By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
SANTANA, Dominican Republic, Feb. 25 -- Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo grew up here, where potholes and pavement compete for space just off what amounts to a thoroughfare between the south-central cities of San Cristobal and Bani. He says he also grew up in the even smaller village of Pizarrete, with chickens walking in the dirt outside his one-room concrete house with a tin shack attached on one side. He says he grew up, too, in Bani, where his parents live now, in relative comfort. His real parents.
"That's where my father lives, in Bani," Alvarez said. "But I live everywhere, all three. My family is everywhere."
His story leads just about everywhere around the province of Peravia, of which Bani is the capital. Here, Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo authored a whopper of a tale -- assuming both a fraudulent name, Esmailyn González, and a fraudulent age, 13 when he was actually 17 -- helped by accomplices he is reluctant to identify. The Washington Nationals, whose officials say they were unaware of the scam, gave Alvarez a $1.4 million signing bonus in the summer of 2006 because they believed he was a promising 16-year-old shortstop who would turn 17 that September. Now, Alvarez acknowledges, he was in fact a 20-year-old shortstop, who actually turned 21 that November, and therefore a much less valuable commodity.
"I feel bad, really bad," Alvarez said Tuesday, in his first interview since the scheme became public last week.
Exactly how this all happened is unclear, and Alvarez's version -- parts of which he told here, sitting at a chair affixed to an outdoor table at a ramshackle gas station -- is unlikely to be the final word on the matter. Still, he said Wilton Martínez, whom he introduced as his cousin and who was present for the interview, first thought up the scheme; that "from what I know," Nationals officials did not take any of his money, though that possibility is still being investigated by Major League Baseball; and that he wants forgiveness from whoever will grant it.
"I feel bad because of what I did," Alvarez said through an interpreter. "I want to ask the president to forgive me for what I did." Asked which president, he said, "The one from the major leagues."
Alvarez's story is murky, involving his own impoverished past and the way lives can change with a sum as great as $1.4 million, the largest bonus the Nationals have ever granted a Latin American prospect. It runs through Pizarrete and Santana, two villages separated by several miles of sugar cane fields, where Alvarez says he has homes, and Bani, where his two-story cement house is encased by fences, guarding the parking spaces for his white Cadillac Escalade and red Honda Accord.
The story touches the city of San Cristobal, the home town of former major league pitcher José Rijo, installed by General Manager Jim Bowden as the face of the Nationals' efforts in the Dominican Republic. It is in the hills above San Cristobal, at the Nationals' training facility known as Loma del Sueno -- Mountain of the Dream -- where Alvarez honed his skills after signing with the Nationals. Coaches and players said he has not been at the academy since Feb. 17, when Sports Illustrated first reported his true age and identity.
Martínez described Alvarez as "embarrassed and depressed."
The facility is owned by Rijo, whose involvement in the scouting and securing of the player he said he knew as Esmailyn González is being investigated -- and has cost him his job with the Nationals, who have decided to let Rijo go. Last year, Bowden and Rijo acknowledged speaking with the FBI about the matter as part of a federal probe into baseball's Latin American scouting practices. Bowden, speaking this week to reporters at the team's spring training facility in Viera, Fla., reiterated that he is innocent. Rijo emphatically denied any wrongdoing in an interview in San Cristobal earlier this week.
"I don't care about my job or the money," Rijo said. "It's my reputation. That's what matters. That's what I have to fight for. That's why I have to speak. . . . We were all fooled."
Alvarez's story also runs through Dominican baseball in general, because forging ages has been common here for a generation or more. All-star shortstops Rafael Furcal and Miguel Tejada, the latter of whom is from Bani, are just two of the players who signed professional contracts as teenagers only to have it revealed later that they were two years older than they said at the time.
"I'm not the first that does that," Alvarez said, "or the last."
Indeed, the practice of changing personal information is so common that it is an assumed part of the landscape here. Martínez, a tall, slender man, said he used to hang around the baseball scene in Bani, a hardened town of strip malls and cement houses that has produced players such as Tejada and pitcher Mario Soto. Martínez said he heard of such practices as his baseball-playing relative passed 16, the age when Dominican players first become eligible to sign contracts with major league clubs.
"I was getting to know them, the people in baseball," Martínez said. "I found out that you could change the papers. I heard that this had happened with other players."
Neither Martínez nor Alvarez would identify anyone else who was involved in securing the new papers. "I maybe will talk later," Alvarez said. Asked about who received his bonus, he said, "My family." Asked whether Rijo or Jose Baez, the manager of the Nationals' training facility, had profited in any way from his signing bonus, Alvarez said, "From what I know, no."
His American agent, Stanley King, said this week that he and Alvarez would be able to answer more specific questions when the investigation into his case had concluded.
"I don't want to say too much," Alvarez said.
Alvarez and Martínez said at least a large portion of the blame lies with them. The real Esmailyn González, they said, is a member of their extended family, and Alvarez simply took González's birth certificate and assumed his identity. Asked if it was difficult to make the change -- instantly turning his cousin from a past-his-prime prospect into an up-and-comer -- Martínez said: "It was a little bit hard, but the hard part was telling everybody: 'No, this is his name. Call him this.' "
Now, the townspeople in Pizarrete and Santana know him by that name. He is Esmailyn González, they say, over and over again. Ask around, and it's easy to find that Esmailyn González and his family live at the end of a small side street off another small side street in Pizarrete. Their home looks much as it did two years ago, just after González signed, with no noticeable improvements. A woman there who identified herself as Wendy González, Esmailyn's aunt, cleaned bowls in an outdoor sink as her two young sons rode horseback and played in the dirt. Two men sharpened their machetes.
"That is his real name," one of the men, who described himself as a relative, said in Spanish. "Esmailyn González."
The men said Esmailyn's father, Daniel, was working in the field behind the house, and they went to fetch him. He never came. Three days later, Carlos Alvarez said that Daniel González is, in fact, another relative, though he did not say how he was related.
"That's not my father," Alvarez said. "But he's like my father, because I lived with him so long."
That would have been in Pizarrete, but because Pizarrete had no baseball fields, the young man known as Esmailyn González played ball in both Bani and at Santana's Liga Deportiva Nuevo Futuro -- New Future Sports League. In 2006, he said he bought a house in the small municipality of Santana, right down the street from the field on which he practiced, a home now painted lime green, where people from the house in Pizarrete drift in and out. One afternoon last weekend, kids played a pickup game of baseball there. Just beyond the fence, neighbors spoke of the boy whose signing with the Nationals caused a celebration on the rocky streets of Santana and Pizarrete.
"Esmailyn has always been an outgoing personality," said Rosa Herminia Martínez, who described herself as a vice president of Santana, through an interpreter. "He's very active. He's sincere and a good boy. He has never had any problems with the police."
Rosa Martínez lives just behind the two baseball fields in Santana, and she described knowing Esmailyn González since he was small, lowering her hand to her waist to indicate his height. Asked if it surprised her that González is in fact not 19 but 23, she shrugged. "I don't know so much about him," Martínez said, "because I am not his mother."
Indeed, the towns of Pizarrete and Santana have largely closed ranks around the man residents refer to only as González. They have heard about the scandal, either by word of mouth or in newspapers or on television, but that is the only way they acknowledge it. They say they do not know a baseball player named Carlos Alvarez -- and if there is scorn for Alvarez because of what has happened, it is not apparent.
Antonio Pérez, a Santana native and infielder with three major league teams who was in spring training with the Nationals last year, dismissed the idea that there was a problem going forward.
"It doesn't matter, four years," Pérez said as he sat in his car only a few doors down from Alvarez's Santana home. "He's still a good player, and a good player is good no matter if he's 20 years [old] or 30 years [old]. It doesn't matter."
But a 20-year-old Latin American prospect does not command a bonus of $1.4 million. Such rewards go to younger kids whose skills appear developed beyond their years and, with further refinement, could set them apart. Regardless of who else was involved, Wilton Martínez, the cousin, seemed to understand that dynamic, and he passed that information on to a young Alvarez and other family members, all of whom stood a chance of receiving a life-altering profit.
"I wanted to show everybody that I was good at playing baseball," Alvarez said, "and that I could be a success."