The Dreamers and the Schemers
In the Dominican System, Young Stars Play While the Street Agents Work It
Monday, March 9, 2009; Page E01
BANI, Dominican Republic Before Ivan Brea sat down on a cement slab here one morning last week, the parade of kids carrying buckets back and forth from a well marched non-stop for an hour, because you can't play baseball on a field made of dust unless the dust has settled. It was that way on this patch of dirt when Miguel Tejada played on it years ago, and it is that way now, when Brea's son, Ivan Jr., takes batting practice, ripping liners to all fields as his father watches from the stands.
Ivan Brea Jr. is 20 years old, a catcher who signed last year with the Seattle Mariners. "That is his age," said his father. "I would not lie about that. As a father, I always taught him: If you do something like that, it's going to come and get you."
Here, though, it frequently does not. On the outside of Cruz Maria Herera Stadium, where Brea's son works out, hangs a small poster bearing Tejada's picture, urging the people of the province of Peravia to attend a celebration in the shortstop's honor, because he is one of the heroes of a country addicted to baseball. It is barely mentioned that before he left this country, Tejada lied about his age -- by two years -- so that he would be more attractive to major league scouts. By the time his transgression was exposed last year, he had played 11 full seasons in the majors, won the 2002 American League MVP award and earned upwards of $50 million. The reaction here? No big deal.
"I don't feel that bad about it," Brea said, sitting in Tejada's home town. "We are all Dominican. We all know where we come from. We got to do what we got to do."
And so they do, even as Major League Baseball has promised to crack down on the problem, even as more and more money pours into the Dominican Republic from MLB. The cases of Tejada and of Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, the shortstop who signed for a $1.4 million bonus with the Washington Nationals using both a fake age and identity, are rote here. The people of Bani don't mind. "They haven't even proven that yet," 29-year-old Javier Carsala, one of the men training a group of teenagers last week, said of Tejada.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of baseball's latest scandal in the Dominican Republic -- one that involves accusations that Nationals officials took part of the bonus granted to Alvarez -- is that here, it is largely viewed as unremarkable. The case, which led to the firing of Nationals front-office member José Rijo and the resignation of General Manager Jim Bowden, received news coverage throughout this country of 9.5 million people. Much of that stemmed from the fact that Rijo, the MVP of the 1990 World Series, is still something of a national icon.
But even in the wake of the scandal, there is acknowledgement that Alvarez won't be the last player to try such a scheme. The system in place -- one that frequently involves impoverished players and their families, street agents who thrive off the player trade, and major league clubs who can't afford to turn away from such a rich talent base -- all but encourages players to get their money however they can.
When MLB opened an office in the Dominican Republic in 2000 and began seriously looking into document fraud three years later, the street agents who scout talent -- "buscones," they are called, Spanish for "finders" -- went further. Instead of doctoring existing documents, as they had in the past, they turned to the kind of identity theft Alvarez allegedly pulled off. In an interview last month, Alvarez said he simply took the papers of a younger relative, Esmailyn González, and presented them as his own. It was not, MLB officials said, an isolated case.
"The buscones became smarter," said Lou Melendez, MLB's director of international operations, "and the schemes became more complex."
The result is a complex problem that begins at the lowest levels of Dominican baseball and works its way to the top, where major league clubs pay millions of dollars for commodities that may, in fact, be unknown. The situation has turned baseball's office in Santo Domingo from a goodwill outfit to a de facto investigative unit. Six full-time, independent contractors investigate, at clubs' requests, the ages and identities of Dominican players, Melendez said. MLB plans to add two more and would like to install an investigator with a law enforcement background to oversee the operation, which Melendez said reviews between 400 and 500 cases a year.
"You're still not going to catch everybody because some of the frauds are so well-conceived and sophisticated," Melendez said. "But it'll help act as a deterrent, and it'll put more people in the field -- people who know law enforcement and know how to do this."
Still, there are doubters. The system, they say, is too ingrained.