But it is changing. Slowly, perhaps, but finally. For the first time, serious questions are being asked about a system that has encouraged numerous Latin boys to quit high school—in some cases, grade school—to play ball in the U.S.
"Too many players' lives are being fouled up because they're signing too young," says Osvaldo Gil, a San Juan lawyer who is president of the Puerto Rican Amateur Baseball Federation. "Too many scouts don't take into consideration whether they're doing good or bad in signing young Latin players."
"My country is jammed with 17- and 18-year-old kids who have already been to the States and been released," says former major-leaguer Felipe Alou, a Dominican. "I hate to see a 15- or 16-year-old child get bagged, signed and released. Some of them try to stay in New York, illegally. Most go back home—without a job, without an education. They're-no longer even eligible to play amateur baseball. It's sad."
"In my opinion, baseball shouldn't be fooling with—I should say, taking in—15-and 16-year-old players," says Johnny Johnson, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the formal name of the minor leagues. "It's not right, morally."
"I don't like the system, don't like it at all," says George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees. "It may sound like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, but I wasn't aware we had signed a 15-year-old boy. I think in some ways it's very much of a disservice to take a kid at 15 and bring him into this country. He can barely speak the language. He has trouble adjusting. He may not be good enough. And he has interrupted his education. What this needs is a real close look by the commissioner's office. Maybe we could set up a draft in Latin America with somewhat the same guidelines as we have in the United States."
But Bill Murray, administrator for the office of Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, says, "I can't see extending the draft to Latin America in the near future. There are so many players in our own backyard to draft."
In the spring and summer of 1980 Kuhn's office examined the system of signing Latin players and concluded that it was time for a change—but only a token change. In May 1981, with the approval of the major league general managers, Kuhn enacted a rule prohibiting clubs from signing Puerto Rican players until they either turn 17 or finish the 11th grade, whichever comes first.
The provision is the same one that restricts premature signings in Canada and is similar to the U.S. rule—with one significant exception: Clubs cannot sign U.S. players until they either turn 17 or graduate from high school, whichever comes first. Puerto Ricans are fair game a full year before their high school classes graduate.
Baltimore Orioles General Manager Hank Peters sums up the sentiment of many baseball scouts and executives when he says, "It's not necessary to have any more rules than we have. I don't think, by and large, anyone has been abused by being signed at a tender age."
Peters needn't worry: The rule restricting signings in Puerto Rico won't have any effect on other Latin areas, such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico, from which more than half the Latin signees come.