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From sugarball to the big leagues

In the spring of 1986, The Boston Globe ran a special report on the rise of Dominican-born baseball players. Widespread poverty at home, the report concluded, had compelled thousands of young men to pursue professional careers in Major League Baseball in North America.

But sport and globalization expert Alan Klein, then an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University, believed indigence only told part of this story. “It was a reasonably good conclusion to draw,” he said, in reference to the Globe’s reporting, “but I wondered why other developing nations in Latin America were not producing these kinds of players.”

Alan Klein, professor of sociology and anthropology

Alan Klein, professor of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University.

Upon further review, Klein found that many of the Dominican Republic’s sugar refineries had begun fielding ultra-competitive baseball teams in the 1930s. Over the next several decades, thousands of cane laborers had honed their skills and grew the sport’s popularity on fields constructed by the mills’ owners.

“The intensity of the rivalries was fueled by the close proximity of the refineries, resulting in insanely competitive relationships,” he explained. “What started as a game to give the men a break from backbreaking labor indirectly led to their level of excellence.”

Klein traced the development of baseball in the Dominican Republic in the aptly titled 1991 book Sugarball: The American Game, The Dominican Dream. Since then, Klein, who was promoted to professor of sociology and anthropology in 1992, has continued writing about Latin American baseball, delving into the globalization of the big leagues as well as the fortunes of a Mexican League team that paradoxically represented two nations from 1985 to 1994.

His fourth and final book on Latin American baseball, which was published this month, charts the history of Major League Baseball’s influence in the Dominican Republic. The 200-page paperback, Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice, has been hailed by critics as a quintessential addition to the baseball fan’s library.

klein_225“If you don’t understand the Dominican baseball pipeline in all its dimensions, then you can’t say you understand baseball in the 21st century,” said Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. “Alan Klein’s Dominican Baseball demands a place on your shelf next to your Bill James guides, Ball Four, and Boys of Summer.”

One chapter of the book examines Dominican talent brokers, known as buscones, who simultaneously train dozens of young ballplayers to become future stars. “They range from guys who can work with players during the day to those with full-fledged facilities to house, feed, and train them,” Klein said. “If and when one of their players signs a major league contract, they get between 30-35 percent of their signing bonus.”

Over the last several years, he said, Major League Baseball has worked to tame the power of the buscones. Last season, for example, the league threatened, but failed, to instate a draft of Dominican prospects to usurp control of the commodity. “The MLB has consistently tried to control its affairs in the Dominican Republic,” Klein explained, adding that the league has overstated Dominicans’ use of performance-enhancing drugs in order to “control the market.”

Business partnerships notwithstanding, both sides agree that the Dominican Republic is one of the world’s best per capita producers of professional talent. Over the past 25 years, Klein has witnessed the considerable skills of countless players, interviewing more than 100 of the 568 Dominican-born players who have reached the big leagues. Of those, he said, his favorite is future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, he of the headhunting fastball and knee-bending curve.

“I identified with him,” said Klein, a southpaw who pitched in junior college. “He and I threw very live balls that moved a lot, but I was just a thrower and he was a pitcher. Our careers showed that.”