When sports diversity advocate Charles Farrell first traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2000 as part of a blue-ribbon commission examining how to improve Major League Baseball’s academies there, he was appalled at what he saw: straw mats for beds, bars on the doors, and nothing but cheese sandwiches for dinner. When he asked his host about the team’s education program, he was shown a room with a card table, four plastic chairs, and a blackboard, all next to a bathroom with a chronically clogged toilet. “So part of our report was: You need to fix this,” he says.

Four years later, Farrell returned to the island for a conference and led a workshop with prospects on financial planning. The first thing he was asked was how to open a bank account. “These are 16-year-olds who potentially are going to receive millions of dollars, and the kid doesn’t even know how to open a bank account,” he says.

These days, as head of the nonprofit Dominican Republic Sports Education Academy, Farrell hopes to provide Dominican ballplayers with an alternative to the current system. While American prospects must complete high school to sign with a major league team, Dominican teens can sign as young as 16; often, that means hooking up with a buscón, or a local trainer-agent, to prepare for months or even years before becoming contract-eligible. Farrell’s DRSEA proposes a different route, one that would allow Dominican teens to be part of a training and college prep program focused on getting them scholarships to American universities. The DRSEA opened its doors this past January; while Farrell had to scale down initial plans for 100 players down to just 15 due to budget constraints, he’s optimistic that the idea will catch on. If grads end up with jobs in baseball, great; if not, they’ll have an education and can serve as role models for future young Dominicans — whether or not they’re baseball players. “We joke sometimes that we’ll be proud to have the next Sammy Sosa come out of the academy,” Farrell says, “but we’ll be equally proud to have the next Dr. Sammy Sosa.”

But Farrell’s project, while well intentioned, would affect a minuscule percentage of the thousands of baseball-playing teens in the Dominican Republic — let alone the 1,200 or so at major league academies there every year. Every MLB team currently has some sort of education program; at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ academy, for instance, players take mandatory classes every afternoon, while the San Diego Padres provide mandatory on-site English and computer classes. The problem is that most teams provide their players little more than baseball-centric survival English — and see no reason to act as a backstop for a struggling Dominican public education system. “You’re gonna have some great ones, you’re gonna have some middle of the road, and you’ve got some other ones that could be better,” says Rafael Pérez, head of MLB’s Dominican operations, of teams’ education programs. “And our job right now is to raise that level but still give enough room to each club to have their own individuality.”

Pérez is uniquely situated to make that change happen. A Dominican who played college ball at the University of South Alabama, he opened MLB’s Dominican office in 2000, and before taking his current job he worked for the New York Mets under ex-general manager Omar Minaya. Education reform has long been one of Pérez’s points of emphasis, and in September he helped introduce a new program that will provide job training and schooling for Dominican players released by major league teams. (It’s still too soon to know what effect, if any, the program is having.)

As for the players still at the academies? Given MLB’s reluctance to regulate the buscónes, or even make sure that teams have certified athletic trainers at the academies, getting the teams on board for a uniform educational program for Latin American prospects seems unlikely. But the benefits, says Minaya, now with the San Diego Padres, far outweigh the costs.

“If we educate them and we do the right thing by them, they’re going to be good representatives — even if they don’t make it,” he says. “And the majority of them don’t make it. Let’s not forget that.”