BANI, Dominican Republic

Some folks here speculate in corn or sugar cane; Enrique Soto speculates in infielders. He drives his big green pickup through the dust-coated streets, stopping near the vacant lots, near the playgrounds, near the dirt fields filled with kids playing baseball. That's how he discovered Willy Aybar.

The 13-year-old boy was fielding grounders on a rutted diamond near the Bani River. He weighed 120 pounds. Soto took measure of Aybar's supple wrists. He listened to the crack of his bat. With training and a proper diet, Soto figured, he could sell Willy Aybar to one of the major league teams that scour this tiny Caribbean nation for ballplayers.

Soto plied the malnourished youngster with protein supplements and balanced meals. He pitched him batting practice and hit him countless ground balls. When Aybar turned 16, baseball's legal signing age, Soto taught his illiterate prospect how to write his name. He then drove him into the capital, Santo Domingo, where Aybar printed his signature on a contract to receive $1.4 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers -- one of the largest signing bonuses in the history of the Dominican Republic.

And then, to secure his investment, Enrique Soto stole Willy Aybar's money, according to Aybar, his parents and baseball sources who have looked into the alleged swindle.

Last May, when the Dodgers released the first half of Aybar's bonus -- $490,000, after taxes -- Soto deposited the check in a Dominican bank account under his own name, according to Aybar and his family. Aybar's mother, Francia, said Soto gave her a lump-sum payment of 100,000 pesos, about $6,250, and a monthly stipend of less than $2,000. He paid the Philadelphia-based agent who negotiated Aybar's contract $35,000. He allegedly kept the rest, about $430,000, for himself.

Asked how much he received from his first bonus check, Aybar, now an 18-year-old third baseman on a Dodgers minor league team in Wilmington, N.C., replied: "Me? Nada."

Soto said Aybar entrusted him with the check "so his family wouldn't abuse the money" but denied that he kept it for himself. Following inquiries by The Post, Soto said he might be willing to give some of the money back but declined to say how much.

Over the past several years, a steady influx of foreign players has transformed professional baseball. Of 6,916 players under contract to major or minor league teams, 44 percent come from outside the United States. The epicenter of baseball's globalization is the Dominican Republic: Nearly one in four players under contract hails from a country with 8.4 million people and a monthly per capita income of $450.

But the system that produced Willy Aybar -- as well as superstars Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa -- is a breeding ground for exploitation and corruption, according to interviews with baseball officials, scouts, agents and players. The increased demand for foreign talent has created a cutthroat industry of street-level entrepreneurs dedicated to locating and grooming potential major leaguers. Known as buscones, or "finders," the street agents often train the players from puberty.

In many cases, the buscones (pronounced boo-SCONE-ehs) are above-board coaches who spend considerable time and resources to support athletes, but their growth has been accompanied by reports of over-charging, extortion and outright theft.

Major League Baseball, the governing body for professional teams, decries the abuses but effectively created the system that fosters them. Clubs support the buscones with "commissions" ranging from $500 to as much as $50,000 -- potential violations of major league rules that prohibit teams from compensating agents for negotiating contracts. The payments often mean less money for the players, who must also give the buscones a significant portion of their signing bonuses: at times 50 percent or higher. By comparison, U.S. agents normally receive 3 to 5 percent of their clients' earnings.

Baseball officials acknowledge problems in the treatment of young Dominican ballplayers and said they are working to correct them. Louis Melendez, vice president of international operations for Major League Baseball, said there will be more vigorous efforts to verify birth certificates to reduce the number of players signed before they are 16, the minimum age allowed by major league rules. He said baseball is also evaluating the clubs' foreign training facilities and preparing to make contracts available in Spanish for the first time, perhaps this summer. "We're not running away" from the problems, said Melendez.

Willy Aybar is one of 1,644 Dominican players under contract to major league teams. He grew up with his family, six to a room, in a concrete-and-tin house on the Bani River -- a watery dump filled with garbage and raw sewage. He taught himself to hit using whittled branches that he kept in a special corner of his room. After he signed with the Dodgers, he entrusted his signing bonus -- a figure so large it was beyond his comprehension -- to Enrique Soto because neither he nor his parents had experience dealing with banks.

It was Soto, after all, who had made him a ballplayer.

"I trusted him," said Aybar. "He did everything for me."

King of the Buscones

Among the people now in the business of grooming and marketing ballplayers are a Dominican congressman, the former director of Dominican operations for the Seattle Mariners and Jose Rijo, the former major league pitcher. The most successful in the country, according to scouts, is Enrique Soto.

"People say I'm the King of the Buscones," said Soto, chuckling. "But I'm really only the king of myself."

The center of Soto's operation is a cracked blue stadium in Bani, an agricultural city about an hour west of Santo Domingo. Near the stadium entrance, in small black graffiti, someone has scrawled "Miguel Tejada": the Oakland Athletics' starting shortstop, once a Soto recruit. Inside, 120 aspiring heirs to Miguel Tejada work out on a trampled field devoid of grass, as if the players were working out in a bullring.

Soto, 41, played shortstop in the San Francisco Giants' minor league system for two years. He later became one of the top scouts in the Dominican, signing not only Tejada but a slew of talented players for the Oakland A's. Despite his success, the A's fired him under suspicion that he was skimming thousands of dollars from the bonuses of players he had recruited, according to Raymond Abreu, the team's director of Dominican operations. Soto denied the allegations.

Afterward, Soto dedicated himself full time to the Enrique Soto School, which he had founded while working for the A's. The business was launched under the proposition that major league teams would pay more for well-trained, well-fed players. "You have to get them when they're young," explained Soto. He said he looks for pliant boys who abstain from wearing jewelry "because that's a sign they're not thinking the right way. You want to make sure that they understand exactly what you have to say."

"I only work with kids that have talent," said Soto. "Those that don't have talent, I cut them loose. I cut them loose with pain in my heart, but with peace of mind of knowing that they were never going to pan out."

Last year, Soto landed contracts for seven players whose bonuses, including Aybar's, totaled $1.94 million. Soto can recite the bonuses to the penny but not the full names of the players. His take? "About 25 percent." Declining to produce records, he said his high commissions are offset by more than $11,000 in monthly expenses, about half of which goes to 40 prospects who receive daily meals at a Bani restaurant called La Piragua.

Soto scoffed at the idea that what he is doing is any different from major league teams. "If the teams invest, they're organized," he said. "If the buscones invest, we're thieves."

Soto owns two houses -- one in Bani and another under construction in Las Calderas, a village about 10 miles outside the city. He drives a Ford F-250, a BMW motorcycle and a recently purchased Jaguar. He denies that he has gotten rich selling ballplayers. "If I were rich would I be out here pitching batting practice every day?" he asked.

On any given morning, Soto can be found directing his charges, an olive-skinned man with a bristly stubble covering his head and chin. The players he deems most promising wear blue-and-yellow jerseys with the initials for Soto's school stitched across the front. Soto, also in uniform, hits fungoes, runs drills and throws batting practice, occasionally letting loose a warning: "This is a test -- a test to see if you can make it in the big leagues!" Soto said he has no contractual arrangement with his players because they are "like family."

"Hey, you, come over here!" he yelled while supervising an intrasquad game one afternoon.

From near the third base dugout, tentatively holding his glove, came a member of Soto's "family": a tiny, reed-thin boy wearing red, white and blue shorts patterned with American flags and late-model cars.

The boy stood nervously before Soto, who turned to a visitor.

"See this?" he said, pointing to the skinny youngster. "This is what Willy Aybar looked like when I got him. So you can see: To develop a kid so he can sign is a very big investment for me."

Asked his age, the boy responded shyly: "Thirteen."

"Okay," barked Soto, waving him off.

"What was that kid's name?" the visitor asked.

"Hey! You! Come back here!" Soto yelled. "Run! Run!"

The boy scampered back.

"What's your name?" Soto demanded.

Leaving Poverty Behind

Willy Aybar's front yard was the Bani River. When the river ran dry, its gravel bed filled with garbage -- rotten mangoes and chicken bones and used toilet paper, picked over by dogs and goats, baking in the Caribbean sun. During the rainy season, the river sometimes invaded Aybar's house, forcing him and his family to sleep on the floor of a nearby school until the water receded, leaving behind a putrid layer of mud.

Aybar slept with his younger brother, Erick, in a single bed next to one containing his sisters, Evelin and Kenya, next to one containing his parents, Francia and Narciso. As cars and trucks rumbled past the house, a fog of dirt would seep through the spaces between the corrugated roof and the walls.

When Soto first spotted him, Aybar was playing shortstop on a rock-strewn field, its pitching rubber a half-buried cinder block. The boy had long since quit school to help support his family, at times baking bread for $5 a day, at times joining his father, a day laborer, on construction projects. "I'll be honest with you: We didn't always eat that well, but we ate," said Francia. "We at least had rice and beans."

When the time came, Francia and Narciso were eager to turn over their son to Soto. More than anything, the charismatic coach represented hope. Soto provided Aybar with regular meals. He gave him multi-vitamins and supplemented his juice with Mega Mass, a protein powder that promotes weight gain. He gave the young player one of his blue-and-yellow Enrique Soto uniforms, spikes and a new glove. He worked him out for six hours a day, five days a week.

Within two years, Soto had molded Aybar into a 165-pound shortstop with power from both sides of the plate. The scouts began to notice. By the time Aybar was 16, the offers had reached six figures and Soto decided he needed a professional to help negotiate the most lucrative contract of his career.

Soto turned to Rob Plummer, a 32-year-old agent who operates out of Philadelphia, his home town. A relative unknown in American baseball circles, Plummer told people he aspired to be the "Scott Boras of the Dominican" -- a reference to the savvy, bare-knuckles agent who won a $252 million contract for Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez. In his first big score, Plummer had gained free agency for Ricardo Aramboles, a 14-year-old pitcher signed illegally by the Florida Marlins for $5,500. Freed from his contract, Aramboles, by then 16, signed a new one with the New York Yankees for $1.52 million. Plummer received 5 percent.

After seeing Aybar play, Plummer wanted so badly to negotiate his contract he agreed to give Soto a $10,000 loan -- an unusual arrangement described by the agent as "a down payment to show Soto that I would do a good job."

Plummer said Soto guaranteed him 5 percent of Aybar's bonus -- plus his $10,000 back. The agent immediately began to contact teams, billing Aybar as "another Alex Rodriguez," according to scouts. By January last year, Aybar's stock was soaring. The Dodgers held an exclusive tryout at Campo Las Palmas, their Dominican training facility, flying in senior executives Ed Creech and Jeff Schugal from Los Angeles. On a wet field, against high-caliber pitching, Aybar homered four times.

The Dodgers wanted Aybar but needed to move fast. The club was facing a looming one-year suspension on foreign signings: punishment by Major League Baseball for illegally signing a 15-year-old Dominican infielder, Adrian Beltre (now the Dodgers' starting third baseman), then doctoring his birth certificate. Over the past two years, the Dodgers have incurred $500,000 in fines for the illegal recruitment of four foreign players -- including a 15-year-old Venezuelan pitcher and two Cubans whose defections were secretly engineered by Pablo Peguero, the Dodgers' head of Dominican operations.

Peguero received a one-year suspension because of Beltre and was not allowed to negotiate Aybar's contract. The Dodgers' ban on foreign signings was to go into effect February 1. At 9 p.m. January 31, Felix Feliz, the scout who had temporarily replaced Peguero, received a call from the Dodgers' front office. "They told me they had a deal for $1.4 million," said Feliz, now a scout with the Colorado Rockies. "I didn't believe the amount. I had to ask three or four times if it was real."

Soto had prepared for this moment. Knowing that Aybar couldn't write, he had given his player a pencil and a notebook and taught him how to write his name. For weeks before the signing, Aybar hunched over his notebook, his fingers cramped around his shrinking pencil, printing his name over and over, until one evening Soto picked him up at the house on the river and drove him and his mother into Santo Domingo. Aybar signed the contract in the lobby of a luxury hotel, the Jaragua.

Aybar and his mother returned to Bani around 1 a.m. The neighborhood was dark, but people were running through the dirt streets, shouting: "He signed! The Dodgers signed him!" All anyone could talk about was the number: $1.4 million. It was impossible to grasp. Aybar's father, Narciso, called an educated cousin and asked him if he could put the number in perspective.

"How much is $1.4 million?" Narciso asked.

Aybar's father had worked nearly his entire life -- 40 of his 45 years -- picking fruit, hauling cement, chopping wood -- usually for 100 or 200 pesos a day, day after day in the searing Dominican heat. On some days the pain in Narciso's back was so bad he couldn't raise himself out of his seat.

"Chicho," responded his educated cousin, employing Narciso's nickname. "It's more than 20 million pesos!"

The First Payment

But it wasn't -- not really.

Aybar would soon learn that others had claims on his $1.4 million. The Dodgers, for budgetary purposes, issued the bonus in two $700,000 installments. The first check was released on May 19 last year. The team, following guidelines issued by Major League Baseball, immediately took out 30 percent federal income tax, or $210,000.

When the Dodgers released the check for the remaining $490,000, Luchy Guerra, the club's senior manager for Dominican operations, phoned Aybar to ask where he wanted it sent. Aybar said he instructed Guerra to send the check to Plummer, who would then forward it to Soto in Bani. Aybar said his mother and father "didn't know anything about banks" and he wanted Soto to hold the money until he returned to the Dominican, after which "I was planning to give him something like $200,000" for training and expenses.

Plummer, in an interview, said he received Aybar's $490,000 check from the Dodgers, then sent it to Soto in Bani via Federal Express.

Guerra recalled events differently. A Dominican native who brings a maternal instinct to her job looking after the Dodgers' Latin players, Guerra said Plummer called her and demanded that she send him the check. But she refused to release it unless Aybar personally sent a letter. Guerra said she ended up sending the check to the Dodgers' complex in Vero Beach, Fla., where Aybar was training.

Guerra said she is uncertain how the check ended up in Soto's hands. "It turns my stomach," she said. Aware of Aybar's lack of schooling, she added: "I don't think he knows a twenty-dollar bill from a fifty-dollar bill from a thousand-dollar bill. I still think he doesn't have a clue as to how much money that really is."

A copy of the canceled check, obtained by The Post, shows two signatures: Willy Aybar's and Enrique Soto's. Guerra, who has examined a microfiche copy held by the Dodgers, said Aybar's signature did not appear to match the one on his contract. Guerra said Aybar's signature on the check "appears to be the same handwriting as the person who signed for Soto."

"I never signed that check," said Aybar, who had been unaware that a check needed to be endorsed before it could be cashed. "He must have signed it for me."

Prompted by questions from The Post, major league officials have tried to find out what happened to Aybar's money. Dominican sources have located a Banco Internacional account in Soto's name, containing in excess of $600,000, but could not say whether Aybar's check had been deposited into the account.

Soto initially denied there was a dispute. "I didn't take that check," he said. Asked about Francia Aybar's claim that Soto paid her 100,000 pesos, roughly $6,250, then put her on a monthly stipend of 30,000 pesos, about $1,875, Soto responded: "And how much should I have given her?"

"If I hadn't invested, how much would Willy Aybar have signed for?" Soto said. "I'm the one who has to shape the player to give him value. The whole world is interested in Willy Aybar's money, but nobody's interested in what you spend so Willy Aybar can get that money."

Soto said he was unconcerned about the allegations. "I'm like Jesus Christ," he said. "I've got the truth in the palm of my hand."

Plummer, who received his 5 percent cut from Soto, plus the repayment of his $10,000 loan, said he gradually became aware that Aybar had been taken. But he said there was nothing he could do. "I didn't have any power," Plummer said. "I was nothing. I was just Rob Plummer, this 32-year-old guy. How was I supposed to know that Soto was going to take the money?"

After inquiries from The Post last month, Plummer said he was taking measures to persuade Soto to return the money. He said he had been reluctant to take action out of fear that it would jeopardize his career in the Dominican. "That would be the end of Rob Plummer," he said.

Nor would the Dodgers help Francia Aybar. Frustrated and uncertain where to turn, she contacted Felix Feliz, the Dodgers' scout who had signed her son. Feliz was sympathetic but refused to get involved. "I wanted to help her but I couldn't. It wasn't my problem. I told her, 'I'm sorry, but I'm a baseball scout, not a lawyer.' "

Aybar, by now playing for a Dodgers rookie league club in Great Falls, Mont., called Plummer and asked for money. The agent said he phoned Soto, who forwarded $2,000 for Aybar.

When Christmas arrived, Aybar said, he finally confronted Soto in Bani and asked him for the money. "He told me, 'Money? I don't have any money,' " said Aybar. "I said, 'What do you mean you don't have any money? What about the money that I sent you?' "

Soto told him he had placed the money in a certificate of deposit that could not be touched for four years, according to Aybar.

"I wanted you to give that money to my mother," Aybar said he replied. He said he ended up borrowing 50,000 pesos from another ballplayer to help buy presents for his family.

The Second Payment

The Dodgers released Aybar's second $700,000 installment Jan. 17, less $210,000 in federal taxes.

Luchy Guerra personally carried the $490,000 check to the Dominican Republic. She instructed the Dodgers' Dominican personnel to give the check only to Aybar. The Dodgers and Plummer both said Soto called them to ask about Aybar's second check and whether it could be forwarded to him.

Plummer, who received another $35,000 payment, said he took Aybar to a Bani bank and helped him open an account. Within two weeks, the player's family had vacated their home on the Bani River and moved into a two-story house in downtown Bani. The house contains two refrigerators and five televisions. Aybar bought himself a black $43,000 Toyota Sequoia sport utility vehicle, which sits in the carport under a tarp.

After a solid first season, Aybar is playing third base for a Dodgers Class A team, the Wilmington Waves, in the South Atlantic League. He and two other Dominican players live in a two-bedroom apartment whose entire furnishings, until recently, were Aybar's rented bed, two air mattresses, a rented couch and a copy of the 2000 Baseball America Almanac.

Aybar is like a younger brother to his roommates. One recent afternoon, as Candido Martinez, a strapping 21-year-old outfielder, and Fernando Rijo, a 23-year-old pitcher, prepared a lunch of chicken and rice, Aybar, nursing a cold, lounged on the couch, shirtless, leafing through the almanac and heckling his roommates about their statistics.

"Candido Martinez: 53 strikeouts!" said Aybar.

"No way did I have 53 strikeouts," snapped Martinez.

"Fifty-three strikeouts!" Aybar shouted.

Aybar and Rijo began to shadow box, slapping each other around in the living room. "I'll give you the scouting report on Willy Aybar," said Rijo, turning to a visitor. "Good bat, big mouth."

But Aybar fell silent when the subject turned to his lost money. His roommates are urging him to take legal action against Soto to try to get some of it back. Aybar said he's afraid. Soto is one of the most powerful men in Bani, he said. Worse, Aybar's younger brother, Erick, is working out with Soto.

But Martinez, a high school graduate, was insistent. He thinks Aybar doesn't fully understand what has happened to him. "You know what you could do with that money? You could put it in the bank and with just the interest you could give your family money to live on. This guy, he's getting richer every day, every single day! I know you've got relatives that right this minute don't know whether they'll be able to eat or not. Tell me if I'm lying. Come on, tell me if I'm lying!"

Aybar reclined on the couch, his face in the almanac, frowning, saying nothing.

"You're the hope of your family," Martinez said. "All of them."

Enrique Soto, below, pitches during practice at baseball school in Bani, Dominican Republic. One of his finds, Willy Aybar, right, signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after he turned 16, for $1.4 million.The School: Dominican teenage baseball players put in long hours of practice, hoping to play professionally in the United States.The Brother: Erick Aybar, center, gets playful hug from teammate after practice. Richard Grabiel is at right.The Mother: Francia Aybar talks to Willy's grandfather, Armando Mateo, during a visit to the old neighborhood.The Team: Willy Aybar sits in locker room of Class A Wilmington Waves with Saul Soto, left.The Agent: Rob Plummer, of Philadelphia, served as Willy Aybar's agent when he signed with the Dodgers.