By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Several years ago, while on a reporting trip in the Dominican Republic, I met a young coach named Chi Chi Franklin, who had spent a few years playing professionally, but like so many others, had been cast away because he simply had not been good enough.
It was no indictment on Franklin. Each year, roughly 500 players are signed to professional contracts in the Dominican, and certainly not all of them will make it to play in the minors in the United States, much less make it to the majors. Franklin was one of those. In order to make a living he had latched on as a coach for a private baseball academy that trained prospects for the purpose of signing professional contracts.
Franklin had a typical backstory. He had come from poverty. His parents had made a living by selling food and trinkets at a beach. The money he received from his professional contract had helped transform the financial fortunes of his family, but it certainly was not enough to keep him from having to ever work again after his baseball career had flamed out.
As we talked about his background, we were interrupted by one of the young players Franklin was coaching, who said, 'Why don't you tell him you're Haitian?"
The player laughed, and Franklin sheepishly looked toward the ground in embarrassment. Although Franklin was a good coach, who worked well with players, and was well liked, he could never escape the fact that his Haitian heritage made him somewhat of an outcast. Even though the younger players respected him, it didn't change the fact that he came from a segment of people commonly ostracized in the country.
Franklin didn't deny his Haitian background, and in fact he was quite proud of who he was and where he came from, but telling someone that you're Haitian isn't something you commonly do because you never know how people will react.
As one Dominican trainer once told me when we talked politics, "You know, we have it pretty bad here in the Dominican, but at least we're not Haiti."
The relationship between the Dominican and Haiti has always, to put it mildly, been complicated, and perhaps never more than now. For the most part, Dominicans regard Haitians, many of whom emigrated to work in the country's sugar cane mills, as second class citizens. Now there is legal backing to that opinion.
On Sept. 23 the Dominican's top court ruled that children of undocumented Haitian immigrants, regardless of whether they had been born in the Dominican, were no longer going to be considered Dominican citizens. Based on the recent census, more than 200,000 could be affected.
Baseball in the Dominican is likely to be affected in some way. The most obvious impact would be on those playing major and minor league baseball who could lose their Dominican citizenship as a result of this new ruling, and could have difficulties renewing or acquiring a visa to play in the United States.
"In general, anyone applying for a U.S. visa must present at the time of his/her interview a valid government-passport that certifies the identity and nationality of its holder for the purpose of international travel," Jeremiah Knight, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, wrote in an email. "Requirements for obtaining passports are governed by domestic laws and regulations of individual sovereign nations."
Already, reports have surfaced that several children of Haitian immigrants have had problems renewing their passports because their birth certificates have been rejected by the Dominican government. A valid passport, as Knight noted, is imperative for obtaining a visa.
Knight declined to comment on how the new statute could affect visas for coming into the United States. For the most part, nobody is quite sure how this process will play out. Several requests for comment to Major League Baseball, and to several MLB employees based in the Dominican Republic, were not returned. It's likely they aren't sure either how the U.S. Embassy will rule on some of these players. Right now, it's not an issue. But that could change towards the end of the year when teams try to sort out a player's paperwork for next season.
While it's unlikely that established major league players could lose their status, thereby subjecting the Dominican government to a public relations nightmare, many lesser known minor league players might not be so lucky. These anonymous players could be sacrificed in order for the government to show that they are taking this ruling seriously.
An alternative would be for some players to apply for Haitian citizenship, but that also carries some complications. Haiti's current immigration system is cluttered and could result in long delays, although perhaps some of these cases could be expedited with a nudge from MLB or a sponsoring team.
Also, this decision would result in these Dominican-born players having to renounce the country of their birth. Perhaps under the threat of losing their baseball careers this decision seems easy. But it's a life-changing option that could have repercussions later in life when a player's career ends and they try to establish themselves back in the Dominican.
The most affected would likely be unsigned amateur prospects. These players still need to establish their identity with MLB's office in the Dominican and with the U.S. Embassy. Their current paperwork -- birth certificate, identification cards -- could be rendered moot, and these players would have no prior record to fall back on when they lose their Dominican citizenship.
Historically, Haitian players have always had difficulties passing Major League Baseball's identity investigation, and that could come into play should an unsigned player choose Haitian citizenship. Major League Baseball often does not trust Haitian paperwork, which can be difficult to obtain.
One of baseball's top prospects, the Minnesota Twins' Miguel Angel Sano, who is Dominican born but of Haitian descent, had a difficult time proving his age and identity when he signed in 2009. Ultimately, baseball allowed him to pass its age investigation because of the lack of evidence against him, although the case still bothers several of the investigators who worked on the case, who are still not convinced of Sano's age and identity.
"We have always had problems with Haitians in the DR as they are usually document deficient for age and ID purposes," said one American League team baseball executive who has scouted and signed players in the Dominican for more than 20 years. "I am not sure how this will impact that situation. I would assume that they would be deported if found out. I would guess they might be found out in the investigation and visa process. This may lead to more subterfuge or at least a variation of the older types. It also seems to me that they have to be citizens of some country to get a visa. Many have never lived in Haiti and may not be considered citizens of Haiti."
Some in baseball are skeptical this law will have much of an affect at all. As of last week, Dominican courts were still trying to figure out enforcement of the ruling, which could not be appealed. It may turn out that baseball players, regarded as proud ambassadors for the country, may be immune, regardless of their heritage.
"End of day it won't be enforced," said one amateur player representative. "The country isn't exactly organized. I don't see them rounding up players."
* * *
Jorge Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.