— Sammy Sosa

The fun thing about this blog is that we’re IR scholars and baseball fans, and sometimes those two issues overlap in very interesting ways. The globalization of Major League Baseball has been all the rage in the past few years. A wealth of international players–now a full 29% of MLB opening day rosters in 2007–has brought an influx of tremendous talent into the game. MLB is actively promoting the game globally, paying games outside the USA and helping to set up baseball leagues in other countries (most recently in Israel– notice how the Israel Baseball League website looks alot like the main MLB.com page–you can even play fantasy Israel Baseball…). And, lets not forget the World Baseball Classic, won by Japan (indeed, featuring an entirely non-US semifinal round).

Unfortunately, there has been an ugly underbelly to growth of baseball’s quest for global talent. While US players coming out of high school and college are regulated by strict eligibility rules and must go through the draft, all non-US players are free agents and can be signed very young– as early as 16.5 years old. All MLB teams now operate academies in Latin America, particularly the Dominican Republic the number one source for Major League talent outside the USA. There has been criticism of these academies exploiting young kids hoping to realize the Sammy Sosa dream only to fail and be condemned to a life of poverty.

Now that might be changing. Slowly, somewhat, but in a positive direction. Sports Illustrated has a fascinating story about how the Cleveland Indians are leading the way adding an educational component to their Dominican Academy.

When the Cleveland Indians signed Dominican prospect Angel Franco, he knew he’d been given the opportunity of a lifetime. He just didn’t know that that opportunity would have nothing to do with baseball.

Franco, under a revolutionary program pioneered by the Cleveland Indians, graduated from high school. Yes, a Dominican baseball prospect graduating from high school is revolutionary, and no, I’m not exaggerating. In the Dominican Republic, where $7,000 is the per capita yearly income, eighth grade is when free and compulsory education ends and the chase for a fraction of the $50 million in signing bonuses invested annually begins — with much of that money doled out to 16 1/2 year-olds, the earliest age a prospect can sign. For a 14-year old boy with even a whiff of arm strength or a hint of foot speed, the idea of continuing his education almost seems economically unwise.

So Major League academies throughout the Dominican Republic fill up with players whose average educational levels fall somewhere between the sixth and ninth grades. The players know full well that only odds smaller than them making the big leagues are the odds that they’ll make a sustainable living away from the field. Once cut from a team, they become moped drivers, cement workers or sugar cane cutters. Sometimes they are fruit peddlers and occasionally drug pushers. But under new educational initiatives introduced by the Indians and replicated by the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, pursing baseball no longer means abandoning school.

In the spring of 2004, the Cleveland Indians started requiring their Dominican prospects to attend Prepara, an adult education program that teaches players core subjects such as math, geography, and history. Depending on the time of the year and the intensity of the playing schedule, players become students anywhere from three to five times per week with classes lasting 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, with at least a half-dozen completing their high school educations.

But before you start thinking that the Indians are going all Amnesty International on us, make no mistake that the estimated $40,000-$50,000 the team spends annually educating its players is a business decision.

“It heightened our ability to understand and know the players we were evaluating, signing and developing,” says Cleveland’s Director of Player Development Ross Atkins, who helped implement the team’s educational programming. “We wanted them to think analytically. Increasing aptitude is a competitive advantage.”

Underscoring his team’s emphasis on aptitude rather than altruism is the fact that Atkins can’t tell you quite how many players have received high school diplomas as part of Prepara. “The actual graduation is not something were focused on,” he says. “It’s a nice bonus.”

What is interesting here, and, potentially, a model for other globalizing businesses, is that overall education (or what some might call, gasp, liberal arts education) that increases a worker’s overall aptitude is a very sound investment. Critical thinking skills are valuable, even to a baseball player.

There are no statistics or studies to show if education translates to winning, but Perez says the Mets have noticed more focused, better behaved baseball players. The benefit of educating young recruits has been one of the central arguments of authors Arturo J. Marcano Guevara and David P. Fidler in their book, Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz. Both compliment the Indians’, Mets’ and Red Sox’s efforts to educate their workforce but question why all 30 Major League Baseball clubs aren’t required to offer a core curriculum to their players.

“The fact that a couple of teams are now experimenting with something that has long been policy in North America is not impressive,” says Fidler, a law professor at Indiana University.

The main problem in this case stems from what Fidler and Marcano argue is a disparity in the way Major League rules treat players born in Latin countries versus U.S. or Canadian prospects. Major League rules prohibit teams from signing U.S. and Canadian high school players during the years in which they are eligible to play scholastic baseball. Dominican and Venezuelan players need only be 16 years, six months. While the NBA last year enacted an age minimum requiring its players to be at least 19 after mounting concerns about the physical and emotional readiness of its athletes, Major League Baseball has signed the U.S.-equivalent of high school juniors routinely and consistently.

Marcano, a Venezuelan native and sports lawyer in Toronto, has seen hordes of kids cut from the Major League programs with no backup plans and no education. “They are sending this message that baseball is a way out of poverty,” he says, “but if they don’t make it there’s no future for these kids because they are not prepared to reincorporate into society.”

Because of the Indians’ Prepara program, Franco is not one of them. Educated and later released by the team, he is now enrolled in law school. Perez, too, has seen the changes. One player, he recalls, loved learning so much that he asked to continue his education even though he’s shown promise as a major-league prospect. “And,” Perez says, “he did it in English.”

Now, will this have a major impact that turns around the entire Dominican economy? Probably not, lets not be naive. The lesson, rather, is that these academies are trying to become somewhat less exploitative and leave the people who are their core product better able to handle life after baseball. Not every kid will become a Pedro Martinez or Sammy Sossa, but if they get a decent education for trying, well, that’s good for them, good for the Dominican, and good for baseball.

(and yes, I am a Cleveland Indians fan, so yes, I’m very glad to see that they are a leader in this field)

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