Hitting home runs is what has made Jose Bautista the Toronto Blue Jays’ biggest star. But a world away in the Dominican Republic where Bautista is from, for thousands of kids “becoming Jose” is a matter of life and death.
“We have to work a lot, we have to suffer hunger, it's a big effort because here it is tough to become someone," one 15-year old ballplayer says.
At one of the biggest prospect showcases before the opening of the July 2 international player signing period, dozens of 15- and 16-year-old kids sit in the tunnel waiting to take the field. The pressure on them is enormous. If you impress here, a major league team will likely offer you a contract and change your life forever.
“They are playing for their lives. In the Dominican Republic, for a lot of these kids it is baseball or nothing. It is as simple as that,” long-time trainer Homero Lahara explains.
Lahara talks about a player who isn’t here today. A boy, who on the morning before his own tryout, collapsed on a baseball diamond and died.
“To try to make these kids superman at a very young age they start fooling around with mother nature. And it backfires like with this young man.”
Juan Manuel's desperate dream
The story of Juan Manuel Matos is the counterpoint to the fairytale. The whispers here are that the 15-year old died after being injected with steroids – the fourth such case in the past 14 months in the Nizao area, an hour outside the capital.
At the baseball diamond where Juan Manuel played his last game, nobody wants to talk about steroids. Even Samuel Mateo, who trained with Juan Manuel.
“We were talking and then all of a sudden he fell. We were all very surprised. Right away we took him to the hospital, but he died."
Juan Manuel left his house everyday at 5 a.m. to make it in time for training. Jose Luis — another baseball trainer – explains that if Juan Manuel injected steroids, it was out of desperation.
"If they don't become baseball players, the devil takes them away. Here there's baseball and nothing else.”
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Retracing the road where Juan Manuel walked every day, near a bridge there is a gigantic number 27 carved into the hillside. This is the home of one of the most famous Dominican ballplayers of all time – Vladimir Guerrero.
Guerrero is the dream realized. A nine-time all-star. Millions of dollars earned. You might think a guy who carves his number onto the side of a hill wouldn’t be critical of baseball in his country.
“Here everybody wants to have a son so they can make him play baseball. It is the fastest way out of poverty,” he says.
Guerrero explains the temptation of taking steroids as a teenager. In the Dominican Republic a 16-year-old can sign a professional contract. If you’re 16 and you’re big and you can play the game, you can sign for hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions.
“I think if they had given the kid [Juan Manuel Matos] time, he had a future. I think it would be better to sign them at 17 or 18. There would be fewer deaths than what's happening now.”
Juan Manuel’s mother, holding the only two photos she has of her son, describes how his life revolved around the game.
“He wanted to be a baseball player. Since he was five he has been playing baseball. He loved his diamond, he didn't leave his diamond.”
Juan Manuel’s mother says that for her son the diamond was a field of dreams - but these weren’t romantic dreams, they were desperate and all-consuming.
And they drove him to desperate measures. Juan Manuel’s sister Jessica talks about steroids and how they changed him.
"All of a sudden my little brother became very temperamental. We were surprised, his body also became very big and strong.”
She blames the people who were preparing him for his tryout.
"His trainer didn't even come to give his condolences to my mother, he didn't come to the wake, nothing. That makes you wonder."
Juan Manuel’s family believes it was a trainer who injected him with steroids so he could cash in if the boy signed a contract. Trainers are unregulated in the Dominican Republic and it’s not uncommon for them to get 40 per cent of any money a player earns.
Juan Manuel’s death was final straw of sorts as the Dominican senate is now investigating why so many teenagers are dying on the diamonds.
If the senate is serious about understanding baseball here, they should talk to Charles Farrell.
Farrell has spent years fighting to help kids stuck in the dream of baseball and has now started his own school. He puts some of the blame at the feet of the big league teams.
“Baseball, the industry, is essentially acting as dream merchants. They have to sell the dream in order for prospects and the whole system to keep perpetuating itself.”
Farrell says the reality for the kids with big-league dreams is stark — 98 per cent of them won’t make it.
The reality for major league baseball, on the other hand, is good business. Farrell points out you can develop six or seven prospects here for the price of one in the U.S.
The Toronto Blue Jays, for example, have six players from the Dominican Republic: Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio and Esmil Rogers.
“It's the same sort of sense as why are shoes made in Indonesia, why are call centres being put in India? It can be operated cheaper," Farrell says. "When you see some of these kids who are six-foot-four and 230 pounds, you forget they are children.”
The Dominican baseball industry produces more ballplayers than any other country outside of the U.S. But Farrell explains that for the kids, it is an all-or-nothing proposition. More than 60 per cent of boys between the ages of 12 and 16 drop out of school to play baseball.
“What I find so appalling is when I talk to a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old who maybe has gone to an academy and washed out of baseball, I always see this sort of dead look in their eyes. When you ask them 'what are you going to do now?’ they say ‘I don't know. My life is over.’”
Nowadays Homero Lahara says he’d rather the players from his baseball team make it to college rather than sign a contract with a major league team.
“We’re gonna be a better nation when we have more kids graduating from college and preparing themselves than baseball players. I love baseball, but you cannot go out and say it is either baseball or death.”
But that’s exactly what it was for 15-year-old Juan Manuel Matos.
His sister Jessica holds her brother’s glove. "I am gonna keep it to remember him. We have a cousin who also plays, but we cannot give the glove to him because it's all that remains from my brother."