This time of year, it’s not entirely uncommon for sports journalists to comment upon the remarkable quantity of non-US born baseball players stealing the show in Major League Baseball’s (MLB) postseason. Other times the coverage is less laudatory. Two on-field conflicts erupted in late September of 2013 involving a Dominican player (Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez, respectively) triumphantly celebrating a home run in a manner that irked the opposing team. Brian McCann, then catcher of the Atlanta Braves, was one of the key forces in both altercations. He confronted both Gomez and Fernandez, representing a resistance rooted in traditional notions of the way the game is “supposed to be played” (read: a WASPian work ethic of composure, modesty, and stoicism that deflects attention away from the individual and onto the whole).
The debate and struggle over the “right way to play the game” and who gets to decide crystallized in an intense gaze on rising Cuban star Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers (one that’s only continued in this year’s playoffs). On and through Puig circle competing definitions and interpretations of the role race, ethnicity, nationality, masculinity, culture, age, education, and class play in policing player comportment. The discussion often whittles down to a binary construction: a dichotomy of US-born (mostly white) players’ “respect” for the game juxtaposed against Caribbean-born (mostly brown and/or black) athletes’ “immaturity” and self-aggrandizement. Although MLB seems overtly concerned with reasserting the United States’ central geography in the production of players (see this telling map published on October 1), Northeastern University Professor of Sociology-Anthropology Alan Klein is quick to point out that the most significant sites of struggle over the control of MLB’s talent flow are not located within these controversial skirmishes.
In his new book Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice, Klein maintains that the battle between MLB and Dominican baseball “mirrors global relations between those with power and subalterns” (p. vii). This “little-known baseball war” is mostly hidden behind the scenes in “legal and policy chess moves.” At stake is the ability of the Dominican Republic to gain a measure of sovereignty over its influence on the future of baseball (p. vii).
Klein writes engagingly and authoritatively for both scholarly and popular audiences. He’s been researching MLB’s organizational structure and business interests in the Dominican Republic for the past three decades and has published widely on the subject, including books Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream (1991), and Growing the Game: The Globalization of Major League Baseball (2006). Notable scholars and journalists have praised Klein’s standard setting work as “indispensable.” As The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin correctly notes, “If you don’t understand the Dominican baseball pipeline in all its dimensions, then you can’t say you understand baseball in the twenty-first century.” The reader can sense Klein’s personal and professional investment of 25-plus years spent earnestly assessing the definitive relationship that has contoured the scope of MLB.
His overall purpose is to examine the relationship between MLB and the Dominican Republic and illuminate the changes that have altered both parties and the nature of the relationship itself since the early 1980s. Moreover, his aim is to produce a cogent analysis of the conflicts and struggles between MLB, possessing immense power, and the vulnerable labor pool of Dominican teenagers. As WBUR’s Only a Game host Bill Littlefield interprets, Klein explains that “point of view is all. Behavior that strikes MLB’s executives and general managers as ‘wily and scheming’ seems merely ‘creative and open’ – as well as logical and utterly necessary – to those representing the players.”
MLB has exploited this unequal partnership for decades, but the “new pride” emanating from Dominicans reflects the recent shift in balance towards the Dominican Republic to at least make the process of player development and production a contested one. Dominican players form the core of athletes MLB relies upon (roughly 50% of minor league ball players, and close to a quarter of those in the majors) to generate its $7 billion in annual revenues; in return, the Dominican has received between $50 and $75 million in annual revenues (quick math suggests that’s between .7% and 1.1%). Klein argues that buscones [variously (mis)understood as unregulated player-finders, trainers, scouts, and/or agents] or what he terms “player developers” are centrally located in this fight for greater autonomy. A key argument of the book is that while MLB has structurally become integrated in Dominican baseball, “Dominicans have emerged and entered the game at all levels of the industry as a potential harbinger of Dominican presence—their drive to do more than just supply talent. This new system is the outcome of the consensus and conflict between North America’s and the Dominican Republic’s notions of who should control the sport and for what end” (p. 2).
Dominican Baseball is an energizing and highly readable mix of theoretical and ethnographic work that provides an anthropological perspective Klein deems necessary. In addition to Sugarball, this book should be read alongside works such as Adrian Burgos Jr.’s Playing America’s Game, Rob Ruck’s Raceball and Thomas Carter’s The Quality of Home Runs. His analysis provides fans, students and scholars with a nuanced understanding of the complexities, contradictions, and forces at play in the negotiation of interests between MLB’s rules and policies for maximum profit, and the on-the-ground realities of survival for baseball prospects, their families, and trainers. Moreover, he clearly illustrates how Dominicans are systematically and derisively demonized in US sport media, representations used to rationalize and justify MLB’s neo-colonial control of the island’s baseball institution.
Klein’s analysis of this contentious, but mutually beneficial relationship (if heavily skewed towards MLB) is framed in the first two chapters through an adapted theoretical framework of the Global Commodity Chain (GCC). He adjusts this structural, linear, and Euro-centrist model and applies it to the MLB chain which produces a human being, not a just a commodity. In short, he humanizes the GCC by opening its multiple nodes of production/consumption/distribution for the fluidity and flexibility of experiences that actually accompany the dynamism of lived relations. The mothers and fathers of these athletes are rendered as somewhat homogeneous-dependents in the analysis, pointing to further directions for work in the field that could provide similar notions of agency, power, and resistance to their subjectivity. Additionally, the official state-run Dominican baseball institution is left outside the framework of the ethnographic analysis. We do not learn much about them other than that they are a rather ineffectual and compliant puppet-extension of MLB.
The expansion of the GCC model is crucial, however, because it grants the actors within the chain a strain of power and agency that allows them to mold, modify and reshape the chain as they pass through, exit, and re-enter various stages in nonlinear and circular fashion. Equally as informative for his interpretation is the concept of the informal economy that explains the cultural relativity behind discourses, laws, and policies that demonize Dominican baseball players for their supposed transgressions in age/identity fraud, steroid use, and lack of education. Posed vis-a-vis the informal economy, these questions become ones of survival rather than morality.
Klein argues that viewing Dominican baseball within its late global capitalist and neoliberal economic contexts demonstrates how MLB is as much at fault as any party for creating the conditions of existence and possibility from within which Dominican ball players, families, and trainers must operate. In short, narrowly conceived Dominican “problems” and “corruption” are better understood as adjustments and adaptations within a flawed system that impedes access and opportunities to “legitimate” forms of identity and sustenance.
Perhaps most importantly, the revised GCC model and informal economy framework allow Klein to deconstruct the ways in which buscones have been vilified as evil, greedy, exploiters of child labor. Instead, he demonstrates how most player developers provide young teens and their families with food, housing, education (if desired), financial support, and medical needs while building and refining baseball skills. They also secure tryouts and negotiate with MLB clubs and baseball academies on behalf of the players.
The middle chapters present thorough analyses of the baseball academies and buscones. Both function as pivotal sites on the MLB commodity chain. The academies exert a degree of coercion and generate compliance from the ball players who are constantly forced to prove themselves. Klein shows that this is not a fixed or static system, however. Players too are able to push agendas while simultaneously fostering their resocialization within the academy.
Buscones are the most contested element of the chain and represent the most overt challenge to MLB’s hegemony in talent acquisition. MLB wants to incorporate and inoculate them, likely because millions of dollars flow through buscones’ commission and into the Dominican informal economy. In turn, these funds help constitute a “mosaic of Dominicans” in positions of responsibility and power that have begun to reconfigure relations with MLB (p. 5).
Chapters five and six consider the ideological and institutional battles over the shaping and producing of Dominican baseball players under an increasingly Foucauldian, post-9/11 sphere of invasive surveillance and evaluation. For many on the island, the US and MLB presence nonetheless resembles the more outwardly visible historical US military, corporate, and state power. Klein allows the voices of buscones to come through most forcefully, articulating the political and nationalist overtones of their challenge to MLB’s attempts at unilateral control.
MLB’s “old prejudice” continues to manifest in an imperialist attitude that justifies extracting renewable Dominican resources as cheaply as possible for maximum profit. The “new pride” resides in buscones located at the base of the commodity chain — a site of organization and agency. The thrust of this new pride mobilizes potential challenges and progressive social action. One might infer that this new pride supplements the subtly resistant, but ultimately co-opted patriotic celebration of successful Dominican ball players that reproduces the status quo.
At times Klein offers a scathing critique of the MLB Commissioner’s Office “ethnocentric hubris” and “culture trumping.” In the last instance, however, he utilizes Sociologist Robert Merton’s concept of unintended consequences (rather than domination and hegemony) to explain the evolution of the Dominican-MLB relationship. Although at once “unified and fractious,” he suggests that MLB and Dominican baseball will “sink or swim together” through unanticipated outcomes produced under a system of neoliberal economics and governance, transnational links, and global forces (p. 166).
What remains clear, however, is that questions remain regarding the extent to which buscones and others will be able to not only gain access to and govern MLB’s commodity chain, but reform and ultimately transform it into a more fully humane and just process.
Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate specializing in Sport Studies within the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is currently serving as a graduate student representative for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @daintepoel