"Today they don't play ball like we used to," Julian Javier says. He is back home at San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic after 18 summers of U.S. ball. "They won't play just for the fun. We used to play with anything we could get for a ball or a bat. We'd play all day because we loved to play. They play because maybe they'll get something out of it. They play a few innings and then go get drunk. It's not the same."
Scouting in the islands has changed, too. When Haak first arrived, the Giants and Senators were his only real competition, but now that everybody has found the lode the Caribbean has become baseball's richest recruiting ground. Recently, for example, Haak signed a top Latin prospect only after the boy's questionable contracts with two other teams were voided by a minor league official. "It's ridiculous," Haak said one day in Santo Domingo, soaking his bum leg in the tepid hotel pool. "You have more scouts than you have ballplayers in the U.S. today. Don't laugh. How many prospects each year are a cinch to make the majors if they don't get hurt? Maybe 17, 18—20 at the most. There's 60 or 70 others with a chance. Well, that's not even 100 altogether, but you have 24 clubs, averaging 15 scouts each. That's 360 scouts looking for 90 players every year in the U.S."
The Caribbean is the last place for scouts and their teams to find unknowns, to put their ken and pride on the line in a free-bid market, to scuffle and con, even deceive one another. It is a glorious anachronism and a last hurrah for the baseball regulars who were brought up in that wheeler-dealer world.
An 18-year-old named Felipe Serrata, with teeth missing, winged several beauties to third. "That's a major league arm," Haak noted. "We rate an average major league arm as 30. Well, this kid has a 30 arm, maybe 33." Serrata came in to the infield next and stationed himself at shortstop. Haak had his assistant, Julio Martinez, an old Dominican player, slap grounders into the hole.
Serrata had butcher's hands, but those grounders that he did fight to a standstill he whipped to first, the arm hardly coming back past his ear. Haak beamed. Serrata had run the 60-yard dash in the fastest time, 6.6, well under the required 7.0. "If the kid can hit at all, I'll give him $1,500," he said. "I'm a physical-ability man. I don't give a damn how a boy is doing in the local league. Look, here you get a kid with better than average major league speed and better than average major league arm. You can teach him to field." He scuffed at the infield, with its rocks and craters; if there are ball fields in hell, surely they must resemble this one on its cooler days. "Get him on a good infield and he'll learn to field. If he can just hit."
Haak has no delusions any longer that he will find a new Clemente or Marichal at the next tryout camp. The odds are that instead he may work dozens of camps, maybe a whole country, and never find a single kid worth signing. He sees 400 games a year, drives the Caddy 50,000 miles and is chauffeured or flies tens of thousands more. He is not jaded, but he is very discriminating, and suddenly, seeing a kid in front of him who could run and throw, he came to life.
"�Oyeme!" he barked at Serrata, and when the kid turned around, Howie pantomimed swinging a bat. "�Derecha o izquierda?" The kid beamed and held up two fingers, indicating he was both—a switch hitter.
Even in a closed-draft market, top U.S. choices get upwards of $100,000. In the free market of the Caribbean no player ever is offered a bonus greater than $20,000, and most are given $1,000 or so. Some of the reasons for these cut-rate figures are obvious. There is discrimination, of course. And simple economics—even a devalued dollar goes a lot further in Caracas than it does in Pittsburgh. Besides, the clubs consider any Latin a riskier investment than the equivalent American prospect.
The language barrier counts heavily. Javier says that the language is the single toughest adjustment a Latin player must make when he goes to the States, tougher, say, than learning how to hit a good curveball. It is a rule of thumb that the Latins who fail to learn English will fail to make the majors. There is seldom a coach around who speaks Spanish.
Latins are also assumed to be moody, explosive and bad mixers. The case of the San Francisco Giants of the early '60s has been etched in baseball history. The Giants, it was said, were destroyed by ethnic cliques—whites, urban blacks, rural blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans; everything, it seems, but Hasidic Jews and Flemish banding against one another. The decline of the Pirates this year caused talk that a team with several Latins cannot succeed unless there is a strong Latin personality like Clemente to ride herd on them.