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Washington Nationals haven't completely gotten 'Smiley' out of their system

Two years after the fallout from the Esmailyn 'Smiley' Gonzalez scandal, The Post's Adam Kilgore reports on the Washington Nationals improved scouting operations and training facility in the Dominican Republic. (Feb. 9)

And Rijo has a problem with the Nationals. He claims the Nationals never gave him a valid reason for his dismissal. He says it wasn't his job to parse Alvarez's identity - Alvarez passed four separate Major League Baseball investigations regarding his identity, Rijo said. He says Kasten used the fraud as an excuse to force out then-general manager Jim Bowden. He dismissed allegations that he was skimming from Alvarez's $1.4 million signing bonus by saying he never received any money, that he did not even know Alvarez before the Nationals signed him.

"Nobody ever said that I took money from him or that I changed his [expletive] age," Rijo said. "Nobody can ever do that, because it never happened. It never happened. I don't even know that kid.

"My name is clear. People who [expletive] know Rijo in this country, they know what these [expletive] people do. Believe me, they know. They know."

The dolphin still smiles

In his defense, Rijo offers varying, sometimes contradictory accounts. At one point, he said the investigation began because of a feud between former Nationals manager Manny Acta, a Dominican native, and Jose Baez, a lifelong friend of Rijo's who lost his job as Dominican coordinator for the Nationals and remains legally attached to the case. Later, Rijo said the woman who posed as Alvarez's mother sparked the investigation - which he said was rife with bribes and "crooks" - because she never received the visa and the share of the money she was promised.

Rijo most strongly rejected any notion that he knew Alvarez's real identity, and to argue his side he drove a reporter to Bani, to meet a man called Chiquillada. His real name is Oriter Soto Peguero, and he claims he was the only person outside Alvarez's family who knew of the fraud. He knows, he said, because he was Esmailyn Gonzalez's first buscon, the name here for a hybrid of street agent and coach to budding baseball players.

Chiquillada's identity and his purported role with Alvarez could not be independently verified.

Chiquillada sat on a white, plastic chair in the street and told his story. He met Alvarez in 2004, when Alvarez's cousin brought the shortstop to him. They were from Bani, like Chiquillada, and they knew his history as a successful buscon. At the outset, Chiquillada demanded to know the player's real age.

"I'm the one training the guys," Chiquillada said. "I had to know."

Alvarez's cousin explained the fake: They switched his birth certificate with Alvarez's little-known, handicapped cousin. They paid the principal at his school to tell no one. Family members knew and Chiquillada knew, he said, but no one else.

In 2004, Chiquillada said, he arranged a deal with the Yankees that would have paid Alvarez a $250,000 bonus. The Yankees were set to sign him until a lead international scout nixed the deal.

(One Yankees source confirmed the interest, producing a scouting report from 2004 with Gonzalez's birth year listed as 1989, the same fake birthday with which he fooled the Nationals. The source said the Yankees would have signed Gonzalez under the belief he was born in 1989, had the lead international scout approved.)

Once the Yankees deal fell apart, Chiquillada believed he could get Alvarez a better deal under the watch of another buscon, Basilio Vizcaino. He did not share the fraud with Vizcaino, he said. After Alvarez developed and improved his skill, Vizcaino - a longtime friend of Baez - was able to get the $1.4 million in 2006 from the Nationals.

Rijo and Baez never knew of the fraud, Chiquillada said. "I swear to God on my children they [didn't] know nothing," he said, pointing to the son sitting in his lap.

With that, Rijo climbed back into his Suburban and drove back to San Cristobal, to the cigar bar he owns. He walked inside and shook hands with almost everyone in the place.

Rijo sat at a table and sipped a bottle of Presidente, so cold it had to be wrapped in a napkin, the way he likes it. Wisps of gray smoke encircled his head. He thought about the role of baseball in his country.

"I compare the Dominican people to a dolphin," Rijo said. "He's got water up to here" - Rijo paused to slide his right hand and the fat, chocolate-brown cigar in his fingers across his neck - "And he's still smiling."

Outside, his truck was double-parked. His back still ached. He leaned forward with his elbows on the table. And he smiled.

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