International Draft Dangers

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I love the twitter feed FirstWorldPains. It churns out quality one-liner after quality one-liner about the difficulties of life here in the first world. Picking clothes, remote controls, browser updates - the first world life features all sorts of places where nuisances pop up, and FirstWorldPains keeps me informed of all these. I highly recommend following the feed.

Truth be told, FirstWorldPains appeals to me partly because it balances my work. Believe it or not, one reason I do not post more frequently on the Musings is because I work (hope you were sitting down for that one), and my work has nothing to do with baseball (really hope you were sitting down at this point). I am an AmeriCorps volunteer in Tacoma, and part of my service includes weekly trainings at the Northwest Leadership Foundation.* The trainings often delve into serious issues around social justice. My mind's eye can easily look at the world around me and be overpowered by anguish. FirstWorldPains brings a biting, understated humor that keeps me afloat amid the issues I think about these days.

*Yes, these are shout-outs. You could find worse places to donate and feel good about yourself.

Parity in professional sports is a bona fide first world pain. I don't like that the Mariners have less to spend than the Rangers and Angels, but no matter the M's disadvantages I have food, a place to sleep, and all that fundamental stuff. Major League Baseball values parity though, and continues to take steps towards fostering it. Notably, the MLB and MLBPA ratified a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this winter with restrictions to slot bonuses in the draft, and the framework for an international draft in the near future. The hope is that the weakest MLB franchises have the best chances to sign the best amateur talent in the world, thus improving parity.

The CBA impacts more than parity though. Issues arise when first world pains meet other world realities.

The Economist featured a thought-provoking piece on baseball in Latin America a few weeks ago, particularly in light of the imminent changes to international signings. The article noted opposition to an international draft from many baseball people in the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico was cited in the article as a foreboding case study.

Puerto Rico used to be a baseball hotbed. Ballplayers still come out of the island nation, but not like they used to. The evidence shows up in the Puerto Rican winter league, which used to be strong, but folded in 2007, only to reform in a version that barely gets by today. The Economist article suggests that Puerto Rico's decline aligns with their inclusion in the MLB draft, and the evidence is compelling.

United States amateur ballplayers subject to the MLB draft have easy access to competitive baseball. United States players cannot enter the draft until they are 18 years old, but that is not a big deal. Most high schools have baseball programs. The same cannot be said in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or practically anywhere else in the world. Joining sports and education is largely a United States phenomenon.

The way the US intertwines sports and education probably says something about how highly the US values sports. However, other countries also care deeply about sports. The passion shows up in other ways in other places. For instance, the Dominican Republic government includes a sports minister. International signing rules in Major League Baseball can quickly become socio-political issues in the Dominican Republic. In fact, the DR Sports Minister already questions if changes to international signing rules in Major League Baseball violate free trade agreements between the United States and Dominican Republic. That means, in essence, the Dominican Republic sees baseball as a national export.

Along with systemic differences in foreign countries, the individual lives of international ballplayers often look much different than their United States peers.

For many international players, making the majors is about way more than fulfilling a dream. One big contract can lift them, and their entire family, out of poverty. Rags-to-riches stories originate in the United States too, but not to the degree that many Latin American ballplayers experience.

Anecdotal evidence shows how big of a deal it is to play in the majors for many foreign players. Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez was caught with a doctored birth certificate this offseason. Leo Nunez/Juan Oviedo was caught with the same problem in the middle of the season. Wilson Ramos got kidnapped. That's just what's been reported in the United States in the last six months. International baseball players can easily compete on the same fields as US players. However, off the field, many come from different worlds.

I worry that Major League Baseball inadvertently suppressed Puerto Rican baseball, and is poised to repeat history. In an effort to level the playing field for MLB teams abroad, the league might accidentally hamper the development of foreign talent. I do not know what kind of backgrounds the international draft committee members have, but I hope they have an understanding of life in Latin America. I lack the needed background, but I know if I was on that committee I would request a group trips to Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. I would visit some of the towns, not just the baseball academies, to develop some sort of feel for the lives the international draft would impact.

The international draft aims to fix a first world pain - competitive balance. That's fine; it's a good thing to address. However, I hope Major League Baseball realizes that the international draft impacts people beyond the world that most of the MLB decision-makers live in. The lens that MLB's leadership sees issues through might miss some serious consequences.

True competitive balance demands a strong talent pool. Globalization strengthens the talent pool.  Alienating foreign players - or even worse, building significant obstacles - would ultimately harm competitive balance.

For some phenoms in the United States, draft rules are FirstWorldPain material.

"My friend can flip burgers, but I can't sign a $1.3 million contract with the Yankees." 

"I have to choose between a full-ride to any university I want to go to, or playing a game for a living. Why can't I have both? #LifeIsTooHard"

For some phenoms outside the United States, draft rules could end careers.

"I don't have a team to play for now. How will an MLB team ever discover me?"

"The buscones (scouts) can't afford to come to my town anymore, and I can't afford to move too far away. I guess it's time to find something else."

An international draft better look different than the stateside one, and recognize impacts beyond competitive balance between MLB franchises. The stakes are too high to do anything less.