By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009
BANI, Dominican Republic Before Ivan Brea sat down on a cement slab here one morning last week, the parade of kids carrying buckets back and forth from a well marched non-stop for an hour, because you can't play baseball on a field made of dust unless the dust has settled. It was that way on this patch of dirt when Miguel Tejada played on it years ago, and it is that way now, when Brea's son, Ivan Jr., takes batting practice, ripping liners to all fields as his father watches from the stands.
Ivan Brea Jr. is 20 years old, a catcher who signed last year with the Seattle Mariners. "That is his age," said his father. "I would not lie about that. As a father, I always taught him: If you do something like that, it's going to come and get you."
Here, though, it frequently does not. On the outside of Cruz Maria Herera Stadium, where Brea's son works out, hangs a small poster bearing Tejada's picture, urging the people of the province of Peravia to attend a celebration in the shortstop's honor, because he is one of the heroes of a country addicted to baseball. It is barely mentioned that before he left this country, Tejada lied about his age -- by two years -- so that he would be more attractive to major league scouts. By the time his transgression was exposed last year, he had played 11 full seasons in the majors, won the 2002 American League MVP award and earned upwards of $50 million. The reaction here? No big deal.
"I don't feel that bad about it," Brea said, sitting in Tejada's home town. "We are all Dominican. We all know where we come from. We got to do what we got to do."
And so they do, even as Major League Baseball has promised to crack down on the problem, even as more and more money pours into the Dominican Republic from MLB. The cases of Tejada and of Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, the shortstop who signed for a $1.4 million bonus with the Washington Nationals using both a fake age and identity, are rote here. The people of Bani don't mind. "They haven't even proven that yet," 29-year-old Javier Carsala, one of the men training a group of teenagers last week, said of Tejada.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of baseball's latest scandal in the Dominican Republic -- one that involves accusations that Nationals officials took part of the bonus granted to Alvarez -- is that here, it is largely viewed as unremarkable. The case, which led to the firing of Nationals front-office member José Rijo and the resignation of General Manager Jim Bowden, received news coverage throughout this country of 9.5 million people. Much of that stemmed from the fact that Rijo, the MVP of the 1990 World Series, is still something of a national icon.
But even in the wake of the scandal, there is acknowledgement that Alvarez won't be the last player to try such a scheme. The system in place -- one that frequently involves impoverished players and their families, street agents who thrive off the player trade, and major league clubs who can't afford to turn away from such a rich talent base -- all but encourages players to get their money however they can.
When MLB opened an office in the Dominican Republic in 2000 and began seriously looking into document fraud three years later, the street agents who scout talent -- "buscones," they are called, Spanish for "finders" -- went further. Instead of doctoring existing documents, as they had in the past, they turned to the kind of identity theft Alvarez allegedly pulled off. In an interview last month, Alvarez said he simply took the papers of a younger relative, Esmailyn González, and presented them as his own. It was not, MLB officials said, an isolated case.
"The buscones became smarter," said Lou Melendez, MLB's director of international operations, "and the schemes became more complex."
The result is a complex problem that begins at the lowest levels of Dominican baseball and works its way to the top, where major league clubs pay millions of dollars for commodities that may, in fact, be unknown. The situation has turned baseball's office in Santo Domingo from a goodwill outfit to a de facto investigative unit. Six full-time, independent contractors investigate, at clubs' requests, the ages and identities of Dominican players, Melendez said. MLB plans to add two more and would like to install an investigator with a law enforcement background to oversee the operation, which Melendez said reviews between 400 and 500 cases a year.
"You're still not going to catch everybody because some of the frauds are so well-conceived and sophisticated," Melendez said. "But it'll help act as a deterrent, and it'll put more people in the field -- people who know law enforcement and know how to do this."
Still, there are doubters. The system, they say, is too ingrained.
"It will never go away completely," said Rijo, who is still under investigation for his possible role in taking portions of players' bonuses. "How can it? What can you do?"Disdain for Buscones
On a recent Sunday morning, two hodgepodge teams from the Liga Hector Delgado played under a cloudless sky near a university in the city of San Cristobal, roughly half an hour's drive west of the capital. The kids kept track of their own lineups. An umpire called balls and strikes from the side of the pitcher's mound. And the mismatched uniforms featured nearly every major league cap, Yankees and Angels and Dodgers and Braves.
Here, just like at other fields in other towns across the country, the buscones come. They sit on the side of the hill, away from the field, over by the rickety wooden concession table that offers bags of water and fly-ridden cold cuts.
"They watch," said Delgado, the founder of the league. "And then they talk to the kids. We can do nothing."
Delgado and the league's president, a local lawyer and government worker named Jose Garro, have little regard for the buscones and the system in which they work, even as some of the players they have mentored -- namely, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ervin Santana -- have benefited from it. They describe the buscones with disdain and lament the idea that while nearly everyone else -- the player's American agent, if there is one; the buscon; and the player's family -- receive a cut of the bonus, they are left with nothing.
"We are working in the interest of the player," Garro said. "The buscon comes and sits down and watches. Later, he talks to the player. 'Come with me. I'm going to give you very good sneakers. I'm going to give you information.' He makes many promises, and the boys go with him. We have put in all this time, and we get nothing."
Yet when Garro and Delgado hear the names of several well-known buscones from San Cristobal -- including that of Basilio Vizcaino, the San Cristobal-based buscon who steered Alvarez to the Nationals -- they pull out their cellphones and come up with their contact information, calling some of them "friends."
"It's not like what they say," said Marcial Brazoban, a prominent San Cristobal buscon. "It is not only for the money. The kid's not going to work if we don't train him."
The buscones consider themselves an integral part of the process. A few days after Garro and Delgado held their Sunday morning game for a few dozen of San Cristobal's young players, Brazoban sat behind a protective net that was directly behind home plate at the city's dilapidated municipal stadium. Two scouts, one from the Kansas City Royals, the other from the New York Mets, sat next to him, radar guns in hand. And on the mound, for a time, was a lean-as-a-pole, 15-year-old right-hander named Jose Guzman Saranta, "one of the best players available this year," Brazoban said.
Saranta turns 16 later this year, he and Brazoban said, and that makes him eligible to sign with a major league club in July. He throws between 89 and 91 mph now, Brazoban said, and if that's the case, it's not hard to imagine him reaching the mid-90s when he matures. Such a prospect is exactly the kind who could land a bonus in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more.
"I don't think about the money," Saranta said. "I have to keep pushing ahead. I have to think about the future."
That, Brazoban said, is where he and buscones like him come in. Brazoban thinks of himself not as a talent broker, but as a trainer. He provides the poor kids in his tutelage with housing, nutrition, and instruction on the ballfield.
"The parents of two or three of my kids, they don't have anything to do with them," Brazoban said. "I buy them protein. I make them practice. I do everything for them."
Brazoban has signed many of San Cristobal's better players, including former Nationals and current Kansas City outfielder José Guillén as well as Santana, the Angels pitcher. He said he takes between 25 and 30 percent of a player's signing bonus, and admits: "I live good." But he said the money he makes goes back into his program so that he can invest in the next generation of players. Garro, for one, doesn't see the benefit.
"The programs here, they are like a jail," Garro said. "They don't allow you to study. That's why we are left with a system that doesn't help the player. If he is an athlete, he is only an athlete. They have no other things to do. I don't trust [the buscones]. I don't trust any of them."
Brazoban is both unapologetic for what he sees as his role in developing players and defensive of his own ethics. "I help them," he said. Yet none of the men -- Brazoban, Garro and Delgado, all involved in baseball for much of their adult lives -- was at all surprised to hear the story of Alvarez, who changed his name and age. "That's not just that thing that happened," Brazoban said. "It's been happening for a long, long time."
After his game, Brazoban ran his players through sprints from home plate to first base. "Pronto! Pronto!" he yelled, his blue Yankees hat perched on his head. He will be back again the next day, the next month, the next year. A shortstop he has, Claudio Baez, will be one of the top Dominicans available in 2010. He is sure of it.
"Not everyone has the knowledge," Brazoban said. "Not everyone has the eye."
With that, he packed up his equipment, and he, Saranta and Baez hopped in Brazoban's black Toyota 4Runner, heading back to Brazoban's home for a late lunch.Money Matters
Workouts were over late one afternoon last month at the Chicago Cubs' Dominican facility in the beachside town of Boca Chica, east of Santo Domingo. Jose Serra, the team's manager of Latin American operations, sat in his office downstairs from the dorm rooms that housed his players -- four bunk beds crammed in each room -- working on his computer. Nearly 30 players crowded into a common area above, plopped on couches or the floor, and listened.
"The future starts today," said Marcus Rosa, standing in front of the players, in plain English. "You start working today. You want it? You work for it."
This is how the Nationals -- and MLB in general -- envision a Dominican baseball academy working. Serra oversees a facility that is part of a six-franchise baseball city, joining Arizona, Baltimore, Cincinnati, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota in one seemingly endless stretch of diamonds. The team works out in the morning, offers individual instruction in the evening and plays games against other franchises whose facilities are either adjacent or nearby. And in between, they learn something about what faces them when they travel to the United States.
"They are in for a very dramatic culture shock," Rosa said, "in every aspect."
Rosa is a professor of languages at a university in Santo Domingo, and he has been working with Dominican baseball prospects dating from the mid-90s, when Tejada was one of his pupils. He directs English classes at the Cubs' facility four times a week, and his students sat rapt by his words prior to dinner.
The discussion, when it turned to money, became spirited. Rosa divides young Dominican players into two categories: Before Bonus and After Bonus. The former, he said, is a motivated group, because they know what one check for $10,000 or $20,000 or, for the lucky ones, $100,000 can do for their family, and they are "humble, dedicated, focused on baseball." The latter, he said, can simply cash it in.
"They get the money, the girls, the cellphones, the SUVs," Rosa said. "It affects their focus on the baseball field."
Players at the Cubs' academy were quite familiar with Alvarez's case, yet unfazed by it. "That's very common here," said Jadel Mendez, a 20-year-old pitcher who said he signed for a $15,000 bonus. They had also heard stories of buscones or others taking money from players, money to which they were not entitled. Just beyond the Cubs' facility is that of the White Sox, whose former director of player personnel, David Wilder, was fired last year for his role in such a scheme, the first move that intensified the focus on the practice in the Dominican.
"It's scary, because you've got all this family and friends that are dependent on the future of that money," said Cabrera, the pitcher who signed for $60,000, "and then this guy comes out of nowhere."
Beginning last June, Melendez said, all bonuses paid to Dominican players are wired directly through a prominent Dominican bank into the player's account, and MLB provides a tutoring session for the players on how to access and protect their money. Clubs are no longer allowed to send the money to an intermediary.
League officials are hopeful that system hinders the practice of "skimming" bonuses. But even as they make improvements, they chase new problems. As recently as 2001, Melendez said, scouts transferred information from a player's birth certificate to a yellow card, which was then approved by the Civil State Office; that's all that was necessary for proof of a player's age and identity. Buscones were so brazen that white-out was sometimes visible on altered documents. Now, because the club must also present both parents' national identification cards as well as two pictures of the player and all relevant addresses and phone numbers, there are more documents that need doctoring.
"The buscones just said, 'If they're going to find documents, and the documents are bad, let's just have the players take somebody else's identity,' " Melendez said.
That is precisely what Alvarez did. Back at the field in Bani, not far from one of Alvarez's homes, Ivan Brea watched his son work out. The Mariners gave Brea Jr. $45,000 last year, and he is scheduled to leave later this month for his first spring training.
Ivan Brea Sr. said his family kept almost all of the money -- "more than 1 million pesos" -- in the bank. But 35 percent went to the buscon who worked with his son for five years, a man named Enrique Soto. Brea Sr. said that did not bother him one bit.
"I trust him," Brea Sr. said. "I trust him completely. He gave my son a chance. For that, I am grateful."