This article incorrectly said that Atahualpa Severino was the only player the Nationals have signed out of Latin America since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. The Nationals also signed Cuban pitcher Yunesky Maya, in 2010.
Two years later, Washington Nationals moving past Esmailyn 'Smiley' Gonzalez scandal in Dominican Republic
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
In January 2010, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo drove along Avenida Caracol, over potholes and past a strip of bodegas, until the road turned to dirt. The relentless whir of motorbikes yielded to a wall of vegetation on both sides. He passed ditches where garbage often burns, where goats and cattle share the road with passing cars.
At the end of road sat Complex De Las Americas. He wanted to see, firsthand, if it could become the team's home in the country. Rizzo was given a tour of the complex by Johnny DiPuglia, the man Rizzo had chosen to reestablish the Nationals' Dominican presence. Rizzo walked the two fields and saw the dorm rooms, the empty weight room, the small offices, the cafeteria and kitchen. He was convinced.
"This," Rizzo said aloud, "is the one."
Less than a year earlier, in late February 2009, scandal had forced Rizzo to the Dominican Republic. He shuttered the Nationals' facility and tore the organization's presence in the country down to the studs after it was discovered that prized shortstop prospect Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez was really Carlos Alvarez. And that he was really 20 years old and not 16 when he signed a $1.4 million contract in 2006. The fallout decimated the Nationals' Latin American effort and cost former general manager Jim Bowden and a top adviser their jobs.
Slowly, the Nationals have stabilized the chaos from the Smiley fiasco. They have moved into a permanent home at Complex De Las Americas. They hired an almost entirely new staff. While legal loose ends remain and the Nationals are still catching up to other teams in acquiring players, those charged with running the team's Dominican operations have separated their work from the team's murky past.
Moises De La Mota, the team's Latin American scouting coordinator, is the only member of the Nationals' Latin American staff who has been with the team since before the scandal broke. When Rizzo and current director of minor league operations Mark Scialabba made their emergency visit in 2009, De La Mota drove them around.
"It happened so quickly," De La Mota said of the scandal's aftermath. "Bang, bang, boom, and you're like, 'What the [expletive] happened?' It wasn't pretty. But no one talks about that anymore. I don't see it anymore. There's too much going on for us to worry about that. You start thinking about that stuff, you can't do your job."
Changes for the good
It has been a challenging process. The upheaval first forced the Nationals to evacuate the academy owned by Jose Rijo, an assistant to Bowden who was also fired. They moved their operations to a field owned by Rawlings, the equipment manufacturer, for the 2009 Dominican Summer League.
Rizzo's inspection visit with director of player procurement Kasey McKeon came that winter. The academy was built 13 years ago and has always been shared by two teams. The Colorado Rockies occupied one half, and the Cleveland Indians, with their lease ending, decided to move out. "Thanks to God," De La Mota said. "Because we were all over the place."
They shut down briefly while the Nationals resolved equipment and operational issues and Complex De Las Americas underwent renovation, and spent two months using a field owned by Abel Guerra, an agent and longtime friend of DiPuglia. The Nationals moved for good in May, having reached a three-year rental agreement that has them paying roughly $300,000 per year.
The move instantly changed things for the Nationals. The facilities they used before did not have dorms, a weight room or an English teacher. The instability hurt their pursuit of players. When the Nationals hosted tryouts, buscones - street agents who handle players - would call De La Mota or Nationals Academy coordinator Fausto Severino and ask, "Where you guys at this week?"
"Down here is a lot about word-of-mouth," said Severino, who joined the team last year. "Either the good word or the bad word is going to spread around quickly. When you don't have stability and you don't know where you're going to be next month, it's not good. Now you can see the difference. We're here now."