When signing a Dominican prospect, it's buyer beware
Many teams are unhappy with the process by which MLB verifies prospects
Money and reputations are on the line in a system marred by corruption
MLB has shaken up its Dominican office, hiring new investigators and firing others
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The kid's mother had no teeth. The baseball scout sat with her in her home in the small village, trying to decipher the sounds she was making. The unintelligible words made his job even tougher. It used to be that a scout's role was to identify a player -- could he hit, run, throw and catch? -- but as he sat across the table from the woman trying to understand her, the scout was engaged in what has become the newest part of his job: literally trying to identify a player.
When signing a teenage prospect, scouts in the Dominican Republic have always worried about what they might get, but now they must worry about who they might get. Two weeks ago SI.com revealed that Washington Nationals prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez, who had been signed to a team-record $1.4 million bonus in 2006, was really Carlos Alvarez, and that he was four years older than he had been purported to be. In the wake of the scandal Nationals general manager Jim Bowden resigned and Bowden's special assistant, Jose Rijo, was fired.
Teams have long sought to verify the identities of Latin American prospects before doling out signing bonuses and finalizing contracts. Because age 16 to 17 is the sweet spot for such prospects -- and therefore the period when they stand to make the most money -- many players and their handlers are willing to alter documents to make them appear younger or, in rare cases, older. Teams would often not discover the fraud until long after signing such players, after the clubs had housed and fed them in their Dominican academies for a year or two. When the prospects developed enough to join farm teams in the U.S., the clubs would apply for a work visa for them, only to have officials at the U.S. consulate discover fraudulent birth records.
In 2003 Major League Baseball made a move to tackle identity and age fraud when the commissioner's office in Santo Domingo contracted with local private investigators to verify information about potential signees. But now, six years later, many major league teams are complaining about the system, describing the investigations as perfunctory, riddled with incompetence and subject to the very corruption that they were designed to stop.
After news broke of Gonzalez's true identity, his handler, Basilio Vizcaino, Rijo and Nationals assistant general manager of player development Bob Boone blamed the Dominican investigators who had been subcontracted by MLB. "The thing that seems most unfair to me is how bad the vetting process is down there in the Dominican for the ages of young players," Boone told The Washington Post. One scout told SI, "If [Esmailyn Gonzalez's] investigation comes back and he's 20 instead of 16, he goes from a $1.4 million signing bonus to 10 grand."
SI interviewed front office personnel from five major league teams this week; four said that they had lost money on players who had passed the investigations conducted by MLB subcontractors but were later determined to be a different age, person or both. Last Tuesday the commissioner's office in Santo Domingo summoned the Dominican academy directors of all major league teams to a meeting. There, Ronaldo Peralta, the head of MLB's Latin American office, apprised them of overhauls in the investigations process, and announced the hiring of new investigators and the firing of others. Ironically the dismissed investigators were some whom teams respected most (teams had been free to choose which investigators worked on their cases).
Two of those let go, according to MLB's vice president of international operations, Lou Melendez, "got too much work and got sloppy." Under the new procedures MLB would assign the investigators, and clubs would no longer be able to pay for investigations in cash -- each costs from $300 to $600, depending on the amount of work involved. The latter change comes after an employee in the Santo Domingo office was fired for the "mishandling of funds," according to Melendez.
It marked at least the second round of investigator dismissals in the past year. Last spring Major League Baseball terminated three investigators. Among them was Jose Antonio Frias, Peralta's brother-in-law, who was dismissed for accepting a bribe to fix an investigation, according to Melendez and two other sources familiar with the investigation. Frias declined to comment to SI, citing a confidentiality agreement that he said he had signed with MLB. Says Melendez, "That was one guy. To leave the reader with the conclusion, 'Oh, it was his brother-in-law [so Peralta] must be on the take, too,' would be really wrong because he's not. He and his wife, they were destroyed by this." Peralta agreed to SI's interview request on Sunday morning, pending approval from MLB vice president of public relations Pat Courtney, but Courtney e-mailed SI on Sunday night to say that Melendez's comments were all that Peralta and baseball would have to say on the matter.
"Who's the person who put [Frias] in that position? Ronaldo Peralta," says one scout. "And who's crying for the Lerner family [owners of the Nationals] or for those teams who have lost money?" The scout says that the investigations his team paid for that were conducted by Frias have had to be conducted and paid for again because the U.S. consulate -- which requires reports of the investigations to accompany all prospects' work visa applications -- has rejected the initial reports. The scout says that a couple of his team's prospects, already under contract, are tangled up in visa issues because of suspect investigations.