Academy directors play key role
Heads help prospects deal with the pressures of pro ball
EL MAMON, Dominican Republic -- Surrounded by some of the best players from across the island, Red Sox pitching prospect Emilio Valera still seems to stand out as one lucky local.
With his childhood home only 20 minutes away from Boston's baseball academy, a facility just outside of Santo Domingo, Valera is afforded many luxuries his academy teammates are not privy to. He can go home to visit or get advice from his family in person whenever he needs it. Valera can also do fun things like meet new girls, nostalgic things like run into long-distance cousins at the grocery store, or wild things like buy beer for his old buddies, all in his own neighborhood.
But for the prospects who don't live a few miles from the complex, the support group is the baseball family at the academy. The patriarch of that family is the academy director.
"When you are a director, you and the boy are really connected," said former Major League player Jesus Alou, director of the Red Sox Academy in the Dominican Republic. "You are more than a coach because you are the father figure, the big brother, the uncle and the advisor. These boys need somebody they trust and somebody who will help them out."
"There is a lot of insecurity in baseball," Alou continued. "Even after one year or two years of being in the academy after he signs, the kid does not know what his future will be. He is worried. There is a lot of pressure, and that's what we try to help."
There are approximately 1,600 prospects participating in 28 baseball academies in the Dominican Republic. Only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers do not have an academy in the country. Tampa Bay currently shares the Dodgers' facility.
The role of the academy is to produce Major League players. The role of the academy director is to supervise everything. Everything.
"Academy directors are the guys who know the most, also the guy in charge who really understands where these players come from," said Ronaldo Peralta, senior manager of the Major League Baseball International office in the Dominican Republic. "They do a lot more than just baseball. I've seen directors teach a kid how to sit at a table, write a letter, and sit at a computer. They do more than a regular instructor will do. You go into a director's office and you will likely see a player in there talking about what is going on in his life."
Part of what is going on in the prospect's life is coping with newfound wealth, because signing bonuses for players in academies range from $30,000 to more than a million dollars. The bonus is often used to solve financial problems for the prospect's family, but the money can sometimes create new conflicts.
"A lot of times these kids live in poor towns, they sign and then their family gets an idea that he is the salvation for everybody in the community," said Eleodoro Arias, academy director for the Dodgers. "So now the kid has to think about what he can do to solve the family problems, and not just immediate family, but the entire family. Long-lost cousins you see at the grocery store show up because everybody thinks this kid is going to make our life better. That's a lot for a teenager."
Relationships with new friends, girlfriends -- past, present and future -- are regular topics discussed among prospects and academy directors, along with such issues as peer pressure and overprotective parents. Prospects often share their concerns about family members who want money to start up a new business, other family members who need healthcare and the sometimes rocky relationships with their parents because they are so far from home.
"You know how a father is always advising? That is how he is with us," Valera said of Alou. "We get a lot of attention on us. They care about us."
Academy directors say unsolicited advice from those outside the academy is the norm for a prospect, and just as common is an old friend or group of buddies making the young man feel guilty for not buying every round of beer. Through it all, the prospects must also cope with the competition against the top players in the country every day, mindful that for every 100 prospects in baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, only five make it to the Major Leagues.
It's common knowledge that the country is full of released academy players who let the pressures off the field affect their success on it.
"For a young man who is not completely mature, they can't manage everything perfectly, and that affects how they play," Arias said. "As a director, you have a good relationship with the kids, so you can figure out what is going on and make better players. Some don't talk, and you can't help them. But there are others who, from the outside, look fine. But inside, they are doing horrible. You have to get to those kids and see what the problem is."
"All we can do is give him all the facilities, love and attention to develop," said Tampa Bay academy director Eddy Toledo. "We want them to feel good in every sense of the word -- as a person, a man and a professional. That's our job."
That job is not always easy, especially when a player lives minutes away from potential distractions in their old neighborhood. In some cases, the comforts of home are more of a curse than a blessing.
Not in Valera's case, however.
"I could be like the guys who live four hours away and it takes them all day to get home," he said. "But I'm not. I'm right here close, so it's not a problem."
Alou will be ready should the circumstances change.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.