You may have noticed that we're heavily into the draft here at MLB Daily Dish this time of year. But, as you well know, there's another way that players can enter the minor league system: as international signees. Often, these players are signed around or after their 16th birthday in their native countries (usually the Dominican Republic or Venezuela), given a plane ticket, and sent north to Arizona or Florida with maybe a little knowledge of English (although we've all heard stories about minor leaguers struggling to even order fast food). Major League clubs proceed to pay them (a relative pittance), help them develop their English a little, and eventually release the overwhelming majority of them.
They return home, maybe a little richer, but maybe not. It depends on how big their signing bonuses were. And Major League Baseball washes its hands of them. We assume they go back to their lives. But here's the thing: those players might not have much of a life to go back to, having dropped out of school to pursue their dream.
In the United States, we wouldn't dream of this. Players who are drafted, even if they are under 18, generally finish high school. At the very least, they do what Bryce Harper did and get their G.E.D. We demand these players not be totally hung out to dry. And we recognize that, not only is that education better for their futures, it also likely makes them better ballplayers, teammates, and employees.
According to Mike Vorkunov, of USA Today, six teams have taken it upon themselves to make sure their international players get that same advantage. Vorkunov identifies the Mets, Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as clubs that help their players earn their diplomas, with another two or three working to implement a similar program.
Juan Henderson, in charge of the Mets' Dominican Academy, explains the advantage, ""I gotta tell you, we're working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop."
That is fantastic news, and I suspect will be a competitive advantage for those teams in the long term. It's not a coincidence that four of the six clubs mentioned are widely regarded as some of the most innovative organizations in baseball right now. Good for them. They should be commended.
While I don't want to squelch a team that has found a competitive advantage, the truth of the matter is that it's not enough. The truth of the matter is that Major League Baseball and its teams owe the players who it signs as children more than money. It owes them the education they would have otherwise been earning. Given the incredibly small number of minor leaguers who eventually make their way to the Majors, it's unconscionable to send so many young men back to their respective countries without any resources or any kind of finished education. It risks putting them even further behind their peers as they start the next chapter of their lives.
You might feel that those are risks that these players willingly undertake. I guess, in one sense, that's true. But it's also true that playing ball is a once in a lifetime opportunity for young men, and one that the overwhelming majority of us would take (regardless of the consequences) if we had the opportunity. They should not be penalized later in life for pursuing it now.
You also might think that it's impossible for Major League Baseball, and for its teams, to legislate such things. But think about how your employer required you to have a high school or college diploma, or a G.E.D. for your position. It's reasonable for MLB to have a similar policy, and to hold part of a player's signing bonus in trust for them until they achieve that milestone.
It is feasible to insist that every player 20 and under (or 18 and under, if you prefer) who signs with a major league team have the equivalent of a high school education in their home country. It's ultimately mutually beneficial to the player, to his team, and to his country of origin. Most importantly, it's right. It's a moral imperative. And the longer we pretend that this is a child's individual decision, rather than a collective one that speaks to our values as a national and international community, the more we do a disservice to every player who signs away opportunities for the rest of their lives.