When Nelson Liriano signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on Nov. 1, 1982, his first professional season was still more than five months away.
But, as Liriano quickly discovered, spring training in the Caribbean begins long before the Canadian frost has begun to thaw.
Actually, it never ends.
Liriano, a native of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, soon found himself dispatched some 100 miles to the south to the Epy Guerrero Complex in Villa Mella, about 12 miles north of the tiny nation’s capital city of Santo Domingo.
The sprawling facility, which receives about $100,000 a year in operating costs from the Blue Jays, provides a year-round training ground where young Dominicans are schooled not only in the fundamentals of baseball, but also in the customs, language and way of life in their ultimate destination: the United States.
Although it is only one of more than a dozen such camps operated by major league teams in the Dominican, it is one of the most sophisticated. The players, many of them unsigned and hoping to catch on with the Blue Jays, are given free room and board, medical care and English lessons.
“Basically,” said Gordon Ash, the Blue Jays’ administrator of player personnel, “it’s an extended spring training.”
The Blue Jays, whose scouting budget is the highest in the American League, have shown that they will go anywhere in the world to sign a player.
In the past 18 months, General Manager Pat Gillick sent scout Wayne Morgan to Cuba, Australia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Canada, Korea and the Dominican Republic.
Gillick himself signed players from Aruba and Curacao and, according to one story, sneaked into Nicaragua dressed in Sandinista attire to smuggle an outfielder named Brant Alyea out of the country.
Still, the Blue Jays have a special interest in the Dominican Republic.
It has been suggested that, along with the national anthems of Canada and the United States, perhaps “Himno Nacional,” the national anthem of the Dominican Republic, should also be played before the Blue Jays’ games.
Of the 175 players in the Blue Jay organization, about 25% are from the Dominican Republic. Nine of them will play this season for the Ventura County Gulls, Toronto’s affiliate in the Class-A California League.
“It’s fertile ground,” Bob Mattick, a Blue Jay vice president, said of the Dominican Republic.
And so, the Blue Jays have taken advantage of Gillick’s long-time relationship with Epy Guerrero, who built his complex in 1977.
At Guerrero’s camp, baseball is played from morning to night on two diamonds. The complex also includes a batting cage, practice mound, a hotel-like facility to house the players and a natural snack bar--a garden area where players can pick their own oranges, grapefruits, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, berries and avocados.
After dark, the younger players go to school. Those who have graduated from high school usually play cards or dominoes. They also are encouraged to take English lessons.
“They’re not English scholars by the time they get to the United States,” Ash said, “but they have enough working knowledge that they can get by in this country.”
If not for the English lessons, said Sandy Guerrero, Epy’s son and a second baseman for the Gulls, “I wouldn’t know how to say, ‘Hey, I want a hamburger,’ or something like that.”
The players are also told, by Guerrero himself and by former major leaguers, that life in the United States is different from the less-affluent Dominican Republic, that they will be considered “outsiders” in their new homes.
Mostly, though, the players are in camp to be evaluated.
In the past, because of the low cost of signing Dominican players, major league teams signed them en masse and brought them to the United States. Those they didn’t like were released.
The players, some as young as 14 or 15, faced tremendous pressure.
“It’s tough for a player to come to the United States and fit in right away,” Ash said. “They’re very young, and they haven’t been away from home before. It’s tough enough to make a club, but when you’re worried about cultural differences, it’s even more so.”
Under baseball rules, players can’t be signed until they are 16 and have finished grade 11, or will be 17 in September of the year in which they’re signed.
Although major league teams have been accused of using the camps as “hide-outs” to keep other teams away from young prospects, they say the camps are used for evaluating players.
Last November, the Dominican government cut down the teams’ evaluating time. A decree issued by President Salvador Jorge Blanco placed the camps under government supervision.
By Dominican law, teams may keep players in camp for only 30 days without signing them. Even those in camp are on the open market, free to sign with whomever offers them a contract.
The Blue Jays, who have been described as baseball’s most ambitious team in Latin America, say they welcome the rules.
They defend their camp, saying it smoothes the transition for their players from amateur to professional baseball.
“We’re determining whether they have the ability or not in an environment they are more used to, which helps them perform better,” Ash said. “The hard decisions as to who can’t play are made in their home country, rather than having them come over here and face all the distractions that might hinder their performance.”
If a player in their camp signs with another team, as has happened in the past, Gillick said, “it’s our own fault. If we had them there, we had an opportunity to sign them.”
And those they do sign and bring to the United States, the Blue Jays say, will have an easier time acclimating themselves to life in a foreign country.
“Hopefully, if we can help relieve the outside pressures,” Gillick said, “they can tend to the job they have to do, which is to play ball.”