By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008
In 2006, when the Washington Nationals decided to fortify their scouting efforts in the Dominican Republic -- an effort central to their rebuilding plan -- team officials knew of the dangers. Because they also recognized the rewards, they offered support.
At the time, Washington had just hired a new president, Stan Kasten. He had inherited an organization with no top Dominican prospects. He spoke with José Rijo, an assistant general manager who oversees the team's Dominican academy, about how to change that, and why to be careful.
Kasten "made it clear," Rijo said yesterday. "He said, 'I want you to be aggressive, and I want you to stay away from wrongdoing.' Even if it means losing a player."
Calling this a "catalyst moment" for baseball, Kasten yesterday offered a different kind of support -- for an FBI investigation into the baseball's vastly unregulated Dominican Republic scouting practices, an investigation that now involves two Nationals front office members, Rijo and General Manager Jim Bowden.
Kasten declined the chance to reinforce Bowden's assertion that the team has committed no wrongdoing, instead saying "that wouldn't be fair."
"I couldn't be more supportive of the effort to make sure that everybody is living by the rules," Kasten said. "Whatever is found, wherever it is found, across baseball, it's a good thing. We want things found out. We want things on the up and up. That's of the utmost of importance to us."
Bowden spoke recently with FBI investigators as part of a federal effort, supported by Major League Baseball's own investigative group, to examine the skimming of bonus money that should be reserved for Dominican prospects. According to numerous published reports and sources, the investigation will involve all 30 teams. But Bowden is the first general manager to make his involvement public. He added again yesterday that he is guilty of no illegal practices.
Rijo, per request, will meet with investigators when he returns from the Dominican Republic in several weeks.
For years, street agents called "buscones" have brokered deals between prospects and players, often demanding large percentages of the signing bonus money. But this federal probe is looking at a new possibility: that teams, perhaps tempted by ballooning bonus figures, have become complicit in keeping the money from the teenage players.
"I don't know why that would happen," Rijo said. "That's the part I don't understand. But I've got nothing to hide."
With the help of Rijo, the Nationals have made the search for Latin American talent a linchpin of their organizational plan. At the team's academy in San Cristobal, prospects have the use of seven ballfields, dorms and a cafeteria. About 100 players are currently practicing there, Rijo said. Most have been issued bonuses ranging from $8,000 to $200,000. In July 2006, the Nationals signed shortstop Esmailyn González, awarding him with a $1.4 million bonus. Last year, according to Rijo, the team sent 15 players to the United States.
For Rijo, the buscones are an unavoidable, even necessary, part of the player-finding system. But they can be handled without leading teams to illegal signing practices. "They go rescue the kids," Rijo said. "If you don't have the buscones in the Dominican Republic, you have nothing."
"We've done a good job of signing players in the Dominican," said Bowden, who called the team's presence there "extremely important. International talent as well as the draft are the two areas where we get amateur players. You have to have both. So you need to be active down there, and we've been active."
Rich Levin, a Major League Baseball spokesman, declined to comment, citing the investigation. Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman with the FBI's Washington field office, also declined to comment.