Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Manny Being Manny, and the state of Dominican "Beisbol"...

Ah, so the idiot savant of major league baseball, the man-child genius who played the game instinctively, with an almost disdainful disregard for how seriously other players and fans took the game, has tested positive yet again for steroids. So instead of facing the music and taking his 100-game ban, he decides to retire at the age of 38.

Whatever the reasons floating out there for his abrupt decision, here is why he went out like such a fucking sucker-if he retires now, the substance he tested positive for will never be made public. If he ever decided to come back, then the process re-starts and the results will be out there for all to see.

This way, he can ride into the sunset like the self-absorbed asshole he is without giving anyone an explanation about his steroid use. Because of his prodigious talent he was never forced to grow up and act like an adult. His community has always unequivocally stood behind him, making excuse after excuse for his behavior. To them, he could do no wrong and whatever happened was never his fault.

The reason is the money he pulled in and the fame he garnered for the national pastime in his home country and for the Dominican diaspora here in the states. All that mattered was the money and the fame. How you get it, how you maintain it makes up for how you will eventually lose it in the eyes of his fans.

Why this is needs some explaining, so let us start at the beginning. Let us get a clear understanding of what baseball means in the Dominican Republic-the "love of the game" is a concept sold to the fans, who eat it up like a plate of rice, beans and fried chicken. It means something entirely different for those who are trying to make a living from it, and here is where it gets twisted.

Those involved in the sport only see US dollar signs. Within the confines of development league baseball in third world Latin American countries, it's about the money and nothing else. It is a cutthroat business where the large majority of so-called "hopefuls" are drowned in PED's from a very young age and then summarily discarded if they are not signed by a major league ball club by the time they are 16, which is why some prospects have their birth certificates altered by men who stand to lose money if a particular player doesn't get signed.

If these cats aren't in one of MLB's Dominican training academies before they're in their twenties, they become officially washed up. So for every Manny Ramirez there are tons of "brutos" (Spanish for someone who is uneducated and ignorant) either playing baseball in the Dominican professional league for shitty wages or working as security guards or other dead-end jobs for even shittier pay. They must, after getting cut from the baseball academy, go back to their impoverished neighborhoods as failures, their dreams and the dreams of their families gone up in smoke.

Ramirez didn't have to go through this process because his family emigrated to the states when he was young, and so he was subjected to the much less mercenary US system, where a player can get signed out of high school or college.  But Manny never graduated from high school and went straight to the majors with resounding fanfare-Washington Heights had their Dominican baseball hero, the first one of the Dominican diaspora in NYC to make it big.

He was everything his fans wanted to be if they could be a pro baseball player-talented enough to go through life with an entitled, childish, and irresponsible demeanor while the rest of the world sucked his dick, a place in society hermetically sealed from the rules of regular everyday life that didn't apply to him because he was a "pelotero" with money to buy himself whatever he wanted whenever he wanted.

This has nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with the sick society we live in. In this regard the people got exactly what the deserved; an unrepentant, immature asshole unwilling and unable to face the music and no compulsion to tell his fans and the rest of the world exactly what he tested positive for. He then tells the world he's off to Spain with his old man and that's it-no explanation, no nothing, basically saying "Fuck You" to anyone who loved watching him play.

His massive sense of entitlement doesn't allow for contradiction, and not for one second did it ever cross his mind to offer up an explanation to his fans who have supported him throughout all the stupid shit he's said and done over the years. But that's how it is, because steroid use by Dominican baseball players is excused by their fans.

It's just part of the game, especially if one of their own is caught up in a scandal. But that attitude goes farther back than some washed-up player who can't hack it anymore. It starts when many of these players from the Dominican Republic are old enough to join the myriad of baseball academies that dot the landscape of this impoverished third world nation.

Steroid use in the Dominican baseball academies is absolutely rampant. The young men who attend these baseball academies are given over by their parents to grown men who don't give a fuck about them. These young men rarely go to school to learn anything except enough English to yell out "HONRON!!!" "FLIE BOL!!!" "BAYZ HEET!!!" What is in it for these men involved in developing the next generation of Dominican baseball talent? Money.

Could this be the next "Big Poppi"?
Since none of the families of these young recruits can pay for training, they become the property of "buscónes", who appear in all walks of life in the Dominican Republic, not just baseball. A "buscón is basically anyone who can help you procure something or help you gain access to any particular thing, at a cost.

The "busónes" are the street agents who steer the kids to certain baseball academies, and they will travel all over the island looking for talent, ingratiating themselves into the fabric of the kid's poverty-stricken family to gain the trust of the very people they look to exploit.

The Kansas City Royals' Baseball Camp in the DR-
As an example of how rampant this type of work is in Dominican society, I once ran into a kid who could not have been more than 12 years old on the streets of Santo Domingo steering potential clients to a nearby whorehouse. He gets a cut from every client he brings in, and in many instances these fuckers get as much if not more than the chica who has to do the actual work. Same with a "buscón" who peddles young, aspiring baseball athletes.

Since the great majority of them don't pan out in the major leagues, the "busónes", like the very players they recruit, look to to hit that big home run by getting a percentage of a prospect's major league signing bonus, which is supposedly negotiated with the player's family years in advance but whose percentage increases depending on the amount of the bonus. So a family whose kid signs for, say, $500,000 US dollars will pay (if they're lucky) about a third of that amount to the "buscón" as his cut.

A Dominican prospect at home, waiting for the call that will change his life-
How fucked out of their bonus money are these players? Here it is-they have girlfriends they must keep happy (that's if they don't immediate drop them once they sign, which happens from time to time-why marry a Dominican girl from the same slum you've busted your ass to get out of when you can go to the states and marry a blond white woman?), they have family members coming out of every corrugated tin-roof shack asking for help, and then there are the parents and siblings who must be taken care of first by buying a house and a vehicle for them in a better neighborhood with tons of security.The players know they are their family's only hope out of poverty, so they help willingly. But that doesn't mean they're not taken advantage of.

Tourists observing the game as it's played by Dominican youth-
It's common practice for a player to sign a big bonus and immediately build a house in the same barrio they grew up in, making them targets for people pestering them incessantly for handouts. And because their educations are so limited their money is sometimes gone in a matter of months or even weeks. How is this possible? With no working knowledge on what anything costs, they are prime targets to get taken advantage of.

See, there are no price tags on anything sold in the Dominican Republic. Prices are negotiated not on the intrinsic value of the goods and/or services in question but how much a proprietor believes a client can/should pay. Prices can skyrocket out of control for things like building supplies, vehicles and other items if the seller believes the customer is rich. A uniquely Dominican trait in business goes like this-"If a client has money and they can afford to pay more, they SHOULD pay more".

This bonus money is usually the biggest payday these poor players will ever see in their lives. Ninety-eight out of one hundred Dominican prospects who get signed by major league ball clubs get cut soon after hitting the minor leagues in the states, so that bonus money is usually where it ends for them. This is why baseball is such big business in the Dominican Republic, and why the attitudes towards PED's is what it is for those involved in the procurement of talent.

From this cesspool of corruption and mistrust there develops the fun-house mirror image in which baseball players are seen by their fans. If any of them manage to survive this Dantian maze of low success rates and rampant assholes at every turn, they are seen as Gods who can do no wrong. The agenda of such apologists does not border on lunacy, it bypasses it on the road to insanity.

Why? Here is another cultural quirk that must be addressed. The Dominican Socratic Method of arguing a point goes like this-regardless of what is being discussed, the fact must be established that whatever went wrong is YOUR fault and not theirs. This line of reasoning takes precedent over trying to solve whatever unfortunate occurrence took place. Nothing moves forward unless the "fact" that whatever happened was not their fault is established.

So Ramirez will remain blameless by his community. They will question the validity of the steroid testing, they will argue that Latin ball players are unduly targeted for steroid testing, they will argue that this is all a conspiracy to tarnish the reputation and legacy of one of the best hitters to ever play the game, and all because he's Dominican.

They will counter-argue that he didn't need steroids because he was gifted from an early age. They will casually disregard the importance of being voted into the Hall of Fame and mention how much he was responsible for breaking the Red Sox curse during their championship run in 2004-05. None of this takes into account what Ramirez had been doing since 2003 and probably before then, which encapsulates not only his historic run with the Red Sox but his eventual decline.

Ramirez and Ortiz, when times were good-
Let us not forget that Ramirez failed that first initial run of steroid testing initiated by MLB back in 2003. His name was one of many that popped up on the report, including then-Red Sox teammate and fellow countryman David "Big Poppi" Ortiz. Then Ramirez went to Los Angeles after orchestrating a trade by throwing some octogenarian traveling secretary onto the floor for not coming up with the requisite number of tickets he needed for a particular game.

Those innocent, childish antics may seem cute for a 13-year old, but they are a bit more dangerous for a grown ass man. But I guess that was just another instance of "Manny being Manny". After batting almost .400 for LA for the rest of the year and almost single-handedly getting them into the playoffs (something people wondered about-why the fuck couldn't he do this in Boston?) he tested positive again the next year, earning a 50-game suspension. And now this.

Manny being Manny in the outfield-
What he did during these years was chemically enhanced by a steroid program we may never know the details of. So he serves his first suspension and comes back looking like a tired, aging athlete who's lost it. Fair enough, the guy has been playing baseball most of his life, and the inevitable decline usually comes in a player's mid-to-late thirties. That's how it goes for any athlete NOT on steroids.

A buffoon in the outfield who more than made up for it at the plate-
After his lackluster last year in LA, where it was evident how much steroid use played into his abilities due to his diminished output once he came from suspension, he signs for a modest 1.9 million dollars with Tampa Bay, probably the only team that would have him. After a terrible start to the season where again it's painfully obvious that he just cannot play anymore, the bombshell hits. No more "Manny Being Manny" to describe his oddball behavior. He tested positive, and decides to run and hide instead of facing the music, which certainly was not merengue.

Something much more sinister was at work behind the scenes, and knowing Ramirez he will never explain nor apologize. So now he gets jettisoned as just another bum who cheated his way to the top and leaves the game as unrepentant as he came into it. And he leaves the game the same way he played outfield, because he never truly did give a fuck-only when he signed those contracts did he care.

For Ramirez, this story has a happy ending. He leaves the game with a clear conscience, and as David Ortiz stated recently after getting the news, "As a player, I think he (Ramirez) did what he was supposed to do". Ortiz spoke volumes with this sentence. Manny DID do what he was supposed to do-he cheated. He leaves the game admired by his fans, tons of money in the bank, and a beautiful wife and children with plenty of time to live the rest of his life in peace, happiness and prosperity.

But one need look no further than the tragic tale of Mario Encarnación, a baseball prospect who came up with Miguel Tejada from the impoverished town of Bani, Dominican Republic to see the dark side lurking beside the blinding success. Tejada was the one who made it, fame and fortune becoming a reality for him despite the fact that not only has he been implicated in steroid use, he was also involved in a birth certificate scam that put his age over what was originally thought by two years.

Mario Encarnación, hapless victim of the Dominican baseball/steroid connection-
What is the fine line here? Tejada may never have made the major leagues if scouts knew his real age, and he went on to become a six time all-star and an AL MVP winner. Where was Encarnación during all this? He was already gone by the year 2005. He was found dead in front of his refrigerator with the door still open, suspended earlier that year for testing positive for steroids while playing in the Chinese league.

Mario Encarnación imitating the batting stance of Julio Franco as Miguel Tejada looks on-
 His career never panned out in the majors, unlike Tejada, who went on to become a six time all-star and the MVP of the AL in 2002. It was Tejada who paid the freight charges to have his friend's body sent back to their hometown because no one else in Encarnación's family could afford it. Mario died thousands of miles away from his native land in Taiwan and even farther away from realizing his dream of becoming a successful big leaguer.

Miguel Tejada (far left) at the Oakland A's Dominican facility, 1993. 
 Encarnación had stated during his failed odyssey to the major leagues that "I am the great hope of my family. You always feel the pressure but God gives you courage.". Let's take a moment to remember this poor young man, who died way too young chasing a dream that so many in his family counted on that never materialized, and juxtapose it with that of  Miguel Tejada, who cheated every way he could to make it, and did.

I'll leave you with a photo of Mario's older sister doing laundry in the home he was raised in. The look on her face and the surroundings makes any caption useless to describe what life is like for these aspiring ballplayers in the Dominican Republic. It is also a sad indictment of the whole meat-grinding apparatus that "Beisbol" has become in this country, which produces big-league ballplayers that many know about, and so many others that don't make it whom everyone forgets (click on the photo to enlarge).

If you lived like this, would YOU cheat to make it? Yes, you would. But there are costs on either side of the success/failure spectrum that must be paid once the check comes due. Let us not forget that in the end, the Devil always gets his due. It is as true for Manny Ramirez and Miguel Tejada as it was for Mario Ecarnación. May he rest in peace.

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