Perhaps no force has shaped the growth of Dominican baseball more in the past 20 years than the buscón. (Hint: it rhymes with the thing you dip into your coffee.) And yet, hardly anybody in America has ever even heard of the term. When one of them is caught with 293 kilos of cocaine, a couple of submachine guns, and a rifle with a silencer, maybe people should start paying attention.
(see Melissa Seguaro’s piece here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/09/27/dominican.trainer/index.html?eref=twitter_share)
It sounds like a recipe for a Quentin Tarantino movie. According to one estimate, the cocaine that Jose Gabriel Arias Castillo possessed was worth $5.86 million. It's enough cocaine to get a herd of elephants high for the rest of their lives. The former Phillies’ minor leaguer turned buscón even used baseball equipment bags to conceal the drugs. So what the hell is a buscón?
A rough literal translation is “one who searches.” In America we’d call them bird dogs. The buscón lives in all parts of the Dominican, turning over every leaf in their talent quest, often plucking kids out of their families’ houses at age 12 or 13, promising them a better life at their “academies.”
“Throw a scout, a coach, and an entrepreneur into a blender, then mix, and you have a buscón,” Jim Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer once said.
The buscones often care for the kids, providing them with food and training. The business, totally unregulated, has exploded, and every MLB team deals with buscones when they sign Dominican players.
Often the players do not pay for the services of the buscón upfront. Many parents of American kids pay for baseball lessons, but parents in the Dominican can’t afford to do so. Instead, they agree to pay a portion of the kid’s signing bonus, if there ever is a signing bonus. The buscón accepts a high degree of risk, and so the parents agree to pay 25 or 30 percent of a signing bonus; even 50 percent is not unusual.
Teammate Angel Villalona told me earlier this year that he gave his buscón $750,000 of his $2.1 million bonus, a percentage of more than 30 percent. Agents in the states, in comparison, typically receive around 4 or 5 percent for their services.
Despite this, almost every Dominican teammate speaks highly of the buscones. On a long bus ride recently, we talked about them.
“They give you better food, they give you a better bed, and they teach you the game,” one Dominican told me. “A lot of kids are poor and their parents can’t feed them. This way they’re taken care of, especially if they have talent. They even give them protein shakes.”
Many speculate as to whether or not they give more than protein shakes, and MLB even maintains a list of buscones known to distribute steroids. Yet with no way to perform drug testing on players not under contract with MLB teams, there is still speculation that at least some young kids are receiving steroids as part of their training.
“Some are bad people,” my Dominican friend conceded. “Most don’t give steroids, as this would give them a bad name if they were caught. But some do.”
Other buscones are involved in the business of forging documents. In the post-911 era, requirements for documentation have increased, and MLB has even begun the controversial practice of performing DNA testing on some prospects to try to deduce a true age. This has made document forging more difficult, but with so much money being paid to the buscón, there is tremendous incentive to falsify ages. A sixteen year old with tremendous raw talent might receive a signing bonus in the millions, whereas a nineteen year old with the same raw talent may receive a signing bonus in the low six figures.
The buscón no doubt plays a valuable role in the development of Dominican baseball talent, but the business needs greater regulation. Many buscones are legitimate baseball men. Several former professional players operate as buscones, including MLB star Ramon Martinez. Professors and accountants can be found in the ranks of the buscón, but just as many sleazier subjects can be found as well.
These sleazier subjects need to be found and eliminated. Also, some sort of standard on services provided and payment accepted needs to be established. Until these things are done, there will be too many kids being misused by the likes of Arias Castillo, with his submachine guns and cocaine ring.