By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 18 -- In the spring of 2006, when Stan Kasten took the job as Washington Nationals president, he inherited a problem. His new team, after years of anemic scouting resources, had exactly zero prospects from the Dominican Republic. Team general manager Jim Bowden had a good idea about how to change that, and how to make a splash all the while. The Nationals, Bowden told Kasten, should sign a 16-year-old named Esmailyn González.
On July 2, 2006, González became the team's most touted teenager. The Nationals issued a press release announcing González's signing bonus -- $1.4 million -- double the amount any other major league team was willing to pay him. The Nationals hosted a news conference. The shortstop had a nickname, "Smiley," and his future was rich with promise.
The career of Smiley González, as it turned out, created a problem far greater than the one his signing attempted to solve. As Kasten acknowledged Wednesday, González falsified both his identity and his age, all part of what Kasten called a "deliberate, premeditated fraud." The player's true identity: Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. His true, current age: 23, or four years older than the Nationals believed. The conspiracy not only registers as Washington's latest baseball embarrassment, but also raises internal concern about who was duped, and who knew all along.
"No teenager executed this fraud," Kasten said. "There were a number of people involved in it. I can assure you, this is going to have serious repercussions."
The revelation about González's true identity diminishes the prospect's value and even threatens his career. It also intensifies the scrutiny on how, exactly, baseball teams -- especially the Nationals -- obtain their international players.
Since last year, the FBI has been investigating baseball scouting practices in Latin America, where an unregulated network of middlemen, or street agents, create the potential for false IDs, money-skimming and kickbacks. Kasten acknowledged Wednesday a link between the González signing and the probe, though he was unwilling to say whether Nationals employees would be held culpable. Already, several big league teams, including the Chicago White Sox, have fired employees involved in the scheming. FBI investigators last summer interviewed Washington employees, including Bowden, who has denied any wrongdoing.
To sign González, the Nationals depended on another team employee, José Rijo, the link between their scouting department and the Dominican streets. Since January 2005, Rijo has served as a special assistant in the Washington front office, operating the team's player development facility in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic.
Rijo fostered a relationship with González for at least two years before the signing. To get close with González, though, he dealt with González's buscone, a street agent named Basilio Vizcaino, who just so happened to be Rijo's childhood friend. During periods before he turned pro, González even stayed with Vizcaino, hoping to improve his living conditions and his profile as a prospect. There was never a question about how González should repay his debt: Once he earned a signing bonus, Vizcaino would keep 20 percent.
The operations between club employee, street agent and player existed then, as they do now, with almost no supervision. And Washington entered this market -- the "wild, wild West," Kasten called it -- hoping to be both cautious and aggressive.
The team, which had arrived in Washington from Montreal the previous season, decided to make Smiley its first target.
"Jim came to me and said his staff had seen this kid, they thought he was special, they thought he would command a premier bonus, and what was our appetite for that," Kasten said Wednesday. "And obviously none of us had ever seen the kid or heard of the kid. But he described him, the staff described him, and we said: 'Yeah, we want to be aggressive. We'd back you on something like that if that's what everyone feels like.' "
At the time of the signing, Rijo sought no documentation, Rijo said Wednesday. He knew the shady world of Latin baseball scouting well enough to know that documents were often falsified anyway. Even several high-profile players, including Miguel Tejada and Rafael Furcal, signed with paperwork that misrepresented their ages.
"You see a document, but you're going to see a, you know, a real or fake one either way," Rijo said.
The Nationals submitted González's paperwork to the one place that mattered: the Major League Baseball office that verifies all player names and ages. No red flags came up.
When negotiating with González about contract terms, though, Washington followed an unconventional path. Other teams interested in the shortstop dealt with the player's then-agent, Rob Plummer. Only Washington insisted on dealing with Vizcaino.
"I talked to all the other teams," said Plummer, who had met his client just twice. "But because of [Vizcaino's] relationship with Rijo, they wanted to go through him."
González was signed on July 2, 2006, with a bonus that doubled the offer of the next highest bidder, the Texas Rangers. By the start of the next season, he was playing for Washington's affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, a rookie ball level composed largely of teenagers. Indeed, several of González's teammates, interviewed Wednesday, spoke of a quiet suspicion many shared about the player's age. His face looked young, but he had a developed body.
"You can tell a teenager from an adult," said one teammate, who asked that his name not be used because he is still in the Nationals organization. "The way that he carried himself and stuff like that -- teenagers didn't do that. At 19, he was kind of bald in the front. I was suspicious. And I would ask him, too. He'd tell me he was 19, and I would say, 'C'mon, bro, stop lying.' "
Kasten, even months after the signing, said he had his own suspicions -- though he did not specify about why they arose. "I heard rumors that circulate around baseball that there were some irregularities related to this Esmailyn González signing, whether it was the amount of money [he received] or where the money wound up going or whatnot. I kept hearing this," he said.
So Kasten went back to the Major League Baseball offices and asked, again, for investigators to examine the González case. For the second time, they found nothing.
Meantime, González flourished. In 2008, his second professional season, he played 51 games and hit .343, winning the Gulf Coast League batting title. Success only fueled the rumors, though, and Kasten's concern about the player's age and identity lingered. Somewhere within the last six months, Kasten said, he approached baseball with another request: "At least verify for me that he is who he is," Kasten recalled saying.
Only on Tuesday did Major League Baseball give the official confirmation. SI.com reported late Tuesday that González had falsified his name. The player's real birthday is sometime in November 1985 -- not on Sept. 21, 1989, as Washington previously believed. The four-year scheme to protect González's identity included, according to Kasten, falsified hospital documents, falsified school documents and family members who changed their identities.
Rijo, speaking Wednesday, denied any involvement in the scheme, and said the player he initially fell in love with always had the name Esmailyn González.
Provided he is able to return to the United States -- and Kasten indicated that the shortstop already has a new passport -- the Nationals will receive a prospect with the experience of two professional seasons and one alias. He is due to be in Viera, Fla., by March 13, the reporting date for position players at Washington's minor league spring training. The Nationals might still try to recoup some of the initial signing bonus, but doing so will be an improbable mission. He could face suspension. At minimum, he'll return to the United States a dimmer prospect than when he left.
If the shortstop does arrive in camp next month, he will likely go by the name of Carlos Alvarez, Kasten said.
"I think those are the four names on his passport," Kasten said, looking at a copy of it. "I think those are the two he goes by. In fact, hold on, hold on -- he's got it right here on his passport." Kasten paused to look at a copy of the documentation. "You gotta believe the passport, right?"