By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 25 -- The Washington Nationals have made the decision to fire José Rijo, the member of their front office most closely linked to the Esmailyn González fraud, a source with knowledge of the situation said Wednesday.
Rijo owns and operates a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, which the Nationals have used as their scouting base in Latin America.
Rijo, who has worked for the team since 2005 as a special assistant to General Manager Jim Bowden, had taken a forced leave of absence from his job this weekend and returned to the Dominican Republic. Now, that leave has become permanent.
By cutting ties with Rijo, the Nationals have also cut ties with Rijo's academy -- the place where the organization and their now-infamous prospect intersected. According to one source, one member of Washington's front office, vice president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo, is in the Dominican Republic seeking information about a new facility.
Rijo, reached Wednesday night, was not yet aware of the firing.
Asked if he'd heard anything, Rijo responded, "No, nothing."
A Nationals public relations official said the team would not have any announcement forthcoming Wednesday night. President Stan Kasten did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Rijo's departure comes in the wake of last week's revelation, confirmed by Major League Baseball, that Washington's top Dominican prospect had signed with the team under a false name and age. Rijo has denied any involvement in the fraud, in which a 20-year-old shortstop named Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo claimed he was a 16-year-old named Esmailyn "Smiley" González. In July 2006, the Nationals -- with Rijo's recommendation -- signed Gonzalez, believed to be 16, to a $1.4 million signing bonus.
Rijo knew González for two years before the signing, and helped link his team -- including Bowden -- with his childhood friend, Basilio Vizcaino, with whom the Nationals negotiated during the signing.
Though Rijo is the first Washington employee to lose his job as a result of the scandal, the FBI investigation into Latin American scouting has landed others, Bowden included, in hot water. Last summer, the FBI began looking into both Bowden and Rijo as a part of the probe. Both have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Washington's arrangement with Rijo was unorthodox. Most major league teams own their facilities in the Dominican. The Nationals rented theirs, thus supplying Rijo with a supplement to his regular salary.
Rijo's complex, located in the hills outside San Cristobal, was supposed to become the epicenter of Washington's new focus on international scouting. The González signing, which coincided with the team receiving a new ownership group, was designed as a bold entrance point into the high-stakes game of Latin American prospect-signing. But since then, the Nationals have kept a low profile in the Dominican Republic.
Since leaving the team this weekend, Rijo has been back home in San Cristobal. In an interview earlier this week, Rijo explained that his original leave of absence -- described at the time as a mutual decision -- was in fact forced by the team. "They say I take a leave of absence," Rijo said. "I didn't take it. They gave it to me."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from the Dominican Republic.