The SUV peeled down a dirt road, and inside of it was the sort of weaponry used to take a bank: two sawed-off shotguns and three handguns, enough to arm everyone in the vehicle, including the sports agent who had long grown used to the gun culture in the Dominican Republic.
He was visiting one of his major league baseball-playing clients, and nights like these were nothing new. Round up the entourage, load up the weapons, head up to a bar or club. They'd be far from the only ones packing. From guards on the street carrying machine guns to the check stations at the front of some businesses, where people get a claim ticket for weapons like Americans do coats, guns are everywhere in the D.R., and they're perhaps most prevalent among those who believe they need protection: ballplayers who claw out of poverty into millions of dollars that others want.
"I'd say 90 percent of players down there either carry a gun or are with someone carrying one," said the agent, who requested anonymity to not alienate clients. While some experts think that number is an exaggeration, those who have spent time around baseball players in the Dominican Republic agree that a vast majority are armed. And none expressed surprise at the spate of gun violence involving baseball players the past two years.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon sits in jail today, the main suspect in the shooting death of his cousin early New Year's morning. Simon, 29, claims someone else did the shooting, and though the result of ballistics tests are expected back soon, already there have been accusations from prosecutors that Simon switched the barrel on his gun before surrendering it, and himself, to police.
Fifteen months earlier, San Francisco Giants prospect Angel Villalona (pictured at right) was arrested for the shooting death of 25-year-old Mario Felix de Jesus Velete in a bar fight. And former New York Mets pitcher Ambiorix Burgos, who was accused of hit-and-run deaths and kidnapping and poisoning his ex-wife, also twice tried to shoot former major league infielder Felix Martinez during a game of dominoes.
"Putting guilt and innocence aside, the fact of the involvement with these severity of offenses is a concern," said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for labor and human resources. "It has to catch your attention. If it didn't, that wouldn't be a good sign. We try to avoid approaching the issue from a culturally judgmental perspective.
"Having said that, eyes wide open, you need to take into account that different countries regulate firearms differently, there are different norms and mores in terms of carrying guns and gun use and, frankly, there are different issues in terms of individual personal security."
The murder rate in the Dominican Republic is among the highest in the world. Surveys from 2005 estimate that the D.R. had between 17.59 and 23.56 homicides per 100,000 people, a figure that would place the country on the cusp of the 10 worst rates. Guns were used in 93 percent of those killings, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's latest Crime Trends Survey.
The incidents have steeled MLB's efforts to focus on educating players, a noble idea that even those spearheading it worry will run into cultural landmines. Gun violence is a fact of life in developing countries, and the best MLB can hope is to keep its players out of trouble and its sport from developing a reputation of breeding killers.
Simon was a relatively anonymous relief pitcher until police linked him with the shooting of Michael Esteban Castillo Almonte, a 25-year-old who died, his 17-year-old brother, Starlin Castillo Hernandez, who was wounded in his right arm. Simon's attorneys claim he was firing celebratory shots into the air. The younger brother called the explanation a lie in Dominican media outlets last week.
After more than a decade of struggles in the minor leagues, Simon stuck with Baltimore last year and notched 17 saves. Though he lost the closer job to Koji Uehara, the Orioles expected him to contribute this season and fulfill the promise Sal Agostinelli first recognized in 1999.
As the Philadelphia Phillies' international scouting director, Agostinelli trolled the D.R. searching for young, projectable players to sign on the cheap. MLB's relationship with the country hasn’t changed since it became a pipeline in the 1950s: find talent and pay a comparative pittance in signing bonuses to what players would receive were they born in the United States.
More than 750 Dominicans have played in the major leagues, including Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa, and thousands more have washed out with little money and even less chance at a life, their teenage years spent in games instead of classrooms.
Still, the arrangement rarely bothered the ballplayers. The five-figure check the Phillies gave Simon was more money than his family had ever seen. Agostinelli met Simon and his mother in their hometown, Puerto Plata, told her the organization would take care of her 18-year-old son and whisked the skinny, 6-foot-5 kid off to the Phillies' academy in La Vega, hopeful he could find more oomph on his 85-mph fastball and the maturity often missing among players with minimal education.
Another 10 mph came on his fastball, and once Simon developed a split-fingered changeup, he went from washout with the Phillies, Giants and Rangers to a serviceable reliever. The other part, multiple sources said, never came.
"He was a knucklehead," said one Orioles executive. "Just immature."
Those who know Villalona describe his situation similarly: A wretched cocktail of youth, hubris and wealth. He was different than Simon, a hotshot at 14 and star at 16, his power prodigious and his potential endless. The Giants won a bidding war for Villalona, gave him a $2.1 million bonus at 16 and set him to play in the Arizona Rookie League the next fall. By 18, when his peers in the U.S. were graduating high school, Villalona was playing in High Class A, three rungs short of the major leagues.
While the alleged shooting put his playing career on pause, the Dominican justice system has almost ensured it won't end. Villalona, now 20, is a free man today, and he plans on playing baseball in the United States again if given a visa. He paid the victim's family nearly $140,000 not to pursue legal action against him, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and though prosecutor Jose Antonio Polanco said he intends to push for a murder trial, Villalona's agent, Scott Boras, said: "A person with wealth, in the criminal system, is looked at in a different way."
Buying one's way out of legal trouble is common in the D.R., according to experts. Simon offered to pay Castillo's family not to press forward with involuntary manslaughter charges, according to the newspaper Dominican Today, and two years ago, Burgos was freed on $57,000 bail after allegedly killing two women in a drunk-driving hit-and-run accident.
Burgos was another great talent, 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds of humming fastballs and kamikaze splitters, capable of striking out the game's best with either pitch. He was also prone to odd behavior -- he once showed up to a game with the Kansas City Royals, the team that signed him, with a bald patch shaved down the middle of his head, because, he said, "I like it" -- and legal troubles.
The litany of alleged crimes committed by Burgos confirms what one former Royals official said: "He is the worst human being I've ever met." While Dominican authorities dropped the hit-and-run charges against Burgos, a Queens jury convicted him of assault and sentenced him to nine months in a New York jail for beating up a girlfriend who wanted to leave their hotel room and register her daughter for school. At the sentencing, Burgos told the judge: "I'm not that kind of person."
His actions in the D.R. say differently. In addition to the hit-and-run and the shooting incidents is his latest alleged crime, one that came after he was released from jail and subsequent deported back to the D.R. Burgos allegedly kidnapped his ex-wife from the house of a judge, where she was hiding because she feared for her life, and tried to poison her with a powerful pesticide used to kill rodents, according to reports in the D.R. The chemical, reports said, was called "Tres Pasitos," which translates to "three little steps" -- the number mice that ingest it take before dropping dead. According to the EPA, Tres Pasitos can kill people by paralyzing their respiratory system.
"You could tell something was wrong with him," said Edgar De Leon, who represented Burgos in the New York assault case. "In some way, I felt bad. When you hear the story of where he came from, the abject poverty, it shows what making it to the majors can do to someone who grew up in that position."
Such is the thrust of the issue for MLB: trying to teach players from different cultures how life changes once they come into major league fame and money. While MLB developed a weapons policy in July 2009 that bans firearms and other "deadly weapons" from team-owned premises, its influence can't reach any farther than that, particularly not to another country.
"No sport can completely control the off-field activity of its athletes," Manfred said. "The best we can do is make sure we try to provide our athletes with the kind of training and support that puts them in the position to use good judgment in situations that can be volatile. There are very significant differences among the countries from which our athletes hail."
The pervasive place of guns in society is the first. Though gun ownership in the United States exceeds other countries' almost exponentially -- Americans own more than 40 percent of the near 650 million guns in the world, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, a research project in Geneva -- gun culture is much more open in the Dominican Republic.
"If one looks in the classified section of the newspaper," said William Berry, a University of Illinois professor twice awarded Fulbright Scholarships to study culture in the D.R., "he might encounter any number of advertisements for pistols and bullets -- similarly as one might see an advertisement for a computer and software in the States."
Then there's the issue of security. As much as agents advise their players to travel without cash or jewelry, players often don't listen. Rather than invest his money in a house in the United States, one agent said, a player bought a mansion in the D.R. for his family and expensive cars that became an immediate target for robberies.
In Venezuela, the other Latin American country with a significant presence in MLB, the fear is far more tangible. Texas catcher Yorvit Torrealba's 11-year-old son was kidnapped in 2009 and later returned unharmed. The mothers of former players Victor Zambrano and Ugueth Urbina -- the latter of whom is serving a 14-year sentence for attempted murder after he allegedly told his friends to set people on fire -- were abducted and came home unscathed as well. Arizona catcher Henry Blanco's brother, Carlos, was shot and killed, even as Blanco was negotiating the ransom for his release.
"People know them," said Agostinelli, the Phillies scout. "They're famous. So they tend to have [guns]. When you have such a disparity in money, what winds up happening is you've got guys who live scared."
Because of the incidents involving Simon, Villalona and Burgos, MLB plans to ramp up its education programs. In addition to the rookie career-development program to which teams send their top prospects every offseason, Manfred said MLB is developing special lessons for Latin players -- particularly Dominicans -- that play out scenarios familiar to their cultures.
Baseball hired actors from Second City to play-act situations and initiate potential stressors based on social situations unique to players' countries of origin. Afterward, they discuss what the player did correctly and incorrectly. Cheesy as that may sound, Manfred said, "I actually think it's a much more effective form of learning than you get if you put me up there with a PowerPoint."
The next step is reaching players even before they come stateside to play. During his year as MLB commissioner Bud Selig's liaison to the Dominican Republic, Sandy Alderson laid groundwork for a career-development program tailored to players -- one that addresses guns, women, money and other potential pitfalls that pervade Dominican society. MLB is in the process of hiring someone to run the program out of the league's office in the D.R.
With the violence, age fraud, teenage steroid use and shady agents, known as buscones, the D.R. can provide as much of a headache to MLB as it can a talent infusion. Yet it's an integral part of the game today, and MLB can't bring itself to suggest players stay away from the manifold dangers of spending time there.
"Home is home for anyone," Boras said. "The culture we may find to be less restrictive is the culture that the players are raised in. The protections and liberties of that culture -- that's what home is."
Which puts MLB in the most uncomfortable position possible: Nearly incapable of fixing what has turned into a deadly problem. Lives are being lost, allegedly at the hands of its players, and the best the league can do for now is hope players don't sleep through the gun-policy briefing during spring training and the classes meant to shape teenagers' minds.
It was too late for Alfredo Simon, Angel Villalona and Ambiorix Burgos. They share the blood of an island, a proud nation and culture that shaped them. And on her soil, guided by that culture, they're alleged to share something far worse: the blood of others.
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