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Wander Franco faces uncertain reckoning in Dominican Republic

In a tour of Franco’s native country, the Tampa Bay Times finds fans grappling with the fate of their fallen idol.
 
A sign welcoming visitors to the city of Baní, in the southern part of the Dominican Republic, where Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco is from.
A sign welcoming visitors to the city of Baní, in the southern part of the Dominican Republic, where Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco is from. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 15

BANÍ, Dominican Republic — Villa Majega, the neighborhood where Dominican baseball star Wander Franco was born, doesn’t hide its poverty.

Trash clogs the street drains. Heaps of plastic disrupt the flow of the Baní River less than a half-mile away. The baseball field in Villa Majega doesn’t have bleachers, lighting or white lines.

This is where Franco grew to love baseball and revere his childhood idol, fellow countryman Albert Pujols, and where he managed to launch a promising career that led to the Tampa Bay Rays and an 11-year contract worth $182 million.

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco races for a double during a game against the Boston Red Sox in April at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco races for a double during a game against the Boston Red Sox in April at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A lime-green bodega in front of the ballfield bears tribute. A handwritten sign reads “Franco #5.” It’s the only hometown display celebrating the All-Star shortstop.

In a country that had produced 864 major leaguers going into last season, including five Hall of Famers and All-Stars like Pujols, Miguel Tejada, Adrián Beltré and David Ortiz, Franco basks in the national spotlight but doesn’t monopolize it.

The people of Villa Majega, an underserved neighborhood in Baní located in the southern part of the country, don’t need reminders of Franco. They know he could face jail time for an alleged sexual relationship with a 14-year-old for several months in 2022. They know he hasn’t played in a game since Aug. 12 and was placed on administrative leave under Major League Baseball’s policy on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse 10 days later.

A local bar in the center of Baní where residents talk about baseball and drink cold beer.
A local bar in the center of Baní where residents talk about baseball and drink cold beer. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]

Franco, 22, remains under investigation by Dominican authorities and could face charges of sexual and psychological abuse and abduction.

This past Thursday, Franco was expected back in court as the girl was scheduled to appear before a judge in Puerto Plata, a province in the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, 160 miles from Baní. She was to provide preliminary testimony, so if Franco is charged she won’t have to appear at trial.

In Franco’s hometown, many residents see his legal troubles as part of a convoluted episode they’d just as soon forget. Here, the baseball star has been met largely with sympathy, a reflection of social mores in the Dominican countryside that turn a blind eye toward relationships between teenagers and adults, some experts say.

“He deserves a chance,” said Juan Roberto Castilla, a childhood friend of Franco’s, emphasizing just how much Franco’s climb has meant for his baseball-worshiping community.

But elsewhere on the island, observers said they are less understanding of Franco, who is married with two kids. And the law in the Dominican Republic is clear: Sexual relationships between adults and minors are considered child abuse, whether they are consensual or not.

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“It’s very distressing that a player with so much potential did not receive the proper guidance or exercise the necessary tact to avoid getting into such a regrettable situation,” Dominican journalist and Major League Baseball insider Hector Gomez said in Spanish via WhatsApp.

A family legacy

Franco was born into a family of baseball players. No one went to college, no one needed it. His grandfather, father and two brothers dedicated themselves to the sport. His maternal uncles, Erick and Willy Aybar, made the majors. At Franco’s grandmother’s house, residents said meals were cooked for players on the Villa Majega team.

Franco dropped out of school at age 12 to train full time in baseball. At 16, he signed with the Rays for a $3.85 million bonus. At 17, he moved to the United States to play in the minors.

Castilla, 24, remembered Franco playing for the Liga Cucuruchos of Baní in a local championship with about 20 other teams from the same province. He said Franco was recognized as a future star from a young age.

Rays shortstop Wander Franco signs autographs ahead of a spring training game last season against the New York Yankees at The Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco signs autographs ahead of a spring training game last season against the New York Yankees at The Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Franco’s parents always accompanied their son to games. Franco was known to be quiet.

“He was a calm and friendly young man, but with one thing on his mind: becoming a professional player,” Castilla said. “He never had problems with anyone.”

People in Villa Majega still talk about what Franco was like as a prodigy. They recall his speed and baseball talent that was far more advanced than others his age.

Robert Valdez is at the plate during one of his weekly baseball practices in the Villa Majega neighborhood with his friend Rolando Soto.
Robert Valdez is at the plate during one of his weekly baseball practices in the Villa Majega neighborhood with his friend Rolando Soto. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]

Erminio Aybar Percel, 46, remembers seeing Franco playing in Villa Majega and behind the Luis María Herrera municipal baseball field in the center of Baní. Franco was a big draw, Percel said, and he returned the adoration by greeting everyone with a smile.

On a recent Sunday late last month at the municipal field, the temperature reached 92 degrees. Two local league teams — Nizao and Don Gregorio — squared off. Baseball fans cheered on their teams while enjoying cold beers, mangoes and frío frío (snow cones). Percel, who makes $60 a month selling snow cones and lives in a modest home in Baní with his wife and seven other family members, was there with his brother Damaso. He said that Franco could charm.

“Sometimes there are players who don’t pay attention to you,” Percel said. “He did.”

People in Villa Majega still talk about what Wander Franco was like as a prodigy. That skill and dedication are emulated by Villa Majega’s next generation of players.
People in Villa Majega still talk about what Wander Franco was like as a prodigy. That skill and dedication are emulated by Villa Majega’s next generation of players. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]

Right and wrong

In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, residents of Villa Majega said they believe Franco could be a victim of circumstances. They said authorities should consider other factors that may have led to the case being treated differently due to his fame as a baseball player.

That adults in Villa Majega are excusing Franco is hardly surprising, said psychiatrist Luis Ortega.

“In Dominican culture, the normalization of relationships between teenagers and adults is deeply ingrained,” said Ortega, an expert in child psychology and mental health care in Santo Domingo. He has followed Franco’s case from the beginning and has studied Dominican culture, including the social and behavioral aspects of its people. He said in many rural parts of the country residents don’t judge relationships between teenagers and adults. This is more accepted when there is an idolized figure like Franco, he said.

“This validation becomes even more pronounced when the relationship is consensual, and the adult involved has money.”

Erminio Aybar Percel watches one of the Sunday games at the Luis María Herrera municipal stadium in Baní in the Peravia province.
Erminio Aybar Percel watches one of the Sunday games at the Luis María Herrera municipal stadium in Baní in the Peravia province. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]

But while the Dominican Republic’s social mores may reflect ambivalence over relationships between adults and minors under 18, the law does not. Such relationships are prohibited. The law stipulates prison sentences, as well as fines. Dominican authorities categorize such relations as sexual abuse. This applies even if the minor gives consent.

Carlos Núñez, founder of Aldea del Niño, a nonprofit that develops social and educational programs for children in the northeast of the Dominican Republic, said Franco’s case reflects the vulnerability of the country’s youth.

“We have to condemn this situation, because we cannot allow a minor to be manipulated or abused under any circumstances,” said Núñez. “Authorities must take the necessary measures to protect our kids and ensure that laws are enforced.”

Joseyni Polanco, 27, a Dominican journalist in Santo Domingo, said it’s sad to see how adults steal dreams, and innocence, from girls without considering the psychological, emotional and physical damage this causes.

“This should serve as a mirror for the men who have fixated on a minor without considering the consequences this could bring to their future,” said Polanco.

Franco could lose his Major League Baseball career and face two to 10 years in prison for abduction and sexual abuse. If a judge decides to revisit money laundering charges, they could carry up to 20 years. Authorities have until July 5 to formally charge Franco.

Prosecutors said Franco took the minor from her home in the province of Puerto Plata on Dec. 9, 2022, and “for a period of two days, the accused had sexual relations with the teenager.”

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco, center, is escorted by police from a courtroom in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, on Jan. 5.
Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco, center, is escorted by police from a courtroom in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, on Jan. 5. [ RICARDO HERNANDEZ | AP ]

Amid such reports, tolerance for the athlete is growing scarce elsewhere on the island.

The teenager involved in the case lives with her cousin and aunt in Villa Montellano, which is 15 minutes from Puerto Plata. Montellano has long been economically dependent on sugar mills, but today its people are shifting toward the development of resorts and tourist centers on its nearby Atlantic coast.

Stacked homes loom over narrow streets throughout Villa Montellano. The area teems with taxi drivers, cashiers, employees of small factories and municipal offices. Two families may reside in a single home. Neighbors talk from front porches. The sense of community is strong.

Some residents believe that Franco should be held accountable for his actions if found guilty. One of them is Anderson Vargas, a husband and taxi driver. Vargas, 30, covers daily routes between Puerto Plata and Sosúa along with a group of 40 taxi drivers with whom he has formed a group on Facebook.

Vargas said Franco made a big mistake and should regret it.

“He not only harmed his own career but also left a negative mark on other people,” said Vargas. “He should know what is right and what is wrong.”

Paige Paddock and Erin Matozel walk past an image of the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wander Franco on a fence outside of Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in August in downtown St. Petersburg.
Paige Paddock and Erin Matozel walk past an image of the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wander Franco on a fence outside of Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in August in downtown St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

An oasis in southern Baní

Franco now lives in the southern part of Baní, where locals said he built a pair of mansions for himself and his parents near Palo Alto and Boca Canasta. This area is less than a 15-minute drive from where he grew up.

Unlike Franco’s hometown, the area’s wealthiest families and foreigners own homes and apartment buildings with pools, security cameras and lush ornamental trees. These are exclusive, residents-only neighborhoods near the Caribbean Sea.

A house in Palo Alto, Dominican Republic, less than a 15-minute drive from Villa Majega. In this area, the wealthiest families and foreigners own homes and apartment buildings with pools, security cameras and lush ornamental trees.
A house in Palo Alto, Dominican Republic, less than a 15-minute drive from Villa Majega. In this area, the wealthiest families and foreigners own homes and apartment buildings with pools, security cameras and lush ornamental trees. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]

The serenity is a world away from the constant hum of motorcycles that abound in the center of Baní and weave throughout the city, carrying one to four people at a time. Here, in Franco’s new home, residents get around via golf carts.

There are no vendors of mangoes and coconuts loudly selling their produce. Nor are there stray dogs sleeping in the middle of the streets. Instead, convenience stores (known as colmados) and shopping malls offer a wide variety of local and imported goods.

During the weekend nights, the backyards of mansions, illuminated with solar panel lights, come alive with family gatherings. On the terraces, friends gather to celebrate with the rhythm of bachata, a well-known music originating in the rural neighborhoods of the country.

Franco’s return visits to Villa Majega have been sporadic. Two days before Christmas, he took photos with the neighbors. He played baseball with them and handed out 4,000 Dominican pesos ($68), according to local kids.

Kids play in Villa Montellano, 10 miles south of Puerto Plata.
Kids play in Villa Montellano, 10 miles south of Puerto Plata. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

One of those kids was Robert Valdez.

Robert, 10, plays every day, from 3 to 6, Monday to Saturday, usually with just one old, battered ball and a bat that he shares with his friends from the neighborhood. School isn’t something he thinks about much. He’s more focused on following in Franco’s footsteps, practicing hard in front of a wall, and getting better by hitting corncobs and small stones to sharpen his aim.

Like many kids from Villa Majega, Robert — a switch-hitter like Franco — dreams of being an MLB player.

“I want to be a champion,” he said.

A street vendor is pictured in Villa Majega, a neighborhood in Baní, Dominican Republic, where Rays shortstop Wander Franco grew up.
A street vendor is pictured in Villa Majega, a neighborhood in Baní, Dominican Republic, where Rays shortstop Wander Franco grew up. [ MICHAEL MONEGRO | Special to the Times ]