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Sox have students of the game

Sox academy gives kids chance to pursue dream

EL TORO, Dominican Republic -- They sit, slightly hunched, in anonymous blue baseball jerseys with possibility stitched across the front. Their pants, frayed at the hem and patched in the back, are myriad colors, gray and white and blue pinstriped with thin red lines or thick blue lines or nothing down the sides. They are wearing -- against academy rules -- caps from every team imaginable: the Pirates and Devil Rays, Cardinals and Nationals, and, most egregiously, the Yankees.

Thirty-two kids, some younger than 16, some much older, sit in the shadow of their street agents, their buscones, amid the idyllic skies of the Red Sox academy here in the fields of the Dominican Republic.

They have rolled up the unpaved dirt road, past the unassuming double socks logo hung near the four lounging men providing lax security on this Wednesday in mid-January, to try out, in hopes of signing a contract with the Red Sox. Though the evaluators know, midway through the session, that just four will be brought back for a second look the following week in front of the team's vice president of professional and international scouting, Craig Shipley, the effort of each participant is epic, heard in the pops of caught balls and self-flagellation of mistakes.

These hopefuls bring nothing more than their talent and dream of trading their mismatched uniforms for the academy's crisp home whites. They look, enviously, at the signed players, whose often meager bank accounts swelled by bonuses of $20,000 to $800,000 when they joined the Red Sox, in the batting cages or over on the other field doing drills. For both groups, the academy offers a chance, even though many go no further -- not even to the lowest levels in the States. Fundamentals are taught. English is taught. Life is taught. And, as they learn, you realize the kids are not the only ones receiving lessons.

"To tell you the truth," said Jesus Alou, who spent 15 seasons in the major leagues and now is the director of the academy, "I believe all of us are learning what an academy is."

Latin American investment
Having shuttered their Venezuelan academy in December 2005 amid political concerns about the reign of president Hugo Chavez, the Sox have made the Dominican academy the center of their Latin American scouting operation.

Though Shipley emphasizes that the Japanese major leagues are increasing as a key source of talent -- witness the signings of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima -- a larger percentage of the team's scouting dollars are still poured into Latin America, with Venezuela (five scouts) and the Dominican Republic (three) leading the pack.

"It hasn't just been a focal point in the last three or four years, it's been a focal point," Shipley said, of a country in which 28 of 30 teams own their own academy. (Milwaukee and Tampa Bay do not, though the Devil Rays recently agreed to share with the Dodgers.) "The Dominican and, specifically, the Dominican and Venezuela, have been focal points for a long time now. To be competitive at the major league level, you have to scout Latin America extensively."

But finding the players is hardly enough. Signing players at such a young age -- they must turn 17 in their first professional season -- is even less of a guarantee than the high school and college draft. These are players who haven't reached prospect status.

"It's vital," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "A lot of the best Latin American players sign at 16, 17, and are a long way from being able to play even at the GCL [Gulf Coast League] level. That's really the place where we teach the game, teach the Red Sox way, get them ready to compete stateside. A lot of Dominican players don't play a lot of games. They tend to focus more on skills that show up in tryout camps, but don't manifest themselves in games."

Because of the system of agents, players signed in the Dominican are often far behind in game experience. They have spent formative years -- often from age 12 -- working on the aspects of baseball education that can get them signed. That leaves them with crucial pieces missing: base running, throwing to the cutoff man, the infield fly rule.

"Most of them have their natural skill and most of the kids that we sign is because we see that they have, you know, the material, the raw material," Alou said. "That's why this academy is here, to see if we can polish and teach them how to play the game."

Experiencing a rebirth
The lights go off.

It is quiet; something is missing. The hum of the generator is gone, sending Alou into instant relaxation.

"When I get to the academy, by the way [Jesus] is, I can tell if we're running on generators or electricity," said Eddie Romero, assistant for international and professional scouting, seriousness behind the quip.

In a country where 24-hour electricity is hardly a guarantee and the academy receives about half that, the generator sits as an imposing structure next to the building that holds everything: the dorm-style rooms and clubhouse, cafeteria, and baseball operations offices. As important as those are, the generator -- and the fight to limit its (expensive) diesel fuel consumption -- is paramount.

But it's hardly the only concern. After lying dormant for about two years, the academy is beginning a rebirth. New flowers, touches of orange, line the gravel-filled space behind the clubhouse; workers strip the inside of the living quarters, leaving wooden dressers outside abandoned, and a promise remains of a paved road and new workout equipment.

And, at the end of an hourlong bus ride back into Santo Domingo, is another new facet of the academy: daily classes. Inside a building with wide-open windows, letting in both breeze and car horns, the students in the academy become real students, with classes ranging from biology to English to life skills.

"We're really trying to nurture an environment where they go to the States and they're well prepared for life off the field," Romero said. "We want them to be able to speak some English. We want them not to be intimidated once they go over there. We're trying to have them reach a certain level of comfort for when they do get over there, so they understand the law, so they don't get in trouble, that they get along with their teammates."

That's why it is so helpful that the academy is located out here, in El Toro, where distractions are nearly nonexistent. Instead, they stay in, upstairs in the in-progress common room, with its dusty pool tables and lack of seating. Almost all of the players have laptops, and wireless Internet is nearly as important to them as the air conditioning that runs through their quarters only when they return from the fields, to conserve energy.

So it is expensive to run an academy, with concerns over diesel and electricity and transportation and teenagers. But Romero insists the Red Sox allot just enough to cover their day-to-day expenses each month, with extra coming for additional improvements, like the road and the proposed new half-field.

But, at this point, could a major league team operate without an academy? Or, rather, could it operate successfully?

"Probably they could," Alou said. "But it will cost them a lot. Because they're going to have to buy the player from somebody else's."

'A numbers situation'
Rice forms a thick bottom layer, covered by a liberal dousing of kidney beans, and spoonful upon spoonful of steak and chicken. Salad follows, with a rich coconut paste for dessert, and a choice of the freshest juices possible, orange or passion fruit. A small group of academy kids sits at a long wooden table, shoveling in food, their workouts done for the morning and school ahead.

Romero points to one of them, his bushy hair, and remarks that the barber will be coming for him soon.

Like the major league Yankees, regulations are tight. No earrings. No chewing tobacco. Red socks must be pulled up to the knees during workouts. And, most noticeably, no tufts of hair can stick out of their team-issued caps.

Want to make a statement? Get to the States.

Not that that's an easy proposition, especially in a Red Sox organization whose minor leagues have morphed from sickly to stocked during the Epstein regime. That leaves fewer spots for everyone. Eleven or 12 Dominican academy graduates are expected to move up this season to the team's Single A leagues.

"There's a lot of talent at the lower levels, so a lot of the time it becomes a numbers situation where we would like those guys to be in the States. But because of the talent we have in the Gulf Coast League and in Lowell and Greenville, it's tough moving those guys up," Romero said, adding that very few are ready to go directly to the minors upon signing. "There's just not a slot for them to get consistent at-bats."

Besides, that's not the point of sending them to the minors, especially in light of the limitations on minor league visas, a situation ameliorated when Congress passed a bill in December easing the restrictions that had formerly allowed teams just 48. If they get there, they have to play.

Until then, their reality is in the academy. The two leagues, winter and summer, provide those vital game conditions against teams from other organizations' academies. It's in the lengthy days that stretch from lifting at 6 a.m. to workouts at 8:30 to school at 3:30 p.m. to the return home at 7.

"Some people say it's hard, but when you like something, you don't think about the hard things," said Alan Atacho, an 18-year-old catcher from Valencia, Venezuela, who's in his second session at the academy. "I just think this will help me to get there. It's just part of the work, being far from your family and your friends and your stuff. It's hard, but you've got to do it. If you really want to get there, you've got to do it.

"Sometimes you think you're going to be someone, like a star or something. You say, 'Could I do that?' But the coaches here say it's true."

Production costs
Two weeks into January, with the post-holiday to spring training session just beginning, only about 25 kids -- most of whom won't be heading to Fort Myers, Fla. -- were at the academy. But now, eight more sets of bunk beds would be needed to accommodate all the bodies. With that trip to the States approaching, the full complement has arrived, nearly 70 -- almost every Latin player not on the 40-man roster.

That includes players who could be the future of the organization, Carlos Fernandez and Felix Doubront and Miguel Socolovich, all of whom passed through the academy at one point (though none of them played in the Dominican Summer League). But the lack of home-grown Dominican talent on the major league club hasn't gone unnoticed.

Hanley Ramírez passed through on the way to the Marlins. Anastacio Martinez played here, before reaching the majors with the Sox, being released, and signing with the Nationals.

"So you see," Alou said, "it's time to get going and bring a few [players], because it costs. It costs a lot of money to keep an academy. It costs a lot of money to build one."

So it's time for the organization to produce players, kids who could shoot to the top of those lists of prospects and eventually produce for the Red Sox. Because, like every other aspect of the team's player development production, there is pressure here, too.

"That's the beauty of baseball," scout Luis Scheker said, walking over to watch the potential in the batting cages and on the basepaths. "You never know what's going to happen."

So they are running, clay kicking up and hats flying. Running toward right field, toward scrub brush trees out past the outfield fence. Toward eight men, standing, stopwatches in hand. And, if they are among the lucky, toward their future.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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