Buyer beware (cont.)
Scouts say that the investigations aren't just needed to protect owners' investments, but also to safeguard scouts' reputations. A prospect who is older than he says may dominate his younger opponents. Alvarez, for example, won the Gulf Coast League MVP award and batting title, hitting .343 last season. Says one scout, "I have to look at these kids and say, 'Wait a minute, those kids aren't 18.' But my boss is looking at the numbers saying, 'Where were you on this kid?'"
Attempted fraud in the Dominican Republic has skyrocketed along with the number of prospects from the country and the money being paid to them. In 1990 major league teams signed 281 players and issued roughly $750,000 in signing bonuses to Dominican prospects. By 2008 more than 400 players had inked deals, receiving roughly $45 million in bonuses. "When you have that much money going into a country and you have buscones [street agents] who will stoop to any means to perpetuate [fraud], anything is possible," says Melendez. MLB now subcontracts with six Dominican investigators, all of whom are trained by the U.S. consulate and have backgrounds in law or law enforcement. The dismissed investigators, however, had similar qualifications.
Arlina Espaillat Matos, an attorney, conducted investigations for big league teams for six years until last month, and she says that the work is far more difficult than it may seem. The Dominican Republic has few computerized records. Birth certificates in many places are still handwritten and kept in binders. In some remote villages Espaillat Matos cut through sugarcane fields to talk to prospects.
In one tiny town she says she walked into a store and approached a woman working behind the counter. When she asked the clerk the name of the boy whom the shopkeeper had supposedly known all of her life, the woman peeked down at a piece of paper she was hiding beneath the counter. "It looked like a WANTED poster," Espaillat Matos says. "It had a picture and a name, a birth date and a list of answers to questions an investigator might ask." When Espaillat Matos asked about the names of the boy's parents, the clerk's eyes darted back to the flyer, which Espaillat Matos later learned had been handed out all around town, along with an appeal to not so much lie for the boy but to help him achieve his baseball dreams and a big league paycheck.
In her career vetting Dominican prospects, Espaillat Matos says that she encountered doctored hospital records and school documents, as well as school principals and neighbors who had been paid off to swear that a prospect was who he said he was and was as young (or old) as he claimed. The toughest cases, she says, are when a player -- usually at the insistence of his buscon -- assumes someone else's identity by using that person's school report cards and vaccination and baptismal records.
"There is so much money [in signing bonuses] now that the entire town can be paid off," Espaillat Matos says. Some of that money, she says, has been offered to her to falsify a report. She says she has never taken a bribe.
Today's large stakes have inspired ingenious schemes, however. In recent months scouts say they've seen a rash of Dominican prospects posing as Haitians. Records in Haiti, the neighboring country and the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, make paperwork in the Dominican Republic look organized. A Haitian birth certificate is easier to alter and harder to verify.
Melendez says the investigations are reducing fraud, and points to a significant drop-off in voided contracts as evidence: 60 percent when the investigations started in 2003 compared to roughly 17 percent today. Some of that decline, however, may be due to more sophisticated schemes that haven't been caught by MLB or the consulate. Alvarez, after all, received a visa to play in the U.S. for two minor league seasons. Melendez also trumpets a new policy that suspends for one year players who are caught with fraudulent paperwork.
Several scouts interviewed by SI suggest that once a player has been revealed to have used false papers, all teams should be notified. Currently that information is proprietary, due to the competitive nature of scouting, and the results of investigations are not shared among teams. Melendez says that MLB has proposed sharing reports of investigations in the past but that teams fought it, not wanting to tip their hands about which players they were scouting. Says Melendez, "The office [in the Dominican] wasn't set up as an investigatory office. Their job was to regulate the business of doing baseball in Latin America, to enhance MLB's image in Latin America."