In less than a week, Johnny DiPuglia—the Washington Nationals' director of Latin American Operations—will gather some of the team's recently-signed amateur prospects at the team's Dominican Republic academy to begin their transition into professional life.
Part of that transition involves a talk from DiPuglia—something he has done for the past 10 years, first with the Boston Red Sox and now with the Nationals—who will warn players about the various obstacles that can prevent them from living out their major league dream: drinking, partying, and reckless driving.
"You just have to use common sense, but it's hard to have common sense when you're 16-17 years old," DiPuglia said.
This year, DiPuglia's talk will take a more somber tone. The death of St. Louis Cardinals' 22-year-old prospect Oscar Taveras in a car accident on Sunday tragically illustrated the hazards that exist for many Latin America players when they go home during the offseason.
Dominican players are particularly at risk.
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on driving fatalities around the world in which the Dominican ranked as the deadliest country in the world for motor-vehicle related deaths. A stunning 41.7 deaths per year per 100,000 people occur in the Dominican. When the Washington Post stretched that ratio out over a 70-year span, it calculated than 1 in 480 people will die because of a motor vehicle-related accident in that lifetime. And the real numbers may be worse. The WHO reported that the Dominican doesn't have an adequate death registration system, meaning many more vehicle-related deaths have likely not been reported.
Venezuela—another baseball talent producer—was the third deadliest country with 37.2 fatalities per 100,000 people per year. The world average was 18 deaths per 100,000 people per year.
While DiPuglia said driving conditions in the Dominican have improved during the 20 years he has been scouting in the country, "Venezuela still has a long way to go with their roads."
So two of the countries that have the most vehicle-related deaths in the world are the two countries that account for the highest ratio of foreign players in Major League Baseball. The potential for tragedy is obvious and it's not going away any time soon.
Aside from the already harrowing emotional toll, the death of a Latin American player would have a disastrous effect on his family's fortunes. Many players are the primary—and sometimes—only wage earners in a household. Most Latin American players end up supporting a whole string of family and friends.
A player is covered by MLB life insurance only after he appears on a 40-man roster and that coverage lasts until the first day of the next season. The payout for such insurance is $450,000 plus a possible $1,050,000 for an accidental death and dismemberment, according to a Major League Players Association spokesman. A prospect with no major league experience would get nothing.
Professional baseball players in Latin American countries may be the most at risk for a car accident death. Newly minted with signing bonuses, some of these players buy expensive sports cars and drive at dangerous speeds on roads that are hardly safe to begin with.
But the problem in the Dominican is not necessarily bad roads, although the WHO reports that there are no regular inspections of existing road infrastructures in the country. The real problem is that there is little to no enforcement of existing laws.
The WHO ranked the Dominican's enforcement of the speed limit as only 3 out of 10. While the Dominican's blood alcohol limit is 0.05 g/dl—which is stricter than the United States' 0.08 g/d legal limit—the WHO ranked the police's enforcement of such a law as only 2 out of 10. Even worse is the response after an accident. The WHO reports that the Dominican has no emergency room based surveillance system, and that many nurses are not equipped to handle emergencies.
"I always tell people that it's not a country of laws, it's a country of suggestions," said one agent who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Dominican, but who wanted to remain anonymous. "There's no safety concerns there."
Almost any person who works in baseball in either the Dominican or Venezuela has heard the horrors of some vehicle-related death. Some teams—like the Nationals—are constantly trying to remind players of the perils.
DiPuglia said that he cautions players to never get into a car with someone who has been drinking. If possible, DiPuglia tells them, hire a driver. If you're driving, DiPuglia warns, don't text.
Also, DiPuglia warns kids not to cram more than one person onto the taxi motorbikes that are common in Latin American. He tells kids to always wear helmets if they do happen to ride on these motorbikes, even if it means using a batting helmet.
Most of DiPuglia's advice is common sense stuff that teenage kids need to constantly hear.
Worrisome for DiPuglia is that many kids are driving without a license. Most who grew up in poverty stricken neighborhoods never took a driving class and therefore never even applied for a driver's license. Inexperienced drivers may be the biggest hazard on the roads.
Unfortunately, these lessons are sometimes best taught using the example of a recent tragedy—like Taveras' death. It's likely that this weekend's accident will be used in training camps all around the Dominican to illustrate to players the perils of driving in their home countries.
"I hope these kids take it to heart that they're not invincible, and they take more care and caution," the agent said.
But even DiPuglia realizes that he can only do so much. At some point, these kids will go home and likely forget all the lessons he tried to cram into their heads. The best he can do is to repeatedly remind them of the dangers.
"You have to keep talking to them like if you were talking about good hitting mechanics or having a good delivery," DiPuglia said. "You become a kid's advisor, parent, counselor. This just doesn't come up when someone passes away. It comes up all the time. That's the job of a Latin American scout."