Much in the way the United States government's foreign policy is a complex and sometimes unfathomable, inconsistent exercise in supposed worldwide diplomacy, it should be noted that in 2007 Major League Baseball vastly increased its global reach, similarly leaving foreign governments, economists and U.S. business leaders scratching their proverbial heads.
But questions need to be asked, as the 2008 MLB season approaches, as to whether America's Pastime has bitten off more than it can chew in entering the world of global politics. In order to remain a successful and positive example worldwide, it must not alienate certain countries while at the same time disguise its craving for riches garnered off the backs of the impoverished.
For MLB was not originally set up to necessarily grow the sport globally. It was always assumed, perhaps naively so, that the best baseball players in the world would end up in the U.S. And to its credit, MLB has thought outside the box in the past couple of decades. But now it does so with the risk of discriminating against some groups or cultures while rewarding others at the behest of the almighty dollar.
To wit, there has been a growing hostility between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the U.S. government, most notably when Chavez gave a speech at the United Nations in November 2006 and referred to U.S. President George Bush as "el diablo" or "the devil." Since that time, Chavez was reelected for another 6 year term as President of Venezuela in December 2006 and most recently in December 2007, the Venezuelan people, by a slim margin, defeated Chavez' constitutional referendum to amend the constitution in order for him to remain President indefinitely.
Chavez has already made plans to nationalize certain industries in Venezuela, since he took office in 1999. He is a socialist and self-admitted revolutionary. Namely, electricity and oil and the telecom industries would be state controlled. And the vast oil reserves Venezuela enjoys has but enhanced Chavez' control and position amongst world leaders.
But since the 1980's the people of Venezuela, who once lived in a thriving country due to its oil resources, have also been its victims and now face rampant unemployment closing in on 20%, with little savings for secondary education. After oil prices plummeted in the '80's, the government devalued the country's currency. Since that time, the people of Venezuela have had to deal with civil unrest. And the Venezuelan capitol, Caracas, has presently earned the unpleasant distinction of having the highest per capita murder rate in the entire world.
Ironically, subsequent to the '80's, the age of the multi-million dollar major leaguer greeted many Venezuelan players, and some speculate as the direct result of the country's poverty. At one time a family hoped their children would end up become professionals, not professional baseball players, which was never seriously looked upon as a credible way to make a living.
In 1989, however, that all changed. The Houston Astros took the risk of becoming the first MLB club to build an academy in Venezuela, through the efforts of then scouting director, Andres Reiner, in hopes of developing baseball players on a regular basis.
The thinking was that it was an untapped goldmine of a country of 25 million. Soon, other teams followed and there were as many as 19 team-sponsored academies. The likes of Luis Aparicio, Tony Armas and Andres Galarraga were among its first superstars. Their successors included shortstops, Omar Vizquel and Ozzie Guillen. More recently, its superstars include pitchers, Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Kelvin Escobar and Francisco Rodriguez; outfielder Magglio Ordonez; shortstop Carlos Guillen; 3rd basemen Melvin Mora and Miguel Cabrera; catcher Victor Martinez; among other high quality players.
There were between 45 and 50 Venezuelan players on major league rosters at any one time during the 2007 season, which has remained stagnant for the past few years. However, Venezuelan players still represent the third largest group of major league players from any one country, after the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, which numbered 105 players in 2007.
But in the past 5 years, due to the country's heightened violence, crime and kidnappings of high profile athletes, there are but 9 teams which still have academies that remain in Venezuela. And in addition to the concerns that MLB has about the security and safety of its players and representatives, there is also equal concern about the future intentions of Hugo Chavez and his possibly nationalizing the sport of baseball.
Current Orioles 3rd baseman, Melvin Mora, in 2006 contacted Jim Duquette, the Orioles former Vice President of Baseball Operations, about wanting to build his own academy in Venezuela. Duquette advised Mora to speak to MLB's Vice President for International Operations, Lou Melendez. Melendez' response to Mora's interest was, "I'm just telling you that there are movements afoot there that may impact what you want to do. When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela."
Mora then took it upon himself to meet with the Venezuelan Sports Minister, Eduardo Alvarez. With the help of Mora, Melendez set up a meeting with Alvarez in early 2007. At that time, Melendez was assured that nationalization of baseball was not on the agenda.
But two proposals were received by Melendez thereafter from Venezuelan officials as to how Venezuela would like MLB to do business there. They included mandates such as certain employee and player protections with MLB, that MLB clubs pay 10% of player's signing bonuses to the Venezuelan government, and to require players to apply for a license to participate as professional athletes. There also was a proposal for the Venezuelan Baseball Federation to have a hands-on role over the operations of the MLB academies.
On its face, the proposals do not look egregious. In fact, the players recruited and signed in the Dominican Republic are often victims of aggressive "buscones" or unauthorized agents who take advantage of them and their parents, leaving them with little of the agreed upon advances by MLB teams.
After all, since players in both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are not subject to the First Year Draft Rule, they can be signed as young as the age of 16, as long as they turn 17 by the following July. While many of these players are drop outs from school, much more so than in Venezuela, many never make it to the big leagues, and are left with broken promises and sometimes penniless after they put all of their time and effort into training. This unfortunately makes it far easier for MLB to have its way, so to speak, with prospects from the Dominican Republic.
But Melendez interpreted these mandates from Venezuela by stating, "I made it clear to Minister Alvarez that we don't pay federations for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don't expect to do so. It's certainly not a way to conduct business." In fact, MLB has no intentions of complying with any of Venezuela's requests, as it cut off its communications with any parties of either sport or government bodies there in March 2007. MLB fears that it would prove more costly to sign Venezuelan players under such mandates.
However, Mr. Melendez either needs to be informed or needs to refresh his memory that earlier in 2007, the NY Yankees, sanctioned by MLB, signed a working agreement with the Peoples' Republic of China, (PRC) in the first ever contract between MLB and the Chinese Baseball Association, which is under the auspices of the Communist government of China. MLB is also providing the Peoples' Republic of China's National Olympic Team with former U.S. MLB manager, Jim Lefebvre, who is the manager of the Peoples' Republic of China's baseball team that will compete in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
The NY Yankees and MLB will also be lending additional coaches and equipment to the PRC National team prior to the 2008 Olympics. The Yankees additionally have an agreement to start development of Chinese players in Communist China with eventual plans to build academies there.
MLB is also in preliminary talks about the aftermath of the Fidel Castro regime of Cuba, upon his death. MLB is drooling at the thought of building academies there as well and formal discussions have taken place within MLB according to MLB Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, Joe Garagiola, Jr. "There may not be any significant changes with our relationship with Cuba in the near term, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be thinking about these things", he said at the start of the 2007 MLB season.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico, after 69 years went without its winter league operating this 2007-2008 off-season, due to budget shortfalls of its league development. MLB has yet to take a stance on the state of baseball in Puerto Rico which must adhere to the same rules of U.S. born players, having to finish high school and be 18 years of age to sign a minor league contract, attend a junior college or complete at least 3 years of a 4-year college and/or be 21 years of age if the 3rd year is not completed. It hardly seems fair for a small Caribbean island, although a territory of the U.S, to not be able to compete on an even playing field with either Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. But without the funding to develop its young prospects, it appears Puerto Rico has become too costly an investment for MLB.
And Panama, literally a banana republic, once the home for Chiquita Bananas International, until it moved to Costa Rica where labor was cheaper, also has largely been ignored by MLB. Only 5 major leaguers from Panama remained on MLB rosters in 2007, most notably NY Yankees pitcher, Mariano Rivera, and Houston Astros outfielder, Carlos Lee. Hall of Famer, Rod Carew also hailed from Panama. But Panama development would require a long-term investment. And there too the national baseball federation is at odds with MLB.
Korea and Japan have players which are developed in their own countries, with which MLB clubs can then negotiate for hefty sums. The individual pro teams in Japan require a complex posting process and upwards of $50 million per player in addition to multi-year deals for the player. Such an example was the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka by the Boston Red Sox at the start of the 2007, for his services for 3 years. The total posting fee as well as his contract was well over $100 million. But after all, the Red Sox got a ready-made big leaguer without having to invest in his development. So the thinking is that it is worth such cost.
What this all comes down to is not some noble attempt for MLB to spread baseball throughout the world, such as the U.S. government would like us to believe that globalization is about democratizing the rest of world. It is all about the dollar, no matter if young boys and men of the Dominican Republic are exploited, or whether Venezuelan's are threatened with the possibility of losing their now national pastime. And why MLB can negotiate with Communist China but does not see fit to redevelop baseball again in its own territory of Puerto Rico, also deserves questioning.
But if MLB does not proceed with caution and realize that it has not merely entered the domain of industrial globalization but the world of global politics and diplomacy, it could prove damaging. After all, the good of the game and human decency should still be a priority for MLB. And when it comes time for MLB to count its $6 billion revenue dollars it realized from the 2007 MLB season, it perhaps should take heed, in order to remain accountable for its actions, before it becomes political fodder with unrealized repercussions on the world's stage.