Page last updated at 00:21 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 01:21 UK

Caribbean's Baseball City pitches to the US

By David Goldblatt
BBC News, Dominican Republic

The stretch of unruly motorway between San Pedro de Macoris and Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is lined by foreign factories.

But look closer, a few kilometres east of the international airport, and you will see something different - Baseball City.

Junior Naboa, former major league baseball player
This has become a serious and mature industry in the Dominican Republic. It's the Silicon Valley of baseball
Junior Naboa, former Major League baseball player

This giant complex of ready-built baseball academies, playing fields and batting cages is like a vast industrial park dedicated to the production of Dominican professional baseball players for the US labour market.

The park is booming. Six Major League American baseball teams - the pinnacle of the professional game in the United States - have taken up residency in Baseball City and there are more to come.

It is just part of the deluge of baseball money flowing into the country.

Remittances from overseas players and investment by US teams now constitute about 10% of inward flows of capital.

'Silicon Valley' of baseball

Baseball City is the brain child of Junior Naboa, a Dominican ex-Major League baseball player who invested his money in the land and found partners to help him build the infrastructure.

Now, in addition to running an academy for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he sells and leases facilities to the Americans.

As Junior put it: "This has become a serious and mature industry in the Dominican Republic. It's the Silicon Valley of baseball."

Pedro Martinez pitching for the New York Mets
Pedro Martinez is one of the Dominican Republic's most successful players

In fact, Baseball City is just one hub in a wider industrial cluster.

Ask for directions in this small strip of the Dominican Republic and as likely they'll tell you: "Take the road past the Yankees, left at the Red Sox and it's just past the Twins."

There are 18 Major League academies within 10km of Baseball City, attracted by access to the hotels and the international airport.

Just as important is the proximity of San Pedro de Macoris, the country's second city and the place that produces more Major League players per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Like other successful industrial clusters, all firms prosper through their dense network of co-operation and competition.

The regularity and ease of play between academy teams certainly sharpen everyone's skill levels.

Informal and formal chains of communication allow for the rapid spread of best practice.

If one academy develops a new fitness regime that works, everyone soon knows about it.

US baseball goes global

The academies have proved incredibly successful.

Dominicans have been making their way to the major leagues since the 1950s, but the trickle has turned into a flood.

More than 10% of players in the major leagues now come from the island, including many of its leading stars, while below them, more than 40% of players in the minor leagues are Dominican too.

Baseball players in Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is the source of many top US players

In turn, the creation of Dominican baseball players has shifted from an ad hoc and disorganised cottage industry to a maturing and sophisticated business.

The Dominican exodus is part of a wider globalisation of American baseball.

Domestic demand for players has been outstripping the supply, while the pool of players in youth and college baseball has been shrinking.

As a consequence, the sport has increasingly sought players form outside the US.

This year, in addition to the 10% that were Dominican, there were another 15% from other countries such as Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Panama and Japan.

A competitive advantage

To understand why the Dominicans, above all, have led this migration you need to see the streets and fields, the waste lands and the marginal places.

Children playing baseball
Many Dominican professional players donate equipment to local children

Everywhere you will see harsh and raw poverty and everywhere you will find kids playing ball.

In the alleyways, they dodge cars and flip plastic bottle tops. In the country, you can see them clear broken glass from ruined baseball diamonds, pausing to let cows cross home plate.

The game arrived in the late 19th Century, brought by Cuban sugar mill-owners who fled their home after the abolition of slavery and established their plantations and their sporting passion in the Dominican Republic.

Since then, it has worked its way into the fabric of Dominican life, creating a domestic sporting culture of unparalleled intensity.

Sifting the prospects

If the alleys and fields yield the talent, it is first prospected, sifted and polished by a thousand Dominican baseball entrepreneurs.

Coaches, scouts, "buscones" or agents, they have many names and come in many forms.

They range from one-man operations with a batting cage in the back yard to sophisticated Dominican-run academies with their own fields and dorms who take youngsters in for up to two years.

In every case, they are looking to prepare them for a shot at the big time, which means try-outs at the 16 Major League baseball academies.

If they like you, they sign you. Signing bonuses, which are split between agents and families, average a life-transforming $60,000 (30,700). Average income in the Dominican Republic is just $8,000 a year.

Baseball player in Dominican Republic
Local children have high hopes of getting to play for US teams
Once in academies, youngsters train, almost monastically, for two years. If nothing else, their lives are transformed by receiving the best nutrition of their lives and close attention to their medical needs, especially their teeth.

For many, they also provide a degree of regularity, order and routine that is both rare and welcome.

The cost of signing and nurturing players, and the consequent loss if they flunk the transition to life in America, has taught the academies to prepare their charges socially as well as athletically.

The Tampa Bay Rays, for example, have relaunched their programme offering new and better English classes, as well as closer attention to the complexities of immigration and the different sexual politics of the US and the island.

After two years, the vast majority of recruits will be released and between 10 and 15% will head for the minor leagues.

Just 7% of the original academy intake will eventually make it to the Major League with its multi-million dollar salaries.

One reason that these very long odds look attractive is that alternative routes offer so little - a threadbare education system, the gruelling hours and conditions of the export processing zones or the low-paid subservience of the all-inclusive tourist industry.

These are options grim enough for more than a million Dominicans to emigrate to the US and fuel the hunger, the passion and the dedication of its baseball players, who, if nothing else, have reversed one pattern of dependency.

The US and its iconic national game are now dependent upon them.

The Baseball Factory will be on Assignment on BBC World Service on Thursday, 19 June at 0905, 1205, 1905 and 2305 GMT.

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