'It Was Time to . . . Cut That Cord'
Friday, February 27, 2009
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic, Feb. 26 -- The Washington Nationals on Thursday abandoned the training facility they once boasted of here and officially fired José Rijo, the former face of their efforts in the Dominican Republic, all part of the fallout that two sources said results from the signing of a player the team later learned had forged both his age and his name.
Though Nationals President Stan Kasten said at the team's spring training complex in Viera, Fla., that the club's Dominican prospects will move into a different facility on Monday, Thursday's events left significant questions about the direction of the franchise's efforts in this talent-rich country. There are almost as many questions about General Manager Jim Bowden, whose future Kasten did not address directly and whose relationship with Rijo goes back nearly two decades, when the pair forged an unlikely bond, a young general manager from New England pairing with a flamboyant former World Series MVP.
Now, that relationship could end two careers in Washington. Rijo was one of Bowden's first hires when he took the job of general manager in November 2004, when the Nationals were still owned by Major League Baseball. Nearly two years later, it was Bowden who took Rijo's recommendation to sign a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn González for a bonus of $1.4 million, more than the franchise had ever doled out. That player, it turned out, was actually a 20-year-old named Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo who had lied about both his name and his age; it is still unclear who pulled off the scam and who received the bulk of the bonus money. MLB is investigating the matter; Bowden and Rijo were also questioned by the FBI last year.
"I'm disappointed," Rijo said after emerging from a meeting at his complex with Washington assistant general manager Mike Rizzo. "Not for me, but for the people who are losing their jobs. They shouldn't be in this position. They have nothing to do with this."
Kasten, who in 2006 joined Bowden in trumpeting the signing of Alvarez as a strong pronouncement of the team's intentions in the Dominican, said Thursday only that he supported "everyone who works for the Nationals." He would not say whether the dismissal of Rijo -- as well as all but two members of the coaching and training staff at Rijo's complex here -- would be the last in the wake of this scandal.
Asked whether he had become convinced that Rijo was guilty of wrongdoing in the signing of Alvarez, Kasten said, "That's not a subject I'm going to touch," before adding, "I did become convinced with what I had learned that it was time for us to finally go ahead and cut that cord."
Whether Bowden will be next remains unclear. Two sources said Rijo's dismissal was directly related to the signing of Alvarez. "It had everything to do with that kid," one said.
The strength of Bowden's personal and professional relationship with Rijo is indisputable. Though Rizzo traveled here to scout out the team's temporary home in the beach town of Boca Chica and to officially assemble a new staff -- one which will be headed by Fernando Ravelo, who is currently the general manager of the powerful Tigres del Licey franchise in the Dominican Winter League -- it was Bowden who called Rijo and delivered the news of his termination Thursday morning.
"That had to be excruciating for Jim," said one baseball source who knows both men well. "They're just making [Bowden] endure as much pain as possible."
The bond between Rijo and Bowden took root in Cincinnati in the early 1990s. Bowden, as baseball's youngest general manager, shaped the Reds' roster. Rijo, a World Series MVP in 1990, determined the team's mood. They shared a relationship that Doc Rodgers, later Cincinnati's assistant general manager, called "maybe the closest general manager-player relationship I've ever seen."
Rijo mentored the team's young pitchers at Bowden's suggestion, called the team meetings and hosted the spring training barbecues. As Bowden developed a reputation as the industry's most manic worker, Rijo developed a reputation for his desire.
"I think they're very much the same type of personality," said Barry Larkin, a shortstop in Cincinnati who later joined the Washington front office. "They're very driven, very determined. Both have a lot of charisma, a lot of personality. They're very much two of the same. As much as Jim was a workaholic, José was a workaholic, too. He was always the pitcher the best in shape. He was always the benchmark for the others on the staff. He was a leader in the clubhouse. I believe the attraction between the two was very much because of their similarities."