to the game of cricket, which they played extremely well.

"These are people who were very put upon at work, experienced quite a bit of discrimination and racism and drew upon themselves as a means of surviving," Ruck says. "Their sons, once they became a permanent community there, spoke English at home, Spanish at school. They played cricket with their fathers and baseball with their Dominican friends. The third generation is [future major leaguers like] Alfredo Griffin, Pedro Guerrero, George Bell, Sammy Sosa, Jose Offerman, Mariano Duncan, Rafael Ramirez. Many of them you can tell from the last name have this English background. So you have this real splendid tradition of the cocolos, and once it starts to take off and reach critical mass, you have this infrastructure of mini sporting culture of coaches, leagues, rivalries, ball fields and, on top of that, the Major League starts to say, 'Wow, this is where you want to go to find good ballplayers.' And these kids grow up and there are ballplayers all over the place who become their role models. So it becomes an incredibly rich culture of sporting excellence."

That baseball tradition bred more than just all-star talent. It also produced a legion of seedy agents and brokers who worked to profit off the island's flow of stellar baseball players.

"These kids are taken advantage of, there's no question about that," Ruck says. "I mean, it's not uniform. It's not homogenous, but there are a lot of people who want a piece of the action. The best analogy might be the way people exploit young African American basketball players in high school on their way to college."

Sosa explains that he had a friend who knew of a place where, if you were good enough at baseball, if you'd spent enough time swinging sticks at balls in the sandlot, a guy would house you, educate you and, most importantly, train you in the hopes that a big league scout would sign you to a contract, or firmar.

At the advice of his friend, Sosa ended up at Born to Play, an academy in Haina, and tried out. The academy's owner, Edgar Mercedes, a successful U.S.-educated sports book owner, liked what he saw in Sosa and agreed to take him in.

The Indy was unable to reach Mercedes for this story, but he was the subject of a July 22, 2008, Sports Illustrated story on a new wave of buscones, or "searchers," a sometimes shady, sometimes legitimate trainer who finds young ballplayers and helps them train for potential careers in Major League Baseball. As payment, the buscón usually takes a percentage of the prospect's signing bonus. Last year, Mercedes managed to get 16-year-old Michael Inoa a contract with the Oakland Athletics' organization. The A's kicked Inoa a $4.25 million signing bonus and, as Inoa's trainer, Mercedes took an undisclosed cut.

In 2006, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, signed legislation limiting the percent of a signing bonus a buscón can take from a prospect to 10 percent if the buscón trains the player for a year, and 15 percent if the kid trains for longer. But many believe the problem still persists.

Sosa doesn't consider Mercedes a buscón.

"Buscones andan en la calle," he says, meaning they go in the street. They're lowlifes, scumbags. In Sosa's mind, a buscón is not a legitimate trainer like Mercedes. Instead, a buscón is a low-grade pimp who'll pump a 13- or 14-year-old kid full of steroids to enhance his investment, and then toss the kid out to dry by snatching up to 50 percent of the player's signing bonus. The worst part, say both Ruck and Sosa, is that some young players know what they're getting into although they may not understand the health risks.

Keny Sosa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks two years ago at the age of 20. Junior Noboa, the D-backs’ director of Latin American operations, discovered Sosa playing at Born to Play, a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Keny Sosa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks two years ago at the age of 20. Junior Noboa, the D-backs’ director of Latin American operations, discovered Sosa playing at Born to Play, a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

"If you're in an area and your alternatives are to work in the cane fields, the cane mill, the free trade zones or the hotels, and somebody's offering you the chance to play baseball, and even though the signing bonus isn't going to be anything like it was if you were in the United States and you were drafted, it's going to be more money than that family has ever seen at one time in its entire history," Ruck says.

Mercedes, Sosa says, did not take advantage of him. In fact, the most baseball Sosa ever learned took place under Merecedes' tutelage. And after a year at Born to Play, Noboa came to the academy and Sosa caught his eye. Suddenly, a dream Sosa had held since he was old enough to throw a baseball had come true.

"Me firmaron," he says now. "They signed me."

His contract with the Diamondbacks included a $15,000 signing bonus, more money than Sosa had ever had at one time. He used it to pay for one brother's surgery and bought his other brother a motorcycle, which he operates as a taxi in Santo Domingo. Mercedes, Sosa says, made his life better.

After Sosa signed with Noboa, he moved to Baseball City, a modern, state-of-the-art baseball academy shared by the Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Diamondbacks. The facility's fields are cared for like major league parks—the grass meticulously maintained, the dirt carefully raked. Outside the gates, in the town of Boca Chica, Sosa says youngsters play in the street with sticks and rags, hoping to someday make it inside the complex.

Every major league team has a facility in the Dominican Republic like Baseball City, and usually in poor, rural communities like Boca Chica. The academies give rise to a thriving summer league where Dominicans and many North Americans come to hone their game during the winter. The juxtaposition between the modern facilities and the kids in the street can seem harsh until you consider the financial impact of Major League Baseball on the country.

John Siebel, a consultant with Major League Baseball and an economist with Entrena, S.A., a Dominican consulting company, helped author a 2005 report that put that financial impact into perspective. The study showed that $84 million flows into the country annually as a result of Major League Baseball.

"Today," Siebel says, "we estimate the amount to be in excess of $100 million."

In 2005, the year Sosa signed with the Diamond Backs, 402 other Dominican players also finalized contracts with major league teams. Those 403 Dominicans brought home $17.4 million in signing bonuses alone. Most of those players stay at one of the 28 academies operated by major league teams. The academies' annual investment totals $14 million.

"Their economic impact is more significant when you consider that (a) They create over 850 permanent direct jobs and (b) They are located in predominantly poor communities where the impact is more direct," the report says.

Siebel says there are a couple of reasons the academies stand in rural areas.

"Number one, the operational cost is lower," he says. "Number two, the location. Most of the players originally came from San Pedro de Macorís. But all of the areas they are located in could be considered poorer communities. They're not located in urban facilities. They're located on the outskirts of the communities and that has to do a lot with the cost of land and the availability of land."

Coaches and scouts believe Sosa has the velocity to reach the major leagues, but say he must develop his secondary pitches and get better at the mental side of the game. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Coaches and scouts believe Sosa has the velocity to reach the major leagues, but say he must develop his secondary pitches and get better at the mental side of the game.

Siebel's report doesn't consider another impact of baseball on the country—education. But he does mention it as another benefit.

"All teams are required to provide some sort of educational program that usually consists of some life skills, some English training, computer literacy and schooling," Siebel says. "As an industry, we're trying to establish an educational program for all the teams for all the players, whereby each player would advance one grade of schooling during each season that the player is signed and will continue to get his high school education regardless of whether that player was released or not."

It's an important step because most who sign with a team and train in an academy never actually make it out of the Dominican Republic. Even if they don't reach the United States, Siebel emphasizes that the year or two they spend in the camps usually represents a significant jump in lifestyle. Siebel says a player will usually sign for about $800 per month, a substantial sum when you consider the plight of the average Dominican. The CIA World Factbook estimates the average per capita income in the country in 2008 was just $8,100.

The final measure of baseball's impact on the island comes from how many players reinvest in the country. Dominican major and minor leaguers send about 20 percent of their salaries back to the island per year, or around $50 million, according to Siebel's report.

"By and large, Dominican ballplayers have brought back more to their communities than ballplayers in the United States bring back to theirs," Ruck says. "Many of them go back and support a lot of people. They invest. Pedro Martinez built a church for his community. Vladimir Guerrero and any number of others have foundations that put people to work and help people. They often go back to play winter ball, like Miguel Tejada, even though they could use the rest and they don't need the money. Because not to go back, as Tony Pena once said, would be like slapping people in the face."

Ruck doesn't know exactly what percentage of players who sign contracts with big league academies make it out of the Dominican Republic.

"It could be half or more," he says. "But the ones who are really good, who show promise, will make it to the U.S. minor leagues. This kid you're talking about has already made a substantial jump. He's left the island."

Earlier this year, Manny Ramirez signed a two-year contract worth $45 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Just last month, an aging Pedro Martinez signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $1 million, with an additional $1.5 million in possible incentives.

Sosa hopes to follow in the footsteps of these all-stars, but first he has to wrangle some semblance of control from the cannon attached to his left shoulder.

Sosa has pitched brilliantly at times for the Osprey this season, but he's also struggled with consistency. On July 14, Idaho Falls shelled him with six runs on nine hits over four innings. Against Billings on July 24, Sosa gave up another six runs on 10 hits, leaving him with an astronomical 20.25 earned run average.

But when Sosa's on, he's unhittable. In his first outing of the season he struck out six Helena Brewers over six scoreless innings to earn the victory. Against Great Falls in late July, he allowed just two runs and six hits over six innings.

"He's had a couple of bad outings as a starter this year," says Steve Merriman, the Osprey pitching coach, "but his last start was outstanding. I expect him to continue to improve."

Sosa's latest chance to put it all together came Aug. 3 against the Helena Brewers. In the first game of the second-half of the season—the Osprey came within one strike of winning the first-half division title—manager Audo Vicente sent Sosa to the mound for the start.

First up is Brewers' shortstop Mike Brownstein. Sosa fires a fastball low on the inside corner and Brownstein knocks a short chopper to charging Osprey third baseman Raywilly Gomez. With one pitch, Sosa notches an out.

After retiring the second batter, Sosa faces Brewers' slugger Scott Krieger. The right fielder has knocked 10 of his 39 hits over the fence for home runs, but Sosa gets Krieger to chase a fastball low and outside on the first pitch. Krieger swings and misses again on the second. After a foul ball and a called ball, Sosa goes back at Krieger with a low and outside pitch. Krieger watches it go by for strike three.

In the second inning, Sosa retires the side again, striking out infielder Sean Halton in the process. His fastball reaches 91 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun.

No question Sosa has the velocity to fan major league hitters, but, as Merriman likes to tell his stable, “there’s no more stuffed animals to win at the carnival. You got paid one time for velocity. After that, you gotta learn how to pitch.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • No question Sosa has the velocity to fan major league hitters, but, as Merriman likes to tell his stable, “there’s no more stuffed animals to win at the carnival. You got paid one time for velocity. After that, you gotta learn how to pitch.”

"He's athletic, he's left-handed, he's 89-91," Merriman says. "Name for me five other lefties who are pitching above 90. When you have a kid like that, who's athletic as he is, who's a left-hander, who pitches consistently at that velocity, he has a lot of things in his favor."

No question Sosa has the velocity to fan major league hitters, but, as Merriman likes to tell his pitchers, "There's no more stuffed animals to win at the carnival. You got paid one time for velocity. After that, you gotta learn how to pitch. You have to learn how to change speeds, locate, get movement and then get outs. Velocity isn't the thing that gets outs."

Sosa tends to rely on his fastball, but Merriman says that's the point. Minor league hurlers, Merriman says, tend to overestimate their breaking pitches.

"A lot of these guys come out from college or lower levels where guys will swing at bad breaking balls," Merriman says. "So these guys have learned a false sense of security with a breaking ball that's in the dirt that guys swing at all the time. You see it here every night. What I want them to establish first and foremost is that fastball. You're going to pitch off your fastball."

For young players like Sosa, that's easier said than done. Merriman says it's Sosa's delivery that keeps getting him in trouble.

"When he's on, he's on," Merriman says. "When he struggles like he has, it's because the delivery gets sideways on him and he starts to spin a little bit in his landing, and he loses the feel of a good release point to help him have command of his pitches."

In the fifth inning against Helena, Sosa starts to lose control. He's only given up one hit before Cutter Dykstra reaches first on a fielder's choice and Kyle Dhanani knocks a triple to center field.

"We started noticing a few things with his delivery and his mechanics," Merriman says of Sosa's last start. "He really started to collapse a little bit and lose his good arm slot, which flattened his pitches out. But it's like anything. You work at it. Guys are going to go through that. They're going to have ups and downs. They have to weather the storm a little bit."

Sosa knows he has to work on his mental approach to the game. He hopes to add a few secondary pitches to his lethal fastball—a strong slider and changeup are in the works—but, more importantly, he still has a lot to learn about pitching at this level.

"[He needs to learn] how to read hitters. What does he see?" Merriman says. "This will dictate how to use his stuff. But in terms of velocity, he has what it takes to get to the big leagues."

With a runner on third and two outs, Sosa steps off the mound to collect his thoughts, then steps back onto the rubber to face Brewers' center fielder Chadwin Stang. Sosa's notched five strikeouts so far, but Stang took away Sosa's no hitter in the third. A hit here would mean another run for Helena and would probably send Sosa to the showers.

He checks Dhanani on third, stretches and fires. Fastball. Strike one. Sosa goes right back at him with another fastball for strike two. Once more, Sosa stretches and fires. Stang eyes another fastball, steps, swings...and misses. Strike three, end of the inning.

When the Osprey take the field in the top of the sixth inning, Sosa's sitting in the dugout. On the strength of a big fourth inning, the Osprey go on to notch Sosa's second win of the season with a 12–2 victory. Just one more small step for Sosa toward The Show.

Postscript: The Arizona Diamondbacks announced Sunday that Keny Sosa was promoted from the Osprey to Class A South Bend. He made his first start Tuesday against Lansing and pitched six innings. He struck our seven batters and only gave up one run.

Comments (1)

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Nice article Jesse. Well researched and well written. I'm now the second most knowledgeable person in my family concerning Dominican baseball.

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Posted by ctjstr on 08/13/2009 at 11:38 PM
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