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January 18, 2013

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

A Few Days in the Dominican

by Jason Parks

I’m up early, blurry eyes from the evening’s bottle, wearing thin the flooring as I pace in anticipation of my journey. I’m set to participate in a flight to Santo Domingo, where I will stand on a box to see over the giants of the international industry. I’ve been on my hands since the instructional league, watching baseball through the magic of memories, months of electronic paper pushing and phone dialing that have made my eyes sad and lonely from the disconnect. My baseball lover, I’ve forgotten your scent.

The music for the mood is a heavy-hearted and ethereal attempt at “The Killing Moon” performed by Nouvelle Vague. A cover song I use to cover me in this moment. I’m taken. “So cruelly you kissed me. Your lips a magic world.” My ears are content and I’m in an exit row window seat. The inevitable query arrives and I’m provocative about my ability to aid in the unlikely event of an emergency. As it turns out, nobody finds comfort in the assurance that I will provide hero hands if an unlikely event happens to demand a hero. The steward’s take on my services is spoken in the universal language of disdain. I return to my float.

Santo Domingo is outer space for those that never visit outer space. The climate thick with humidity and a steady heat, the infrastructure a visual cocktail of centuries forgotten and previous decades remembered and embraced. The air outside the airport hugs me like an old friend I don’t trust. Encouraged to find alternative means of transportation, I ignore the take sign and swing away into a street cab, a formidable offering from a 1990 Honda Something. Free from the burden of seatbelts or any form of safety, I’m on my way to the Jaragua, the preferred hotel of baseball and an embassy of first-world comforts and familiarity. I think the driver has a pistol riding shotgun.

The purpose of my adventure is an international amateur showcase organized by Major League Baseball, a two-day bender that starts with workouts, immediately followed by games, immediately followed by more games, immediately followed by the realities associated with scouting 15- and 16-year-old players. At a similar age, I was still giddy and secretive about Cinemax sneak peeks and overly concerned with the influence of the label on my jeans. These kids are playing for their lives and the lives of their familial future in front of 300 talent evaluators, and the weight of the world is a tumor on their tissue. I’m standing in the examination room with a stopwatch and a scalpel.

It’s January 16. 6 a.m.. The day of the first workout. The previous evening was stressed with arrival and fraternizing with industry friends, and my liver put a white flag on the roof deep into the assault. I learned more about scouting and player development in six hours than I have watching baseball over the last six months. A conveyer belt of freezer-cold Presidente pilsners lubricated the throat and encouraged candid discourse. An education of the game, and I sat with eager ears and a thirsty disposition.  I thought I spoke the language and knew the curriculum, but my assumptions dug a hole that my knowledge lacked the mass to fill. These are the people who choreograph the stage play and I’m watching their hands pull the strings. Señor, otra cerveza, por favor.

The scouting event is being held in San Cristobal, and I’m in a hired van for 45 minutes watching the world on the movie screens outside of the window. Traffic rules are for the weak, and the Dominican road warriors are battle hardened. Pony-powered motorcycles dominate the roads and highways, often with multiple passengers sharing the pump, subway cars on two wheels. This form of community transportation floods the grid, adding a new dimension to travel, bringing an interesting approach to driving that I’ve never seen before. Silly me, I always assumed that highway travel was made convenient and mutually beneficial by the encouragement of traffic flow in one direction, but these carrier scooters operate free from convention, taking paths that are both dangerous and seemingly random. We just dodged a gaggle of people running across the highway. Good thing we were only going 50 mph and driving on the shared stripe of two lanes. I think I just saw a motorcycle cutting a horizontal path across the road. The lanes are north and south. I’m amazed.

Skinned goat carcasses line the road, and the fresh factor of the meat stings the air. Hey, at least they weren’t dogs. The driver says they might be dogs. With the ocean to my left, I’m devoured by the juxtaposition of the beautiful water and the poverty and impoverishment of dry land. I’m struck by the piercing color of the sea, a shade of blue that is so supernatural that my heart decides anything is possible. I’m overcome with optimism and newfound interest in relational opportunities. I start writing a poem to a girl that I’ve never met. I hope she exists. The words don’t come easy and I’m confused. I might just be hung over. I ask the driver about the color of the water and I tell him about my spark. He’s still talking about the goat-like animals that hang like wind chimes on the porches of roadside meat castles. He’s not a romantic.

My mood stabilizes and I find a focus as we arrive at the stadium, a park of minor-league quality, consumed by the years and antiquated but somehow charming and alive. Armed guards control the perimeter, and nothing says safety like a machine gun and a casual approach. I see Doug Melvin getting out of a car. I imagine that the sentries are tasked with guarding his mustache like it was the Mona Lisa. It’s a true treasure. The local hoodlums must carry razors and shaving cream. So much for that focus.

In the stadium I’m surrounded by the world I’ve spent the last seven years trying to burrow into. Hey, is that Paul DePodesta? Rene Gayo is holding court. Good friend Kevin Goldstein looking every bit the part of a man who belongs in the industry mix. I see one hundred faces that look familiar. That guy signed who? Really? Jesus. I write for a website. Nice to meet you. I talk to an international scout that tells a lengthy “I remember Miguel Cabrera when he was 15” story. It’s delicious. He caps off the meal with a quick bite of “I’ve never seen a teenager hit the ball as far as Vlad.” I spend my days crafting entendre on Twitter and these guys remember Pedro Martinez before he was Pedro Martinez. Also, Pedro Martinez is at the stadium and I’ll be five feet from him in a few hours. He is wearing bedazzled denim. The color of the ocean is once again on the agenda.

It’s time for the 60-yard sprints, and the crowd assumes the position. I’m next to an international scout with enough skins on the wall to insulate the Taj Mahal, and we compare times after each runner. When we find consensus, we share a smile that probably means more to me than it does to him, and when our times aren’t twins, our heads swivel to survey the crowd. The public address system calls out the times after each runner, but we are rarely in lockstep and the scouting community seems disinterested in the announcements.

The running gives way to arm strength drills, which give way to a lengthy batting practice session, where seven positional groups take their reps and hope to add a few zeros to their eventual bonus. Micker Zapata hits one beyond the left-field seats that eventually stops rolling by the Shell station. A scout who had previously confessed his love for the 6’3’’, 225 lb. outfielder sat in silence as bomb after bomb left the yard. The salesman just drew a line through the sticker price. So much for that plan, man. Can I interest you in a six-figure player instead?

[Check out Jason's spreadsheet of scouting notes on players at the Jan. 16 showcase here.]

I’m sitting next to an old friend, and we attach and compare grades on the raw tools. Three hours disappear before the workout stops and my lungs once again expand in a search for oxygen. I rest my brown and orange Gola Harrier soccer kicks on the back of the feet in front of me, which is empty and crumbling from decay and slack. I’m mentally exhausted and dehydrated, but loving every second of the experience. A stadium employee carrying a stick taps the bottom of my shoe, but refrains from speaking. They take their decaying seats seriously. Scouts are getting whacked all over the stadium, and with each whack, a reminder is delivered that the water system might be substandard, the 86 degree outdoor balls of cheese and liver slices might not be safe for the stomach, but this baseball stadium is our church and you will not disrespect it with your casualness. The gentleman three rows to my south has been whacked at least five times since batting practice started. Out of habit, after each group concludes its session and gathers balls lost near the plate, he stretches his legs over the back of the empty seat and a stadium employee materializes out of the thick air and uses his stick to maintain order. Words are never spoken.  The highest Whack-A-Scout score wins an oversized stuffed animal.

After a lengthy on-the-field ceremony that includes words from Joe Torre, Pedro Martinez, and local mayor and former rookie-of-the-year Raul Mondesi, the prospect game can begin. I can’t focus on the field because my mind is stuck on the visuals of the ceremony, which included Mondesi wearing an impressive tracksuit and carrying around a baseball bat. He mumbled a speech, which I barely understood, but his magnetism stole the show, and I want to move to San Cristobal so I can cast a vote for him in future elections. More political candidates should carry bats, wear elaborate tracksuits, and have 80-grade arms.

After a long day sitting in the sun, made even more intense by the previous evening’s activities and the patch of blue water that stuck a syringe into my once emotionally barren heart, the game struggled to hold onto the same intensity as the workouts. The stands were voluptuous with sun-tired conversations, and the play on the field was a visual aide-mémoire that raw teenagers aren’t very good baseball players yet. Thankfully for those with tired eyes and waning focus, the showcase promotes an offensive approach that is swing first and ask questions never, so balls were either put into play early in a count or a hitter was walked on four straight pitches.

The game concluded without much fanfare and the open gates released the industry herd, beaten by a long stretch in the sun and by sticks, if they happened to get casual with their comfort. It was time to get into the van and return to Santo Domingo, where the piercing blue water that put paddles to my chest hours before would appear to my right on the highway. For a few days at least, I’m lost in wonderment, captivated by the experience of a lifetime and by the stunning ocular capture of my surroundings. If my dreams fall short, whatever they happen to be, or if I never see water as blue and majestic, or if I never get to stand on the field with giants as they make the decisions that encourage our romance for the game, at least I can always say that I’ve seen it before and I know that its possible.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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