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

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; D01

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.

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.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company