By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic -- Jose Rijo pushed on the door, but it did not open. He called out to a worker, asking for the key, but the man never materialized, and Rijo headed back down the stairs from the top floor of his pink hotel, unable to enter the suite that bears his name and old uniform number -- Rijo 27. The other penthouse: Suite Bowden, jokingly named after Rijo's boss, Jim Bowden, the general manager of the Washington Nationals.
Together, Rijo and Bowden, at the direction of Nationals President Stan Kasten, are charged with unlocking the Dominican Republic's seemingly bottomless pool of baseball talent and funneling at least some of it to Washington. But finding a way to slide the right key into the correct hole is an elusive task that has only just begun, and will likely take several more years to pay off.
At the center of the project is the sprawling mountaintop academy that Rijo developed here, one anchored by the pink dormitory-hotel beyond the right field fence of one field. It is dubbed "Loma del Sueno," which roughly translates to "Knoll of the Dream." The academy features seven pristine fields, TVs in the rooms for established players, a fully loaded cafeteria kitchen, two more lower-level dorms, English classes for the patrons -- and the hope that the Nationals' flagging presence in a baseball-rich nation will turn around as quickly as possible.
"Stan told me to get aggressive," Rijo said. "Don't do anything illegal. Do everything by the book. But get aggressive -- and get us players."
There is no other choice. When Kasten came aboard with the ownership group of the Lerner family during the middle of last season, he asked Bowden how many legitimate Dominican prospects the franchise had in the minors. The answer: zero. The franchise that during its time in Montreal discovered and signed Vladimir Guerrero and fostered the development of Pedro Martinez -- two of the best Dominican players in history -- had become a non-entity here because, back in 2002, it was sold to Major League Baseball and was scheduled to be eliminated. Nearly five years later, new owners in a new city are left to prop the franchise back up not only in Washington, but abroad.
"It's essential that we be down there, that people know we're there," Kasten said. "It has become increasingly important for every team. When I came into baseball, the Dominican was largely known still as the birthplace of major league shortstops. But now, every position comes from there, and to not be there would be foolish."
Rijo and Bowden had begun the process of reestablishing a presence before the Lerners purchased the team. Rijo's own endeavors aided that process. Seven years ago, he began his own quest to develop Dominican talent by clearing away the jungle just up the hill from his home town and building a baseball academy that bears his name.
The flamboyant former big league pitcher -- the MVP of the 1990 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds, the franchise for which Bowden served as general manager for 10 1/2 seasons -- Rijo still has cachet in his home country, zipping around in his fire engine-red Mercedes convertible, smoking his self-named brand of cigars, sitting outside the bar he owns in Santo Domingo, the capital. Everyone who passes seems to know him, yelling and waving. Asked if he would have signed with the Nationals had Rijo not been with the team, Frank Cruz, a 17-year-old infielder, replied swiftly and surely: No.
"He came to my father and said they want to sign me," Cruz said. "That was good. That's why I'm here."
On a gloriously sunny Sunday morning last month, Cruz was one of perhaps 50 or 60 kids scurrying about the primary field at Rijo's academy, which currently serves the Nationals, the Detroit Tigers and the San Diego Padres. Rijo said he put "close to $10 million" of his own money into developing the site, and the tenants, Nationals included, pay anywhere from $30,000-$50,000 per month in rent. Twenty years ago, he established the Jose Rijo Foundation, and through that funneled kids into his youth league. Now the foundation sponsors the best of those kids at the academy, where they train with weights and take classes.
"They get better nutrition, better education, better training, better everything here," Rijo said. "It can be a different life for them."
In turn, it could bring different fortunes for the Nationals. Under the intensifying sun, and with Nationals scouting director Dana Brown charting performances on small sheets of paper, dozens of players -- most of them not enrolled at the academy -- ran wind sprints, hit from a batting cage and pitched off a mound. Brown had flown in for the tryout, organized by Rijo, who knows several of the country's prominent buscones, the agents who discover Dominican kids and help sign them to major league teams.
By the time Brown left, he had identified seven or eight prospects he would recommend signing. Within a few days, he had received permission from Bowden to offer contracts to six of them. Ever since the Nationals paid a $1.4 million signing bonus to a teenage shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez last July, they are seen as more legitimate contenders for talent. And by earlier this month, they had signed four of them. In a way, those four signings could be traced back to the blockbuster deal for Gonzalez.
"We have to sign players that are pretty good, [that are] big-time, giving them a lot of money," Brown said. "If we don't, then the buscones will take their players to the Yankees or to the Mets or the other clubs that are spending the money. They know that if they bring a top player to you, and you're not going to be able to afford him, it's like, 'Why bring him?' Now, since the signing of [Gonzalez], we're going to get a lot of buscones bringing their players to us."
But as the Nationals navigate this road, there are plenty of potholes. "This is much harder than people think," Rijo said. Last year, the Nationals wanted to have instructional league teams here, but Rijo's new hotel wasn't ready to house the players, and the club pulled out. Because Brown thought he would see only a dozen or so players at the workout, he scheduled an early-afternoon flight back to the United States. As he was racing to the airport, Rijo was still clamoring for him to look at a few more prospects. And even though the Nationals held a similar tryout and became interested in other players a few weeks earlier, they weren't able to sign the players quickly enough, and they headed to other teams.
The entire organization, though, wants those times to change. The club hired Manny Acta, a personable, outgoing Dominican, as its field manager last month. "He has caused our profile down there to explode," Kasten said, "and that's a good thing for the future."
Acta, too, joined Nationals officials in watching the workout. He had never visited the academy before, but praised Rijo's idea for making it isolated, "because you want to try to keep the kids away from the other distractions," Acta said. "Some academies in the past had the problem when the kid was in the middle of town, finding too many things to derail themselves. Here, it's baseball, and you can get the best out of them, rather than wanting to go to the beach or the club and whatever."
As Brown headed off the field and to the airport after the workout, he said there was "no way" the Nationals would have drawn that kind of crowd to a workout even a year earlier. How many of those similar kids at similar tryouts in the future end up in the Nationals' system, how many end up finding their way to Washington, is a matter to be determined.
"You have to start somewhere," Rijo said. "To see that many players, it's something you got to take advantage of, you know?"