A decision is imminent in a five-month investigation of whether eight Latin American baseball players in the Carolina League participated in a scheme last season to alert opposing players to upcoming pitches.
The probe, conducted by the minor leagues' governing body, is centered around Angel Rodriguez, 20, a catcher for the Alexandria Dukes who was suspended 11 days before the end of the season after an umpire alleged he had been telling opposing Latin American batters in Spanish what pitches to expect.
Rodriguez denies the accusation. The Dukes' manager at the time and another team official say he admitted it when they first confronted him.
"In the three years I've been playing ball, I never passed a signal to any Latin player, or any other player," said Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish, in a telephone interview with The Washington Post from his home in Puerto Rico. When asked, he said he did not admit to any impropriety and the Dukes' impression that he did was due to his poor command of English.
The probe by the National Association of Professional Baseball Minor Leagues (NAPBML) began last August in response to allegations by Spook Jacobs, a Carolina League umpire who says he understands some Spanish.
Jacobs alleged that, standing behind the plate, he heard Rodriguez say "directa" for fast ball or "curba" for curve to some Latin batters after the pitcher had nodded acceptance of his signal. He also claimed Rodriguez told them whether the pitch was going to be high or low, inside or outside.
Jacobs further alleged that, generally, the pitches came in just where Rodriguez had said they would. Jacobs first reported the matter to Carolina League President Jim Mills and Mike Toomey, then manager of the Dukes, now a schoolteacher in Montgomery County. Mills referred the matter to the NAPBML, the governing body for minor league baseball.
At stake in the investigation are the integrity of minor league baseball and the validity of the process in which young ballplayers rise through the system to the major leagues. The Carolina League is considered to be one of the toughest and best of the entry level leagues with many of its players on the edge of moving to AA clubs, one step closer to the majors.
Coaches and managers say it is extremely competitive, and one or two extra hits in clutch situations can mean the difference between a batter's moving up or staying put. Conversely, they also can end a young pitcher's career.
"The integrity of the game is at stake in this," Jacobs said. "If a batter knows where a pitch is going to be, that's half the battle. These pitchers have their careers on the line."
Johnny Johnson, president of the NAPBML, said the association could impose penalties ranging from probation to permanent suspension from professional baseball on any player found to have acted improperly. He said he has taken statements from six of the Carolina League's eight umpires and from 10 players.
He said he sent an investigator and an interpreter in October to inverview Rodriguez at his home in Puerto Rico. He declined to identify the other players involved. There were three other Latin ballplayers on the Dukes last season besides Rodriguez, but none of them is under investigation. There were about 25 Latin American ballplayers in the Carolina League last season.
A spokesman in Johnson's office said it has taken investigators five months to gather the relevant facts.
Rafael Campos, a retired army sergeant who describes himself as a second father to Rodriguez, insisted that Rodriguez is innocent of the accusations.
"I have known him since he was 8 years old," said Campos, who is an assistant director of the Puerto Rican National Cemetery. "He never tipped any batters. He says he did not do it." Frequently, Campos said, Rodriguez would try to fool an opposing batter by telling him to expect a fast ball when a change-of-pace pitch was coming or telling him it would be a low inside pitch when the ball was going to be high and outside.
Campos, who said he did not see any Dukes games last season, said Rodriguez speaks only limited English. He said Rodriguez did not understand what was happening when the Dukes confronted him with the allegations and that Rodriguez did not mean to admit them.
That confrontation occurred Aug. 19 in a Lynchburg hotel room after the Dukes split a doubleheader with the Mets and lost the completion of a suspended game. After umpire Jacobs claimed to Toomey and pitching coach Harry Dorish that Rodriguez had been tipping off batters, they confronted their catcher with the allegations.
"As far as I am concerned, he knew what he was saying," said Toomey. Dorish, who also is pitching coach for other minor league teams in the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system, said Toomey's recollection is accurate.
League President Mills says he checked with other Carolina League umpires after receiving the allegations from Jacobs and that six of the eight also alleged they had heard Rodriguez pass signals to opposing batters.
Chuck Morgan, another Carolina League umpire, said, "I don't understand Spanish, but I did notice that every time Rodriguez would say a certain word . . . it would be the same type of pitch."
Rodriguez said the umpires did not understand him. "I always talked to the other Latinos . . . about what they are doing after the game, whether we would go have a beer after the game . . . they were my friends," he said. "The umpires didn't know what we were talking about."
After his initial meeting with Toomey and Dorish, Rodriguez was sent back to the Washington area on a late night flight. The following day was Aug. 20, Toomey's birthday. In Alexandria, Rodriguez met with Dukes General Manager Rick Holt at Four Mile Run Park. He also talked on the telephone with representatives of the Pirates' farm organization.
According to Dukes President A. Eugene Thomas, in both conversations Rodriguez denied passing signals. He repudiated his alleged statement to Toomey and Dorish the night before, saying he did not understand the questions he was being asked. Late that afternoon, he was suspended and flew home to Puerto Rico.
For the second half of the season, the Dukes finished in last place in their division with a record of 29-41. In the first half they were in second place, 3 1/2 games behind with a record of 33-34.
Murray Cook, director of the farm system for the Pirates, said Rodriguez remains under suspension pending release of the NAPBML's findings. Rodriguez has been playing baseball for the Mayaguez Indians in the Puerto Rican League this winter.
"I am hoping they will let me continue playing ball," said Rodriguez. "I am only 20 years old, and I want to make a career of it. If they don't let me play, I'm not sure what I'll do."