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Brewers Make Millionaire Out of Dominican Teenager (and Send Wrong Message to Poor Foreign Kids?)

The Brewers made a splash yesterday with the signing of top international prospect Gilbert Lara for $3.2 million.  I don’t follow prospects as closely as some fans, but all reports indicate the Brewers got a hold of a real gem.  Lara was ranked #4 on MLB.com’s list of top international prospects, which says, “Lara can appear out of control at times, and he’s a max-effort prospect, but he hits balls hard and can hit home runs. The shortstop starred in the multiple prospect leagues in the Dominican Republic, and he built a reputation as a quiet but focused teenager with a big body and a strong desire to win.

Apparently this deal has been in the works for some time – Tom Haudricourt was writing about it back in February.  It’s a pleasure to know this could have fallen through at any time in the last several months but ended up coming to fruition.  Obviously, if Milwaukee was willing to pay a cool $3.2 million to sign the 16-year-old Dominican infielder, he must have a big upside.  Even if we can’t predict the future and any highly-touted prospect could end up being a Jamarcus Russell-caliber letdown, right now Lara’s future looks bright.

Although I have no way of knowing how Lara will pan out, I’m always a sucker for a young kid getting a big payday.  You’d have a heart of stone not to feel happy for a teenager who grew up in poverty (I assume almost everyone in the Dominican Republic grows up in poverty) becoming an instant millionaire.  With July 4th right around the corner, I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more patriotic than a poor immigrant making a fortune in the U.S.

On the other hand, part of me wonders about the unintended consequences of a high-profile signing like Lara.  For the last few months, FSWisconsin’s three-part “Baseball in the Dominican Republic” series has opened some eyes to the challenges that players like Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez have faced on their way to the big leagues.  Its final episode focused on the Brewers’ Dominican baseball academy run by former reliever Salomon Torres.  While the academy may be a positive influence in the lives of many wannabe players, the fact is most of these kids will not go on to achieve greatness.  For every Gilbert Lara, who knows how many hopes are crushed?

The dark side of Latin America’s baseball obsession has been chronicled before.  The 2002 book “Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz” described how teenagers were mistreated in academies run by MLB teams.  That was some time ago, and one hopes the facilities and medical care for young players in these organizations are much improved.  At the very least, it’s a reminder that the origins of MLB’s Latino recruitment efforts were mired in scandal.

Even if MLB academies aren’t explicitly abusive anymore, it’s easy to see how an unhealthy cultural obsession with baseball can have major drawbacks.  If a teenager thinks of an unlikely career as a professional athlete as the only way out of crushing poverty, he might be inclined to make bad choices.  He may be tempted to use PEDs.  He may get involved with seedy agents who take a big cut out of his signing bonuses.  He could end up as a pawn in some sordid kickback scheme.

Lara’s windfall is great news for him, his family, and hopefully for Brewers fans.  But to the extent that it inspires Latino teenagers to pursue dreams that will ultimately go unfulfilled, it could be problematic.

Personally, I’m inclined to see the positive side of MLB’s Latin American academies and of success stories like Segura, Gomez, and Lara.  It’s worth remembering, though, that there are more stories of failure that we’ll never hear, and that the whole system may have a sinister side we’d prefer not to know about.