Baseball and colonialism: as American as apple pie

By Richard Pryor III
Executive Staff

Last week, the Atlanta Braves re-signed their second baseman, Ozzie Albies, for a seven-year contract during which he will earn $35 million. For those of you who haven’t been paying close attention, Albies, in his second full season with the Braves, is one of the best players in Major League Baseball (MLB). Whether he’s turning double plays or scoring runs, he consistently delivers for the Braves, and his success has been a big part of the Braves’ success over the last year.

As my colleague, Colton Williams (C’21), pointed out to me, while $35 million sounds like a lot of money for Albies to make, it’s not actually that much for an MLB player of his caliber. He never earns more than $7 million over the course of one season for the duration of the contract. Similarly good players like Colton Wong of St. Louis, Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich, or Tampa Bay’s Brandon Low all will earn more than $10 million in multiple years in their current contracts.

And just in case you think that I’m exaggerating how good Albies is, according to Baseball Reference, the retired player Albies is most similar to is Cal Ripken, Jr., the two time American League (AL) “Most Valuable Player” and “Iron Man” of MLB. What’s the difference between Albies and his colleagues – Wong, Yelich, and Low? Those three were born in the United States and Albies hails from Curaçao.

Curaçao, a small autonomous island nation under the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is off of the coast of Venezuela. And like many other nations in that region of the world, some of her best known citizens are the sons that have joined the elite ranks of MLB players, like defensive shortstop Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angels and closer Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As any casual observer of MLB will notice, there are a good number of foreign players. In fact, the Dominican Republic, home nation to 158 players in the 2018 season, the most of any non-US nation, has more players in MLB than any state in the US except for California, which has more than four times the population of the DR. So why is this? Are they just so good at baseball?

It turns out that so many boys and young men that grow up in poverty in these locales like Curaçao and the DR practice their butts off because they view a baseball career as their ticket out of poverty. And recognizing this, MLB teams and their management staffers view Latin American players as a ticket to high value, low cost players. This is how you get a situation where players like Albies make only $7 million while designated hitters like Texas’s Shin-Soo Choo will make three times what Albies makes.

MLB apparently has regulations on recruitment in Latin America, but as baseball historian Samuel Regalado notes in a 2000 conference paper, “MLB teams had recruitment guidelines, but they rarely pressed their scouts in Latin America to put them into practice.” Maybe that’s a good starting place for right now. But MLB needs to fix its act – or else it’ll burn in the socialist revolution that I am predicting for 2030.