Adrian Beltre's youth might set him free
It started as just another September day in Los Angeles. Agent Scott Boras was lunching in a chichi caf� with his client Adrian Beltre, the Dodgers' talented young third baseman. "You're 21 years old and you're already so good—" Boras said.
"No, I'm 20," interrupted Beltre, who was finishing up his first full major league season, in which he would hit .275 with 15 homers and 67 RBIs.
"What do you mean you're 20?"
The wheels began spinning in Boras's brain. Major league rules prohibit teams from signing foreign players who are under 16. If Beltre, who is from the Dominican Republic, was right, he'd been only 15 when the Dodgers signed him in July 1994 for a $23,000 bonus. Boras says he had Beltre bring his birth certificate back from a recent trip home and mat the document shows his client was born on April 7, 1979, and not on that date a year earlier, as L.A.'s records state. If the Dodgers signed their third baseman illegally, Boras knew, Beltre might be granted instant free agency.
Kids say the darnedest things. Beltre's comment in the restaurant led Boras to send the Dodgers an unwelcome present: a copy of the birth certificate. The team asked the commissioner's office to investigate whether Beltre's signing by scout Pablo Peguero had broken the rules, and last week Boras filed a petition with the commissioner's office, claiming L.A. deliberately violated Beltre's rights and asking mat his cherub-faced client be declared a free agent.
If commissioner Bud Selig needs a precedent on which to base a ruling in Beltre's favor, he need look back no further than last June, when his office found Los Angeles guilty of illegally signing two Cuban players, Juan Carlos Diaz and Josue Perez. Both were signed by Peguero, who was put in charge of the team's famed Dominican academy last month. Selig granted free agency to Diaz and Perez, barred Los Angeles from re-signing them and slapped the club with a $200,000 fine.
The Dodgers appeared to be bracing themselves for the loss of Beltre last Friday when they traded a minor leaguer for Marlins third baseman Kevin Orie. General manager Kevin Malone has been tight-lipped while he awaits results of an investigation conducted by Selig's lieutenant Sandy Alderson. In a statement last week Malone said, "The Dodgers respect and strongly endorse the rules and regulations of Major League Baseball, and we fully intend to comply with those rules."
Full compliance might be a break from the norm. "In the scouting world, particularly in international markets, there's a lot of rule-breaking," Boras says. "Beltre didn't even know about this rule until I brought it to his attention." He says Beltre recalls Peguero's mentioning "something about some secret age thing" but doesn't recall the specifics.
What's at stake here? Beltre earned $220,000 last season and could count on a raise of $100,000 or so. If he becomes a free agent, a club that needs a third baseman—the Dodgers, for instance—might have to boost that raise by a factor of 30.