Speak Softly and Carry a Big Bat

The Texas Rangers are a baseball franchise whose identity is inseparable from politics.

The Rangers were a tool for an American politician. Former President George W. Bush owned a minority stake in the team and used the construction of a new stadium as political fuel for his ascension to the Texas Governorship and later the Presidency.  

The Rangers were then a beneficiary of Bush’s politics when he passed the COMPETE Act of 2006 as President, which made signing international prospects to the minor leagues easier than ever. The red, white, and blue logoed-franchise became one of the largest abusers of the pipeline of Latin American prospects.

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it’s also tightly linked to its political present. The Texas Rangers show what happens when a should-be tenuous link is taken way too far. An MLB franchise shouldn’t be exploited for political capital and teams shouldn’t exploit foreign prospects for wins and losses.

It all started in 1988, when George W. Bush was 42 years old and without direction. His father won the presidency after an 18 month campaign and he found himself without a career path of his own. He wanted out of Washington.

The same year, the Texas Rangers finished with a record of 70-91: second-to-last in the American League. Both athletically and financially, the Rangers were in shambles. Bush family friend and oil magnate Eddie Chiles soon expressed that the franchise was for sale.

Anxious to build his own brand, Bush assembled an ownership team to purchase the Rangers from Chiles for $75 million. The young Bush contributed a mere $500,000 himself, most of which came from a bank loan, but his family name propelled him into the public position of Managing General Partner. Gross revenue doubled under Bush, ticket sales skyrocketed, and the 30-employee organization transformed into a 170-person corporation practically overnight.

An MLB franchise shouldn’t be exploited for political capital and teams shouldn’t exploit foreign prospects for wins and losses.

Bush’s chief achievement as an owner was the construction of a new stadium in Arlington; he and his co-owners “bullied the city of Arlington into giving them a great deal, with the local taxpayers paying more than $135 million to help build the Rangers a stadium.”

Further, Bush explicitly disobeyed the Republican Party’s platform on this usage of public funds and acquisition of private land for stadium construction; a tax hike should have had the red party yelling for code red. But the party turned a blind eye – this was the President’s son – and still nominated the younger Bush during his run for the Presidency nearly a decade later. Bush proved himself to be a savvy politician and someone capable of running the country like a business.

Bush maintained his managing partner role and minority stake until 1994, when he was elected Governor of Texas. That same year, the Rangers made it to the playoffs for the first time, losing to the New York Yankees. Bush used the Rangers as a public platform to propel his ascension into public office and, concurrently, fueled the Rangers’ rise to baseball prominence.

This was just the beginning of the Rangers’ entanglement in American politics. The Rangers would continue to mooch off of Bush’s political maneuvering when their former owner took the office of the President.

In 2006, Bush signed into law the COMPETE Act without congressional debate or a roll call vote. The Act created the P-1 visa for international sports prospects – a departure from the previously capped and restrictive H-2B visa program for most seasonal foreign workers. Now, MLB franchises can sign an unlimited number of international players to their farm systems (minor league development programs). Baseball initiated an open-door policy. The MLB landscape looks a lot different now, with baseball’s borders expanding from Dominican Republic and Venezuela to Italy, South Africa, Lithuania, and Japan.

Today, all 30 MLB franchises have prospect development camps in the Dominican Republic. After spending years smuggling elite Cuban prospects into the country, new US policy towards Cuba enabled these franchises to openly create youth baseball camps in the country to nurture future talent. International representation – mostly from Latin America – in the MLB has risen to 26 percent, or 233 players, as of 2014.

The Rangers were among the first franchises waiting in the doorway to welcome immigrant prospects. The Rangers signed two of the top twenty international prospects in 2007. In 2016, a decade after the passage of the COMPETE Act, the Rangers led the league in international signings with 18. Whether the Rangers brass lobbied for the bill or not, there’s no denying the affiliation between Bush’s former ownership of the franchise and their capitalization on the bill that he signed.

The MLB’s open door for immigration is commendable, and provides tremendous opportunity for disadvantaged youths in Latin America to make a lucrative career in the US. However, the COMPETE Act thus opened the adjacent door for MLB teams to take unfair advantage of these international prospects. And the Rangers are among the franchises most implicated in this abusive offense.

On their list of MLB teams with the most international prospects Baseball America listed the Rangers as first and “consistently grad[ing] out near the top of this list, with their international program continually churning out talent first under the direction of A.J. Preller, then Mike Daly (now their farm director) and most recently Gil Kim, who just left the organization to become Toronto’s farm director.”

A.J. Preller was the Assistant GM of the Rangers and was leading their farm system in December 2005. At the winter meetings that year, Preller decided he wanted to snag a Dominican prospect named Alexi Ogando from the Oakland Athletics’ farm system. The US Embassy in the Dominican Republic had learned of a human trafficking scheme with baseball prospects and implored the State Department to keep denying visas for players like Ogando. And State denied the pitcher time and time again.

Preller was tasked with prying Ogando out of the country. A Dallas Morning News piece from 2011 reported that the Rangers “‘indirectly’ appealed to one of their former owners in hopes of an intervention… President George W. Bush never got involved.” Bush may never have got involved in the Ogando case. But streamlined visa reform was clearly a priority for the Rangers organization, and one calendar year later, President Bush had the COMPETE Act on his desk to sign. And in 2009, a corporate lawyer was able to extract Ogando from the island to pitch for the Rangers. Yes, Ogando was extracted, and funneled through a pipeline, like oil. Foreign baseball prospects and oil: the commodities that the Dallas-Fort Worth elite care the most about. The commodification of these people is commonplace.

The baseball recruitment system looks great on paper: ESPN touts that the 30 “academies” in the Dominican Republic bring between $150-170 million to the local economy. The academies produced stars like Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa (signed by Rangers), and Adrian Beltre (Rangers) alike. Whereas signing bonuses for Dominican boys averaged $3,000 in 1990, they average $131,000 today.

But the operative word here is produced. Prospects are evaluated and pursued often when they are merely 12 years old, brought into training camps and propelled to the minor leagues. The league has reformed the recruitment process since the Toronto Blue Jays tried to sign 13-year-old Jimy Kelly in 1984. A 2014 MLB policy prevented prospects from visiting team facilities until they are 16 years of age. The league has made moves to curtail the signings of underage players, but their efforts have been largely futile.

An industry of deceitful Dominican “scouts” thrives today. Thousands of buscones – from the word “to search” – survey the country seeking young boys to transform into saleable commodities. The Dominican Republic, a country of 9.3 million, has become a factory for MLB prospects. These “finders” forge birth dates and names for their prospects. They administer Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) disguised as B-12 shots to players.

Alan Klein, author of Dominican Baseball, reports that buscones make a substantial 30 percent commission on their prospects’ contracts. This is clearly an abusive practice. Klein also noted that “there’s a tendency to still view the Dominican Republic as a colonial outpost.” And it’s not only the Dominican Republic; it’s Cuba, Venezuela, Curacao, and more. Major League Baseball, and the Texas Rangers in particular, is speaking softly and carrying a big bat.

The US Government passively allows this exploitation. George Bush’s political ploy enabled the Rangers to rise to prominence, and then his COMPETE Act enabled the Rangers to reap the benefits of a loose P-1 visa system. Baseball’s former H-2B visa system was healthy bureaucracy. The P-1 visa process is far too streamlined.

The Rangers are just one lens to examine the concurrent political dilemmas in baseball. Just as the ball club was a political tool for George W. Bush, his brother and former Florida governor Jeb Bush assembled a similar ownership team with Derek Jeter to buy the Miami Marlins. Jeb’s Marlins deal, decided as of April 25, 2017, gives Bush a public platform he might use to resuscitate an ailing political career.

Baseball brass and politicians alike do not have any motivation to change the status quo. The relationship is mutualistic; politicians get a public platform, money, and franchises get new stadiums and the freedom to sign as many international prospects as they please. Efforts to reform the prospect pipeline or separate sport from government have been few and far between. But it remains imperative to recognize this relationship; every ticket the Texas Rangers sold (and now the Miami Marlins) was a donation to the Bush Family. Every ticket sold is one more fan in the bleachers to witness these exploitative practices.

 

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