Ties between bookie and prospect raise concerns (cont.)
According to figures provided by SEDEFIR, in 2007 there were more than 1,300 sports books in the Dominican Republic. With that many sports books, Mercedes notes, "everyone here knows someone who owns a sports book." Mercedes, who is bilingual and attended U.S. schools growing up, also cites a cultural divide when it comes to gambling. "It's just normal for us here," he says. "It's just not viewed here the way it's viewed in the States. Here it's a business. It's viewed more as it is in Europe."
Major League Baseball historically has acted with an iron hand when dealing with gambling, banning the 1919 Black Sox and alltime hits leader Pete Rose for their roles in betting scandals. Current rules deem any player who throws a game to be permanently ineligible. So is MLB concerned about the close ties between prospects and a bookie? "We are unaware of any gambling connection but are always concerned about this and will be looking into the allegation," Pat Courtney, MLB's vice president of public affairs, said in an email to SI.com on Monday.
That Mercedes, a baseball aficionado and a prosperous business man, would enter the buscon business makes sense on its face. The academy was born out of his love for the game and of his family. A cousin asked Mercedes to train him in 2003 for big league tryouts. "I didn't know it was a business then," says Mercedes, chewing on the end of a cigar before one of Inoa's workouts at the end of June. Mercedes says his cousin received a $70,000 signing bonus from the Los Angeles Dodgers -- a respectable deal then but a pittance now. The money, however, was enough to convince Mercedes of the business possibilities, and he opened his own academy shortly after his cousin signed.
At Born to Play, Mercedes can afford to offer better amenities, and thus, bring in better prospects. Better prospects mean richer contracts, and richer contracts mean a larger windfall that Mercedes can reap from the prospect's signing. Mercedes wouldn't discuss the percentage that he receives from his players' contracts except to say, "It varies. It just depends on how long a kid is going to be with us. We've been not making money, just doing it for the fun of it. Now this year with Michel and all these kids, it's just exploded. It's become a business."
MLB estimated that its clubs paid $16 million dollars in signing bonuses to Dominican prospects in 2006. Just two years later that number had swelled to $26.7 million from July 2 through July 10 alone, according to an internal MLB memo obtained by SI.com. Various sources on the ground who have requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic insist that the drastic inflation of bonus money has less to do with traditional market forces and more to do with the recruiting culture in which alleged skimming by buscones and MLB scouts has driven up prices. (Those sources, however, were speaking of the system in general and not of Mercedes in particular.) In cases of corrupt signings, usually the buscon and the scout will collude to overvalue a player's skills -- and hence, his worth -- so that a player who would normally command a $100,000 signing bonus is paid, say, $700,000. The player still receives his $100,000, but the scout and the buscon and whoever else may have helped broker the deal will pocket the other $600,000. The player market then adjusts to these inflated numbers. Complains one international scout, "Now what happens is when I go out and try to do an honest job and offer $60,000 to a kid who's worth $60,000, he wants $100,000."
Few in the industry, however, doubt that Inoa was worth the hefty signing bonus. With a smile that clocks in quicker than his fastball and a pitch-perfect combination of humility and confidence, Inoa patiently and politely answers a slew of questions ranging from his goals ("to be in the Hall of Fame"), to his idol ("Josh Beckett. He knows what pitch to throw when"), to what he intends to do with his bonus ("build a house for my family and give money to the poor"), before dazzling a handful of scouts hanging out behind the backstop at the Born to Play academy with an assortment of mid-90s fastballs, curves and changeups. He looks those who approach him in the eye, a skill he says he learned from Mercedes. As Mercedes prepares to showcase Inoa to the scouts lined up with their radar guns behind home plate, he contemplates what he would do should a conflict arise between his book-making business and his player development academy.
"If it ever became a problem," Mercedes says, "I'd have to make a decision and sell the business." But which business? With players such as Inoa signing multi-million-dollar deals, the over-under on which venture would be more profitable in the future is a gamble.
MLB Truth & Rumors