Washington Nationals haven't completely gotten 'Smiley' out of their system
Saturday, February 12, 2011
SAN CRISTOBAL, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Jose Rijo limped to the gazebo in his back yard in the middle of the day, wearing open-toed sandals, shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, the look of a man to whom obligation is foreign. He had been lying in bed all day, penance for staying at a party until 4 a.m. the previous night and also for hurting his back a few days before, while dancing on national television.
Rijo, not as long ago as it now seems, was once a top adviser for the Washington Nationals and the face of their Latin American operations. His role vanished when the team placed him at the center of the controversy surrounding the prospect once known as Esmailyn Gonzalez who had lied as about his identity (real name: Carlos Alvarez) and his age (four years older than he said).
He once dedicated his days to helping the Nationals find talent here, in his home country. Now, Rijo is suing the team, he said. He says the Nationals never told him why he had been fired, that they owe him money - both salary and payments for the use of his training complex - and that they defamed him.
The lawsuits are one reminder that, while the Nationals' efforts in the Dominican Republic have moved beyond the controversy with a new staff and a new training complex, uncomfortable loose ends remain. There is litigation. There is murkiness about who knew what and when that serves as a reminder of the difficulty of operating here. And there is the question: Whatever happened to the player who started the mess?
Carlos Alvarez, now 24 in real years, actually remains in the Nationals organization. Last year, he played for the franchise's Dominican Summer League team. Listed as a designated hitter, Alvarez hit .307 with a .470 on-base percentage in 176 at-bats. The numbers are impressive, yet misleading. Alvarez is playing, mostly, against teenagers. When he lost his fake identity, he also lost his status as an appealing prospect. They do not call him "Smiley" anymore.
So why is Alvarez, a human symbol for one of the Nationals' darkest hours, still around? His value for the Nationals extends beyond the field. In a murky case, based in an insular, impoverished Dominican Republic, Alvarez can provide an authoritative voice, or at least what passes for one. Alvarez will almost certainly never set foot in Nationals Park, but he remains, in the team's eyes, an asset.
"I can't tell you at the moment what his fate will be," former Nationals president Stan Kasten said in a telephone interview in late January. "Maybe his career has some opportunities elsewhere. He has been helpful in the effort to extricate ourselves of the problems that we had. I will give him that credit. . . . There are things he knows that only he knows."
'It never happened'
The Nationals, then, are using one piece of their past to fend off another. Rijo has maintained innocence since the day - Feb. 26, 2009 - that current General Manager Mike Rizzo, then the team's assistant GM, walked into his training complex and told him, as Rijo recalled, "Sorry I'm the one who had to give you this. I've gotten to like you a lot."
All but forgotten in Washington, Rijo remains a popular figure at home. When he drives his white Suburban through San Cristobal, he shouts names and waves at seemingly every passer-by. He ran for mayor in San Cristobal but lost to Raul Mondesi, another former major leaguer. The log on his cellphone lists several missed calls from politicians who want Rijo to endorse them. When the local Channel 9 station chose participants for its Dominican version of "Dancing With the Stars," it picked Rijo.
Rijo still owns the facility he once rented to the Nationals and Detroit Tigers, the one the Nationals evacuated upon the scandal that cost Rijo his job. The sign entering the complex reads "Welcome to Loma del Sueno" - the Hill of Dreams.
Rijo is rebuilding the place so he can sell it, and the complex has become a mixture of decay and renewal. Grass has grown tall. Freshly planted palm trees line fences around the baseball fields. Rubble is piled alongside the winding road that leads to the offices and dorm rooms. On some of those buildings, the ones Nationals prospects used to sleep in, Curly W's are still painted on the outside walls. A board with the full Nationals logo still hangs from a backstop.
The Nationals know about the logos. They want them taken down.