By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura and former major leaguer Andy Marte died Sunday in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic, following the death of Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras there in 2014. It was the latest jarring reminder of how intertwined baseball’s world is with a deathtrap.
The tiny Caribbean nation that produces more MLB players than any country other than the U.S. also is the western hemisphere’s most dangerous place to drive, according to the World Health Organization’s 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety. The study concluded that 29 out of every 100,000 people there die each year in traffic accidents, due to a toxic mix of high speeds, poor roads, increased use of cheaply built motorcycles and scooters, lack of helmet and seat-belt use, alcohol consumption and under-equipped hospitals.
Around 200 current players call this place home, not to mention the many more under team control on affiliated minor league rosters here and enrolled in team instructional academies there. Baseball and the Dominican Republic have developed a valuable symbiotic relationship that to this point has benefited one side far more than the other, with opulent developmental palaces built by individual franchises to mine the country’s natural human resources for their own gain. These well-maintained compounds are often juxtaposed with stark poverty just beyond their walls.
A 2013 report by Mother Jones called it MLB’s “Dominican sweatshop system” that takes advantage of the country’s vast economic hardship to provide mostly false hope to underpaid kids via “sketchy local talent agents” who usurp large portions of paid bonuses. When all is said and done, less than 3 percent of signed players actually reach the bigs, with more than three-quarters of them out of baseball entirely in four years. This is as opposed to their equivalent American counterparts who make twice as much money and are four times more likely to crack a major league roster.
So after years of exploitation that have done little to improve daily life there, now might be a good time for the sport to look out for its own interests and those of all residents by investing some of that same energy into an effort to make the roads safer.
It’s not like they don’t know the peril exists. Royals general manager Dayton Moore told the Kansas City Star that he worries about it “every day” and that “we’re constantly saying things” to players about it. Smart teams understand that ballplayers are outsized celebrities there, and fame and money at a young age can contribute to a sense of being above the law that contributes to poor decision-making. That possibility will never be eradicated, but the social status of current and former players can be also be used in public-service messages and awareness campaigns to change current cultural norms that endanger everyone.
There’s also the opportunity to strategize with local officials in determining areas that could use better signage, more lighting or paving where little or none exists or more accessible medical care. Large-scale businesses with a vested interest in the well-being of certain communities have long been partners in bettering public life, and the disproportionate role of the Dominican Republic in fueling baseball’s talent pipeline could merit that kind of contribution.
Ideally, baseball would want such an important partner in their game to be a safer place and not merely for their own valuable employees. As it stands, the risks to all seem unreasonably high.