Baseball's Coming of Age in the Dominican Republic

Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Barry Svrluga discusses why so many baseball players from the Dominican Republic are able to falsify their ages in order to appear younger.

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Barry Svrluga: Hello, folks. Thanks for stopping by. Haven't done one of these in a while, so bear with me.

We're here to talk about this morning's story about baseball in the Dominican Republic. Some background: I went down to the D.R. for eight days with photographer Sarah Voisin late last month, tracking down Carlos Alvarez/Esmailyn Gonzalez and spending some time poking around. I'm not an expert in Dominican baseball because of that, but I do have a better feel for how all this happens than I did before I went, and I already see some interesting questions that we'll get to.

That said, I'm also sitting in the press box at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., and will be covering the Nationals for the next week, so I'd be happy to take any Nats questions you might have (though my insight might not be that great, given I haven't been around the team yet this spring).

Anyway, let's get rolling.


Sec 114, Row E: Barry - great article on the DR.

Do you have any insight as to what the Nats will do with Smiley Lugo? As a 23-year-old, he won a batting title against teenage pitchers (whoop-de-doo) in a league with a 55 game season. Don't the Nats have to jump him to a full season league -- like at the AA level and put him in a sink-or-swim situation?

Barry Svrluga: Section 114, thanks for reading.

This is a good question, but there are some hurdles he has to get over before this happens. It appears it's possible Alvarez will have a difficult time getting a visa. I'm going to check up on this this week. He already has a passport in his real name, but Nationals officials told Nats beat writer Chico Harlan yesterday that they don't expect Alvarez to be here on time with the rest of the minor leaguers. I believe their report date is March 13.

Beyond that: I agree, they'll have to accelerate him if he gets over here. They can't put a 23-year-old at short-season Class A Vermont. Would they push him right to high A Potomac and see how he does? They could. It's amazing how this changes the whole perspective on the kid/man.


Washington, D.C.: I'm Dominican. Is it wrong that these guys are lying about their age? Yes, but think about what these guys are going through. They live in houses made out of aluminum and clay. They can't go to school because they can't afford to. There's no running water in most places, and the electricity is shut down for hours almost on a daily basis.

Baseball is the only thing these kids know. We have a saying that they know how to play baseball from birth, it's a natural instinct. If these kids are talented enough to become productive major league ball players, and they could make millions playing a sport they began playing as a youngster, is it worth it to lie about your age to achieve that dream? I think so. The...alternative is much much worse.

Barry Svrluga: The perspective of the Dominicans in this cannot be lost, and it's one of the strongest impressions I'm left with after spending time down there. I tried to convey that in this morning's story, the sense that really, Dominicans kind of accept this problem as a personal choice, one that can improve the lives not only of the player and his immediate family, but others in the town in which he lives.

I got the strong sense in the towns of Pizarrete and Santana, two of the places where Alvarez seemed to grow up, that the townspeople were protecting him. They knew him only as Esmailyn Gonzalez, they said, and they were defiant about his age. When we went to those towns and started asking questions, you could see people mentally closing up, shutting down, unwilling to say that the kid had done anything wrong.

You really come away with the idea that a signing bonus of $20,000 or $40,000 or $100,000 could fundamentally change the lives of dozens of people in some of these towns, and if they have to lie to get it, lots of them will. It's a means to an end.


Manassas, Va.: This Age Problem starts early. Remember the 2001 Little League World Series Controversy? Danny Alamonte was from the DR too. Age 12 my ..... Yeah right!

Barry Svrluga: Yes, you're right. And it goes back decades, too. I asked one buscon about the problem, and he said, basically, "It's been going on forever." I asked who was the first person he heard about doing it, and he said Cesar Cedeno, the former Astros outfielder from the 1970s and 80s.


Where's the Dominican government in this?: Great story, Barry. Love Chico, but it's a treat any time you're back writing baseball.

Where is the Dominican government in this? I suppose they have some incentive to keep these scams going, but they also have an incentive not to kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.

Is MLB trying to get the Dominican authorities more involved? Or are they too corrupt themselves to rely on for anything?

(P.S. -- I cringed when I saw yesterday's AP photo of Adam Dunn taking out Pete Orr at second to break up a double play in the WBC. If I was old man Lerner and just paid millions for this guy, I wouldn't be happy to see him doing that.)

Barry Svrluga: Another excellent question. I asked around about this, and in the D.R., they basically scoffed. Lou Melendez, who oversees MLB's international operations, told me that it will take a bold district attorney from the Dominican to prosecute one of these cases.

"It is a crime," Melendez said. "But I don't know of one legal case where a club has sued or filed charges with the local district attorney. ... Will it happen? It's probably a step that will be taken that would act as a deterrent."


Springfield, Va.: Barry,

I have really enjoyed your articles about the DR. I lived there for two years as a buscon myself, one of the youngest (and only American) I came across during my two years there. I ran up nearly 20,000 miles on my car scouring that island for talent. I got to visit the Nationals facility twice as well as over 20 other teams. My question is, given the Nationals recent headaches, do you think the organization could use a young, bilingual, American educated scout to help re-invent their image?

Barry Svrluga: Very interesting perspective, and given your experience, I'm sure you know how lax everything feels down there.

The Nationals' direction in the Dominican bears watching. They are now well behind where they thought they would be at this point. Remember in 2006, when they were boldly proclaiming they would take a back seat to no one down there? Well, that all ground to a halt.

Having bilingual employees in baseball seems to me to be essential. (I'm even kicking myself for not taking Spanish before taking on the Nats beat more than four years ago.) But the person to really watch is Fernando Ravelo, the man the Nationals put in charge of their operation down there. He is the one who will be making the contacts, who knows the buscones, and who will be expected to run an extra-squeaky clean ship given all the franchise has gone through. I think it'd be worth traveling down again to touch base with him and write about how the new operation is doing.


Minneapolis: Welcome back to baseball, Barry. We've missed you.

Great piece on the Dominican system, but frustratingly nuanced. I wanted good guys and bad guys, but it's just not that clear cut.

There's a lot of money being spent in the DR. MLB practically has its own PI firm, and teams are spending between $15,000 and $1.4 million in bonuses to players as young as 16. Teams are paying coaches and staff and are maintaining facilities. And all this with a startlingly obvious risk of deception.

Did you feel at any point that the investment just wasn't worth it? Certainly there are some teams who have decided as much, right?

Barry Svrluga: Thanks much, Minneapolis.

Actually, I think clubs feel they have to be down there, even with all the murkiness. In fact, when the Pirates open their facility in April, the only club that won't have a Dominican academy is Milwaukee. It's that competitive and important.

There is a focus on baseball in the Dominican that is unlike anything in the U.S. For a nation of only 9.5 million people, the talent pool is deep, and to shun it would be putting your franchise at a disadvantage, it seems to me.


BobLHead: Barry, what happens to the (vast majority of) Dominican kids that spend years in these leagues and never make it, even to the low minors?

Barry Svrluga: In a way, the Dominican Summer League is the first step of the low minors for them. They may graduate to the Gulf Coast League (rookie level over here) or on to the New York-Penn League, etc. But the fate of those who don't make it is much like that for American prospects who don't pan out. Some (look at Manny Acta, who never played above Class AA) maintain a career in baseball. Others head back to their home towns and stay in the game there, either as buscones or trainers who work under buscones. I met a couple guys who had played in the minors for a time, never made it to the big leagues and went back to the D.R. to work with younger kids.


Washington, D.C.: Barry,

How could Acta not have known about the problems in DR. He is fron DR and must have better contacts than Stan who found out about it two years ago. Has anyone asked Acta about this and pushed for a real answer not his normal flip responses.

Barry Svrluga: Don't know what people have asked Acta about, as I haven't been here. But yes, his contacts in the Dominican are quite good. Indeed, he knows Ravelo well, both from his days as the manager of the first Dominican entry in the WBC and his time managing Licey of the Dominican winter league.

From what I heard while I was down there, I think Acta did know about some of the stuff going on and was kept up to speed as Kasten was. But this is a problem that's not really under his jurisdiction. He's responsible for managing the major league club. He goes to the D.R. in the offseason briefly to visit his parents, etc., but he doesn't live there. His presence in Washington raises the Nationals' profile in the D.R. some, but he's not responsible for overseeing that operation just because he's Dominican.


Reston, Va.: Barry, you and Boz both defended Jimbo for years. Your last post before moving to the dark side told us how smart and great Jimbo was. Boz has recanted. How about you and if not how do you explain away Rijo and what you found in DR?

Barry Svrluga: "Smart," sure. "Great"? Not sure I said that.

Here's how I would defend Bowden (and I don't think I'm alone in this assessment): He is creative, smart, usually a few steps ahead of those around him, and he knows the game. But I think, in Jim's most honest moments with himself, he would admit that his personality got in his way, that he sometimes didn't seem like a professional baseball executive, and that he simply put lots of people off.

I don't know exactly what Bowden did or what he knew about the D.R. situation. I think we'll know more in time. But I do know this: The guy is not a quitter, and he would not have "resigned" simply for being a "distraction", thus giving away a quarter century in the game he loves.


Burke, Va.: A discussion of the problems surrounding the DR's baseball "problems" as seen from our eyes should include a discussion of the culture, history, politics, and poverty. Then you will understand why the attitude of "Do whatever you need to do to get out of poverty" prevails.

Barry Svrluga: Agreed, Burke. This is not just a baseball story. It is about kids and their relatives seeing a way to change their lives forever. That sense is present on almost every baseball field we went to in the Dominican Republic.


Coverage Is Lacking: Hey Barry, welcome back to your short stint on the Nats beat!

Leaving aside the Smiley question for the moment, do you think that the Nats had really been making a concerted effort to develop prospects from the Dominican the past couple years, or was it more half-hearted? I know that their "championship" DSL teams were comprised of relatively-old players (and that's if you believe their ages in the first place), which suggests to me that they really weren't making much of an effort down there in the first place.

Also, going OT for a second, did you catch the Drive-By Cooleys last month at 9:30, or were you in the Dominican then? I thought it was great for a change-of-pace, but of course wouldn't want it all the time. Good news that Patterson is doing better...

Barry Svrluga: Coverage, my old friend! Thanks for chiming in.

I think the Smiley problem trickled down and slowed down the Nats' entire operation down there. If Stan Kasten, as he has said, started hearing "whispers" about Gonzalez's age in late 2006, then it's reasonable to believe that they cranked down on their aggressiveness until it became clear what exactly was going on with their marquee signee down there. It's also reasonable to believe that Kasten's trust of Rijo's evaluations down there went south, too, and the entire operation kind of ground to a halt. I will say that scouting director Dana Brown made regular trips down there, and that I watched two large groups of players go through efficient, regular workouts at Rijo's old facility, which was completely legitimate.

Drive-By Truckers: I had a ticket to the Saturday night show, had to give it up because I flew to the D.R. the Friday night before. I was back in time, however, to catch Jason Isbell at the 9:30 Club the following Sunday, though, so I gladly got my Truckers fix. (Everyone else just ignore this, please.)


Vienna, Va: Isn't there a story to be written about how Stan Kasten worked for two years to push Jimbo out...Stan asked MLB to investigate his own people...Stan knew about the Smiley Age issue two years ago...why did we not hear about this from The Post?

Barry Svrluga: I have always been fascinated by the relationship between Kasten and Bowden, a forced marriage from the start. I think there's still more territory to mine here.

As for not hearing about Smiley in the Post, you don't know how much sleep I have lost over this whole thing. I went down there in December 2006 and wrote a story about Smiley being the face of the Nationals' efforts there. I was introduced to his "father," shown his "home," and I bought the whole tale. I keep thinking back -- and I've asked a lot of people -- about how he looked then, and it was completely plausible that he was 17. But I should have looked deeper then into where his money went, etc. Don't know what the answers would have been, and obviously lots of people were fooled by this. I just regret not looking at it with a more pessimistic eye. (And people wonder why journalists are jaded and bitter.)


Springfield, Va.: It's hard for me to believe they sent Rizzo down there, with no Spanish skills and very little knowledge of the Dominican, to make a very important organizational decision in a matter of a few days. Do you think this was the case or it just made for a good story?

Also, who would be the ideal contact person at the Nationals if I was interested in working for the organization down in the Dominican? And, can you refer me to him? I think the organization wants to change their direction down there, and as a hometown guy, I want to be apart of the change. You can see the vast difference between our DR program and the tight ship run by my good friend Jose Serra at Baseball City.

Barry Svrluga: I was very impressed by Jose Serra and the Cubs' operation when I was there.

I'd get in touch with Ravelo. It'd be interesting to see how much power he has to make decisions.


Manassas, Va.: HEY BARRY,

Miss you on the NATS beat. Oh well. I'd like to put my 2-cents in on this age thing.

There's all kinds of bad stuff going on in the DR. From falsified ages, to using horse steroids for human purposes, as Hamlet would say "Something's rotten in Denmark". In this case its the DR.

I can't help but believe the private wheeling and dealing and doing anything to get a kid into the Majors is sanctioned by the DR government! How would it not be? After all once they make it big, many players send some of their millions home. They are revered by their public and make for good PR.

I know this is tiny in world economics but the only way I see these issues changing is if the DR GOVERNMENT clamps down on it. Trouble is, how do we get them to do that when lying and cheating has gotten them so much success?

Barry Svrluga: I think you've touched on something here, Manassas. What's the incentive for the D.R. government to crack down on this?

Take Miguel Tejada. We visited his home town of Bani, where he is still revered as a hero. Yet he lied about his age by two years, a fact that wasn't exposed until he was in his mid-30s. Yet as we sat in a stadium and watched kids work out, asking almost everybody about him, they didn't care at all. Tejada comes back there some, gives some money to the sports programs, etc. The attitude: Who cares if he's two years older than he said he was? That money wouldn't come back to Bani if his career had been derailed years ago by an age investigation.


Washington, D.C.: I rarely follow sports blogs, so forgive me the naiveity of this question. Why are we always scouting in Latin America for pro players? We have PLENTY of high school and college age guys playing right here in the US who would love nothing more than an opportunity at the big leagues. I'm thinking of my own brother here winning a scholarship to a community college, having scouts come out and then nothing.

It seems baseball scouts are wooed by the "exotic." It seems the mentality is something like "well, he grew up really poor so he has grit and will throw the ball harder to overcompensate for his meager beginnings and since he doesn't speak English, he'll work even HARDER to be accepted by the guys."

This is all bunk. These practices turn me off to baseball. I used to admire the sport but when it continually passes over all the guys playing here for a chance to go to some slum because that is the novel thing today, then I will turn off the TV and definitely never spend the equivalent of a weeks pay to go to a ballpark ever again.

Barry Svrluga: Not a naive question, D.C.

The fact of the matter is that MLB wants its game to be global, just as the NBA does, just as the NFL does. They have a ready-made talent base in Latin America, and in many of these countries (particularly the D.R.), baseball is the national pastime in a way that it isn't any more in the U.S.

In any business, you're going to seek out the most talented workers, regardless of where they are. That's what baseball does in turning to Latin America.


Annapolis, Md.: For a better description of "the Dominican side", read a great book called "Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player," by Marcos Breton and Jose Luis Villegas, journalists for the Sacramento Bee. Miguel Tejada is the central character, but there are many others, including his brother who was also a prospect who never made it. Terrific book that shows why they make their choices from start to finish.

Barry Svrluga: This is a great suggestion.


DC: Barry,

You always said 2009 was the important year for the Nats but I think you were off by a year. Nats season ticket sales are dead now. Nobody cares anymore. Opening day you can still buy 24 seats in the same row in the lower bowl......Did you and the Nats both misjudge the importance of 2008? Sorry you missed it but it was the worst baseball I had ever seen and I was in Cleveland in the mid 70s......Did it have to be so bad in 2008......why did Jimbo spend on so many dead beats.......Young, Lopez, Lo Duca, Estrada, Kearns, Patterson, Hill, Rob M., Johnson......add it all up and you get a wasted $25 Million Dollars at least....

Barry Svrluga: I'll still stick by my assessment of 2009 being such a key season for the franchise and for baseball in D.C. in general. But I think you're also right about 2008, and one thing I think I underestimated was how such a horrid 2008 could lead to such a lack of buzz for 2009. There are other factors at work here, not the least of which is the economy, which will affect season ticket sales for lots of teams and will slow/halt the development around the ballpark.

But I still think Washington responds to a winner. Look at the Capitals. Even in a slow economy, they're setting records for sellouts, will have an expanded season-ticket base going into next year, and I would guess would sell out every one of their home playoff games -- a run that you would think would last past the first round (if they get themselves righted from this mini-slump).

If the product is there at Nationals Park, people will come. But the product needs to be there, and right now, it's not. Not close.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any type of medical test that can detect if someone is shaving four or five years off of their age. I remember reading something about dental records that would offer a clue about people in their late teens, early twenties.

Barry Svrluga: I thought about cutting people open and counting the rings, but that seems somewhat unethical, and perhaps painful.

I would say this: Even if dental records could determine such a thing, my guess from driving all around the Dominican Republic is that they don't have a spectacular, nation-wide set of dental records down there to begin with.


Alexandria, Va.: Barry, what obstacles stand in the way of MLB requiring international players to be subjected to its amateur draft? The NBA and NHL require international prospects to enter their respective drafts. It seems that would formalize this whole process and add some much-needed structure. I've heard the reasoning involves fear that Latin prospects would be hidden once an MLB team discovers him in order to prevent other teams from scouting him. To me, that sounds like rubbish. If anything, these players would have an incentive to get as much pre-draft exposure as possible.

Barry Svrluga: This is a good point, and it will be interesting to follow the depth of this scandal -- remember, White Sox exec David Wilder was fired in the midst of this last year -- to see if it brings about fundamental change in the way players from Latin America are procured. It does seem an odd dual system, where players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are subject to the draft, and those from other countries are, as Kasten said, in the "wild, wild West."

My guess is that MLB will go, for now, with a beefed-up investigative unit in the D.R., and see if that cuts down on the problems. But you could argue that now is the time for real change given the current spate of problems and the focus on them.


Coverage is Lacking: Barry, I hear you on how Smiley might have set back the entire DR effort, since Stan was starting to hear things in late '06. But if that's the case, Stan really should have pulled the plug on Rijo sooner. He didn't need any "proof" to do that. As you said, teams really can't afford not to be there. And for the last few years, the Nats haven't "been there."

Barry Svrluga: Good point. I'm simply not sure how much Kasten knew -- and knew for sure -- and when regarding both Rijo and Smiley.


Silver Spring, Md.: Baseball isn't a charity. It is a sport -- a highly paid sport. It's purpose is to entertain, not to make lives more tolerable for people from other countries. While I have empathy for their plight, I have no patience for the liars and cheats. I can only wonder what else they will lie about when they have proven that they are so willing to lie about their age without remorse.

Barry Svrluga: This seems to be a reasonable response from an American perspective.


Albany, N.Y.: Wouldn't MLB have to make a real concerted effort in order to eliminate the incentives for fraud? I mean, they'd have to set up a baseball academy that was open to everyone, get people at a very early age and maintain strict records so that there was no chance of a 15-year-old suddenly becoming 13, and be prepared to lose money on most of the kids (by "just" educating them) in order to reap the rewards of the ones who make it. That would be a high-investment-high-reward strategy, and few clubs seem interested in making it, let alone MLB.

Barry Svrluga: This would be another interesting approach. When MLB set up an office in Santo Domingo in 2000, it was basically as a way to build their brand, to let people there know that the American sport wanted to have a presence in the D.R. Now, it's become an investigative shop, to a certain extent.

MLB will have to decide, in coming years, if it will invest real money in the D.R. and elsewhere to monitor things at an earlier age. They have required more documentation than in the past, and I thought it was interesting that all bonuses -- beginning this year -- have to be wired directly to a bank account in the player's name, thus potentially cutting out an unethical buscon.

The more I think about this, the more it seems to me like the ugly underbelly of college basketball recruiting, with kickbacks and jobs for those who deliver players.


Alexandria, Va.: How were you received in the D.R.? The people apparently were willing to talk to you, but did they express concern about where your reporting might lead? Did you feel safe there?

Barry Svrluga: We were received, if this is possible, with a mixture of warmth and suspicion. Some people were quite open to talking about the issue, even about Smiley in particular. Others, as I mentioned, simply shut down and wouldn't talk. People who obviously knew of Smiley, in some cases, claimed they had never heard of him or the controversy.

And yes, I felt safe there. We had a translator who was quite adept at working his way around the island and had a good street sense (well, at least, after we fired the translator who was not good in those areas). The people there really, really love baseball, and it was fun just driving up to different fields, watching a game and then talking to the participants. They're passionate about the whole thing.


DC: So wait...the Nationals do not have any spanish speaking individual who could help Rizzo or whoever it is with their operations down in the Dominican? Really? Really? Is there someone I could get in touch with?

Barry Svrluga: Whoa, whoa. Yes, the Nationals have Spanish-speaking individuals, starting with Fernando Ravelo, who is heading their operation down there now. He's a Dominican who is supposed to be plugged into the scene down there. Their coaches there are Spanish-speaking, too, and they have different Spanish-speaking coaches at various levels of the minor leagues as well.


Fairfax, Va.: Is this a problem unique to the world of baseball? I realize that football might not have the same international draw, but have there been any comparable scandals in either professional basketball? I wonder if the importance of college level play helps filter out this kind of problem.

Barry Svrluga: In more developed countries, it seems, the record-keeping is much more strict and therefore harder to change. Things like fingerprints and footprints and stuff on birth certificates make that more difficult in places like Europe and South America, where most NBA imports come from.


Reston, Va.: Barry My mother is from Honduras, one thing I can't stand is the AMERICAN point of view. It's no wonder we're hated in all parts of the world. Our world view doesn't go past our faces and if we looked in the mirror we'd see the world. Poverty in my mother's country is devastating. We don't know what poor is and what poor can do to a psyche. We need to look at the DR problem through the three world filter not ours.

Barry Svrluga: I think a combination of those viewpoints has been expressed during this chat. There's no question, as I've said earlier, that improving the lives of their family and even the townspeople is a motivating factor for some of these players and those who help them pull off the schemes. But it seems that the American companies/teams that are paying out this life-changing money under false pretenses have a right to be upset. Both perspectives are necessary, I think, to understand the whole problem.


Barry Svrluga: Folks, thanks so much for dropping by. Hope you enjoyed the story and the chat. You Nats fans out there, I'll be manning Nationals Journal on for the next week, so drop by and leave your comments there.

Have a great week, and thanks again.


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