By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
PIZARRETE, Dominican Republic -- The face of the Washington Nationals' presence in Latin America dodges gaping potholes on rock-strewn roads in his gleaming Cadillac Escalade. He lives with his family of eight in a rusting, corrugated tin shack with sheets for doors between the rooms, keeps a pig on a rope steps from his front stoop and has a father who says the $1.4 million signing bonus his 17-year-old son received has changed the family's life un poco -- a little.
"My life's been the same," said Esmailyn Gonzalez, still wearing his Nationals warmup jersey hours after a workout earlier this week. "The only thing is, we're just a lot more comfortable."
Here, with the La Roche mountains as a backdrop beyond the nearby sugar cane fields and a stove that's nothing more than an overturned barrel with a fire atop it, comfort is relative, hope abundant and Gonzalez potentially the next poor Dominican kid to make it in baseball. His story is both wildly unexpected and oddly typical in this country of about 9 million people, where baseball has long been the most obvious way to pull families from poverty to luxury.
"That's what I want," Gonzalez said in Spanish, flashing the white teeth that have Nationals officials calling him "Smiley." "Better for my family."
Gonzalez, a shortstop, is in such a position to provide all this -- including renovating a new home some 2 1/2 miles away, where men lay tile and grin at their teenage employer's arrival -- as a direct result of the renegade system in which major league teams procure Dominican players. The system became so unwieldy that, six years ago, Major League Baseball established an office in Santo Domingo, the capital, to help provide structure, a commodity that has proved hard to obtain.
"Officially, we do not have jurisdiction over these people," said Ronaldo Peralta, the director of MLB's Latin American office. "There is only so much we can do."
Foreign teenagers aren't subject to MLB's annual draft, which includes only American high schoolers and college kids. Rather, they are all but auctioned off to teams by street agents known locally as buscones, a derivative of the Spanish for "to find" or "to seek." The process, which Nationals President Stan Kasten has likened to doing business in "the wild, wild West," involves Dominican baseball men -- part coaches, part providers, part hustlers, part financial advisers -- identifying and cultivating talent, preparing the players for tryouts and then selling them in the July following their 16th birthdays to the highest-bidding major league teams. Depending on the arrangement, the buscones end up with anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the signing bonuses -- except in the countless instances in which they rip off an illiterate and unsuspecting family.
"We do a good job for baseball," said Basilio Vizcaino, Gonzalez's 42-year-old street agent and a former minor league player for the Oakland Athletics. "The players are better prepared when they sign. And then, [the clubs] also don't have any other options."
It is a reality into which major league franchises delve in order to tap the Latin American market, which has become essential to assembling a potent roster. In 2006, more than one in 10 players on Opening Day were Dominican. The Nationals, though, are just reentering the market after a nearly three-year period of dormancy, and the signing of Gonzalez is their way of announcing their newfound aggression.
"We're here to play," scouting director Dana Brown said.
They will play, however, in a system that is fraught with peril, with buscones whispering to a kid that they can get them a paycheck immediately if they leave another agent, sometimes telling a family they'll take, say, 20 percent of the signing bonus while writing a contract that gives them 50 percent. Still, major league team officials say there is no getting around it.
"I hate to say it, I hate to admit it: It really do work in [the players'] favor," said Jose Rijo, a native of nearby San Cristobal who pitched 14 years in the majors and now serves in the Nationals' front office. "Now, we got kids 13 years old, 14 years old with talent. [The buscones] feed them, give them some better instruction, give them a chance to develop every day. If you go back to the old system, nobody would discover them, nobody would help them."
Just as with agents in the United States, it would seem that some buscones would be more trustworthy than others. But Rijo is quick to say, "I don't trust any of them."
Still, less than an hour after speaking of his distaste, Rijo sat at a table and dined on rice and beans with Vizcaino. The agent said he received 20 percent of Gonzalez's signing bonus -- or $280,000 -- a typical percentage for the services he provided, letting Gonzalez stay in his house and offering him better nutrition and training over a two- to three-year period.
Vizcaino said there are anywhere between 100 to 150 buscones who operate training camps in the Dominican Republic, each trying to seize the most talented players and negotiate the most lucrative contracts. The fight for players is fierce and, sometimes, shady. Buscones have been known to juice players on steroids in the weeks before a tryout, adding miles per hour to their fastballs or distance to their home runs.
"And then after you sign them, a guy who was throwing 93 [mph] at a workout is down to 83," Rijo said, "and you're like, 'What the hell?' "
Vizcaino and other buscones play down the underbelly of their profession, but they admit there are rivalries among them. Given the amount of money at stake -- scores of kids are signed each year to lesser bonuses, beginning in the tens of thousands of dollars -- and a Dominican economy in which citizens earn an average of roughly $2,400 annually, the pursuit of players is a booming business. "There's a lot of competition," Vizcaino said, "but there's not a lot of fighting."
MLB is aware of the pitfalls involved in the system. The league, though, says it is helpless to do anything directly about it.
"We do have a concern," MLB's Peralta said. "But I have to be honest with you, and I want to state for the record: Buscones, or independent scouts, are a very important part of the industry. They help fill a gap, because there's not a lot of organized baseball in the Dominican Republic. They provide a service.
"But the sad situation becomes when, like in any other big group of people, there are some guys -- and I wouldn't say the majority of them, because there are a lot of hardworking people -- but you will find some bad apples that have abused the players. We have no jurisdiction over them, but still, those incidents are the most publicized."
Peralta said his office is working with the Dominican government to help establish regulations that MLB couldn't enforce itself, including setting standard percentages buscones can receive from a signing bonus -- 10 percent if they worked with a kid for a year or less, 15 percent if it's a year or more. Though President Leonel Fernandez signed the legislation, Peralta said it had some "points of conflict" with the Dominican Olympic committee and other politicians, and it is not yet law.
"Basically," Peralta said, "it's out of our hands."
If the system bothers Gonzalez and his family, they don't show it. Sitting in plastic chairs on the dirt under a tree outside their tin home, set aside a more proper house belonging to Gonzalez's grandmother, they pass around a sugar cane stalk whittled with a dull machete, chewing on the sweet pulp and discussing their lives. Inside a "living room" that can't be more than eight feet long and six feet wide, Gonzalez fiddles with his Soundmaster III three-disc changer stereo, another new addition, and talks about training roosters "to fight, and when they lose, to eat," he said.
Gonzalez's father, Daniel, has the same soft features as his son, the same easy manner. He understands that $1.4 million will alter his family's life -- providing for the rebuilding of the new home, the Escalade, the hope. Yet he argues that his son, now with expectations and money he didn't have just six months ago, hasn't changed.
"Mentally," Daniel Gonzalez said through an interpreter, "it's like the same."
That, Rijo said, is why he believes Esmailyn Gonzalez will make it. During a morning workout, Gonzalez showed a slick glove and a bat that produced far more line drives than popups. Brown, Washington's scouting director who saw Gonzalez before the Nationals beat out the Texas Rangers to sign him in July, said he was immediately drawn to Gonzalez's disciplined approach at the plate, his ability as a switch hitter, his defensive skills and his long-term potential to hit for power.
Rijo, though, is most impressed with another tool: his head. After he signed for his riches, Gonzalez asked Rijo how to spend his money, and the former pitcher said he had to buy a house before a car, "because no matter how many cars you have, if you don't have a good garage, you'll regret it." So the building on the Gonzalezes' new place began before the Escalade was purchased.
"That's why I'm so high on him: his attitude," Rijo said. "It's not the tools. It's how he handles himself. He's not a typical Dominican kid."
The typical Dominican kid won't travel to Florida for spring training or spend his summer in the minor leagues, as Gonzalez is scheduled to do. The typical Dominican kid, Rijo said, doesn't talk as much about his family.
Outside his new, unfinished house, Gonzalez was offered a chance to join Rijo at his seaside home for lunch of fish stew and plantains. Gonzalez, though, politely declined, preferring to return to his family's shack. With that, he hopped in his Escalade, turned up the stereo and headed off, certain a better life -- and the major leagues in Washington -- lay somewhere beyond the rocky road beneath his tires.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.