Visa process for baseball players used to be maddening

Most winters, one of the most valuable members of the Minnesota Twins organization is a fellow who no longer plays baseball and does not live in the United States.

Francisco Solano is the facility administrator for the Twins’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, in the small resort town of Boca Chica, about a 30-minute drive from Santo Domingo. One morning each January, Solano rounds up all the players from the academy, plus any other Dominicans under contract with the Twins (major leaguers included), loads them on a bus and heads to the United States Consulate in Santo Domingo so everyone can get their visas processed at once.
 
“We get everything prepared three or four days before,” Solano said in a telephone interview Thursday from the Dominican Republic. “We always leave about 9 or 9:30. I get to the academy at 7 in the morning and make sure everybody is on the bus.”

Experienced major league baseball executives will you tell the annual visa process used to be a maddening exercise of frantic phone calls and red tape. Twenty years ago, every team seemingly had one or two players still waiting for visas when camp opened. Players arrived days or sometimes weeks late, and there wasn’t much anyone could do except wait.

That doesn’t happen as often anymore, even with heightened scrutiny for security reasons. We’ll explain why in a sec. But bureaucracy did snag three Twins last week, all under different circumstances.

The one with no excuse is Dennys Reyes, a Mexican who did not realize until the last minute that his passport was due to expire in three months. “That was just carelessness,” Twins general manager Bill Smith said in a telephone interview from Fort Myers, Fla. “That’s his fault.” Reyes reportedly arrived in Florida on Thursday, according to the Star Tribune.

The process

To explain what happened with Francisco Liriano and Alexi Casilla, both Dominicans, let’s first review how the process works.

In the late fall, major league teams apply for visas for all the players in their organization.  Smith said each team’s applications go to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center in St. Albans, Vt., and take 50 days to process. (Teams can get faster service by paying a higher fee, no different from expediting a passport application.) This system, Smith said, is more streamlined than it used to be, when different paperwork was required for major leaguers and minor leaguers.

The center issues approval letters for each player to take to the U.S. consulate in his home country. But the players can’t just show up. They must make appointments. Smith said the consulates in Latin American countries expect ballplayer applicants in January and February, and block out appointment times for them.

Several years ago, Smith said, the Twins began running bus trips from their Dominican and Venezuelan academies to their respective consulates to reduce potential snags. In the Dominican Republic, post-9/11 security made the process much more complicated this year, Solano said.

First, the Twins paid a processing fee for each player at a bank designated by the consulate (it increased to $131 per player from $100, Solano said). Then, Solano said he had to return to the academy, go online and fill out a four-page application for each player. Handwritten applications, Solano said, are no longer accepted.

“We had 18 players, including guys going to the big leagues,” Solano said. “It took three or four hours.”

Only then could Solano load the bus. But there were still problems.

Casilla missed his appointment because he had to deal with a family health emergency. Smith, working with major league baseball, is hopeful Casilla can get a new appointment in the next few days.

Liriano was held up because the U.S. State Department, beginning last June, required anyone with a drunken driving arrest to see a physician before entering this country. Smith said he wasn’t aware of the new policy, and neither was major league baseball. The intent, Smith said, is to ensure the applicant isn’t a threat to himself or others. Liriano is fulfilling that requirement this week, Smith said, adding Liriano may be in Fort Myers sometime next week.

All in all, Smith has no complaints. “When you think of the number of major league players who pass through the U.S. consulate without incident,” he said, “it’s an awesome process.”

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