In the fall of 1973, there was a skinny black child with a wobbly knee who lived with his six brothers and four sisters in a house behind the center field wall of Tetelo Vargas Stadium, 50 miles east of here in the sugar-mill town of San Pedro de Macoris.
Every afternoon, the boy would climb the stadium fence to field ground balls, often with a glove made out of a cardboard milk container. The boy couldn't run very well. He had a chipped bone in his right knee that had never been treated. But the boy had a flair for fielding grounders.
One afternoon, a New York Yankees scout, Epifano (Epy) Guerrero, offered the boy a proposition. "Move into my house in Santo Domingo, and I will feed you, clothe you and prepare you for a career as a professional baseball player," Guerrero said. "Then, when you are older, I will sign you to a contract."
The boy was flattered, but he could not accept the offer. "I can't go because I want to be with my parents," the boy said. "I love my family too much to leave them. And, besides, I think I'm too young to leave home."
The boy was 11 years old. But the scout was determined, and whenever he returned to San Pedro de Macoris, he visited the boy and his family. "Someday," Guerrero told the boy, "I'm going to sign you." But it wasn't until several years later, after he had left the Yankees to work for the Toronto Blue Jays, that the scout offered the boy another proposition.
"Come with me to Santo Domingo," Guerrero said, "and I'll pay for an operation on your knee."
The boy went to the capital and underwent surgery, and his knee was no longer wobbly. "The surgery helped me run a lot faster," the boy said. Guerrero kept the surgery a secret, then, when the boy was 16, signed him to a Blue Jays contract. "The other scouts thought I was crazy, " Guerrero said. "They didn't know that the boy had had surgery, so they told me I had just signed a tullido -- a cripple. But I knew better."
Today, the boy with the once-wobbly knee, Tony Fernandez, is one of the most promising shortstops in the major leagues -- and Guerrero is the most-talked-about scout in Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, they are still talking about the death threat he received last month. In Nicaragua, they are still wondering how he snatched one of their brightest amateur baseball stars last summer.
"I suppose it's because of my eyes," Guerrero said, trying to explain his success. "I have good eyes."
Guerrero's eyes certainly have it. But eyesight isn't the only quality that has enabled him to sign, by his count, 45 players whose names have appeared on major league rosters. The details of Fernandez's recruitment, which were provided by Fernandez and confirmed by Guerrero, illustrate that plainly.
In his 19 years as a big league scout, Guerrero also has proven to be aggressive, imaginative and, at times, secretive. So secretive that Guerrero's boss, Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays' vice president of baseball operations, had to admit to a Washington Post reporter last week: "I didn't realize that Tony Fernandez had ever had knee surgery until you just told me. I've looked at his files, and there's just no record of that. Are you sure he had knee surgery?"
Which offers a clue to the way Guerrero operates.
"If Epy sees a player he likes, he will try to sign him in any way," former Philadelphia Phillies scout Francisco (Quique) Acevedo said. "But that's his job. He is supposed to do that. He's a fighter. And he's the best."
"Epy's damn good at what he does," said an American League club scout who asked not to be identified, "but he's also a sneak."
"Epy's a good friend," said Atlanta Braves scout Pedro Gonzalez, "but I don't trust him."
How did Epy Guerrero become the envy -- and scourge -- of Latin American scouts? Let us take a closer look.
He wasn't a very good baseball player. Signed by the Milwaukee Braves organization in 1960, he was released in 1962 after playing for the club's Class A team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Returning to Santo Domingo, he worked for his father's wholesale grocery business.
"Then one day a Houston Astros scout, Tony Pacheco, called to ask me if I could help him with scouting in the Dominican Republic," Guerrero recalled. "Of course, I said yes." Guerrero's job was to round up players that Pacheco could evaluate whenever he came to the country. "Finding players was a job that I enjoyed," Guerrero said.
During one visit, in October 1967, Pacheco and Gillick, then the Astros' eastern regional scouting director, were in San Pedro de Macoris, trying to sign a 16-year-old outfielder.
"Tony and I were in the player's house, talking to the boy and his father," Gillick recalled. "Then all of a sudden Epy came in, called us to the side and said, 'The Cardinals are also interested. They're on the way! We'd better get this (deal) concluded.' We immediately signed the boy and, as we were leaving, the Cardinals' scout was at the front door." The player, Cesar Cedeno, would become a four-time National League all-star.
The next month, Gillick hired Guerrero as a full-time scout, beginning a relationship that would continue when Gillick was hired by the Yankees and the Blue Jays. "From the beginning, Epy was a hard-working, aggressive, persevering individual," Gillick said. "We liked that."
Guerrero's aggressiveness has annoyed more than one rival scout. Acevedo, the former Phillies scout, recalled one battle he fought with Guerrero in 1974 over the signing of Alex Taveras, a shortstop who would later play in the big leagues:
"I had found Alex in a tryout in a small village called Tamboril. I wanted to sign him, but his father was out of the country, so I decided to wait until he came back. Epy was there, watching the tryout, so I said, 'Please, Epy, please. As you know, this is my tryout and you know that Alex is a good ballplayer. Don't touch him, please. Okay?' And Epy said, 'Don't worry. I don't like this player.'
"A few days later, Alex's father called me, and I said, 'I'd like to sign your son and I will be there tomorrow morning.' He said, 'Beautiful. Don't worry.' But in the morning I read in the paper: 'Alex Taveras has been selected to be the shortstop of the Dominican club that will play in the Central American and Caribbean Games.' I said to myself, 'Oh, my God.' Now it was impossible for me to sign him. Then I continued reading the article. It said: 'The coach of the Dominican club is Epy Guerrero.' I said, 'My God, my God, my God.'
"So I went to Epy's house and said, 'Epy, Epy, Epy. Please. You made an agreement with me. Don't touch Alex.' He said, 'Don't worry. I don't like him. Really. I don't like him, Quique. Don't worry.' Alex played on the Dominican amateur team and he was outstanding, so early one morning I drove to Tamboril to see his father again. His father said, 'I'm sorry, Quique. You are arriving too late. Last night, Epy came to my house and signed Alex.' I was so angry that I didn't talk to Epy for two years."
Actually, said Guerrero, "Quique didn't talk to me for four or five years." Guerrero said he signed Taveras because "I didn't think Quique even liked the kid that much."
In 1977, Guerrero joined the Blue Jays, then borrowed 80,000 pesos ($27,500 at today's rate of exchange) to buy a house and undeveloped plot of land in Villa Mella, a rural town 12 miles north of the capital. "All my life I'd wanted to have my own stadium where I could work out players," Guerrero explained, "and I was determined to get one."
With help from the Blue Jays, Guerrero built a self-contained baseball development complex, complete with a grandstand, playing field, army-style barracks, TV room, chicken pen and tropical fruit garden. Since its opening in 1981, the Epy Guerrero Sports Complex has developed dozens of Blue Jays prospects; some have lived in the camp for more than a year.
The camp's remote location didn't surprise Guerrero's critics. "Epy's not stupid," said a scout who asked not to be identified. "He built this complex so he could hide players from other scouts. It's out in the sticks." Guerrero said he built the camp to develop, not hide, players.
Guerrero's staff has grown to include five baseball instructors, a cook (his wife, Rosario), a religion teacher (his 68-year-old mother Patria, a Seventh-Day Adventist) and a groundskeeper (Gabriel Pimentel, who served as a chauffeur in the late '50s for Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who was later assassinated.) An English teacher visits the camp several times a week, a doctor once a month. When Epy is scouting, the camp is operated by his younger brother, former major league shortstop Mario Guerrero.
"I go over there almost every day and help with the kids," Mario Guerrero said. "I teach them how to take ground balls, how to throw, how to hit. That way, I see the kids every day, and when they're big, they maybe won't forget me, and they'll stay with me."
By "stay with me," Guerrero means "sign with me." Mario Guerrero is a player agent, which makes his presence at the Blue Jays' camp questionable at best.
"When I retired from baseball, agents began calling me, asking if I wanted to work for them," Mario Guerrero explained. "They knew I had played a lot of games in the big leagues and, besides that, they knew that Epy and me are really close and he always has some good players like Tony Fernandez.
"In 1981, I told Epy, 'I'm going to be an agent. I want the players (from the Blue Jays' camp).' And he told me, 'Yeah, we're together. I'll give them to you, but don't take over until they get to the big leagues.' "
Mario Guerrero said he has told players at his brother's camp: "You guys are with me. Don't sign with nobody. Just do what I tell you . . . If somebody wants to talk to you guys, you give them my phone number and tell them to talk to me."
Mario Guerrero said that from 1981 until 1984, he worked as a recruiter for a U.S.-based sports agency. "I introduced this company to a lot of players in the Dominican Republic," he said. "They signed a lot of the players, and they agreed to give me a percentage of their fees. But they never did."
In 1984, Guerrero said, he decided to open his own agency. His most prominent client was Fernandez, who recently explained, "I went with Mario because he was Epy's brother. I thought, 'Epy has given me the chance to be a pro player, so why not give Mario the chance to be the agent?' "
Last spring, Mario Guerrero flew to Florida to negotiate Fernandez's contract.
"Pat Gillick invited Tony and Epy to be in the same room while we negotiated, which I didn't like," Mario Guerrero recalled. "Pat offered me about $2 million for five years. I said, 'I want $5 million for five years.' Pat Gillick thought it was too much. I thought his offer was too little. My brother Epy was in the middle. Later, I told Pat, 'If you don't give me $5 million, Tony's going to cost $10 million next year.' Pat said, 'I don't think Tony is going to hit.' " (Gillick declined to comment on his negotiations with Guerrero.)
Fernandez ended up signing a one-year, $150,000 contract, according to Mario Guerrero. Now, Fernandez said he is being represented by Tom Reich, a Pittsburgh-based agent, and Davimos Sports Management Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla. "I changed agents because I wasn't happy with my contract," Fernandez said.
But, last month, Mario Guerrero agreed to work for Davimos as a recruiter. "I decided to go with them because I needed the check," Guerrero said.
"Since he works in the Toronto camp, he's going to give us references on top kids," said Davimos vice president Luis Olave.
Guerrero said he is prepared to deliver "15 or 20" Blue Jays minor leaguers to Davimos. Already, he has given the company the most prized prospect in the Blue Jays' minor league system: Silvestre Campusano, a 20-year-old center fielder who has been invited to Toronto's major league spring training camp this month.
"I told Silvestre, 'I'm going to give you to this company,' " Mario Guerrero recalled. "He said, 'Mario, I don't care what you do with me. As long as you're happy, I'm happy.' " Asked why he signed with Davimos, Campusano told The Post, "Because Mario told me to."
Gillick said he was aware of Mario Guerrero's presence at the Blue Jays' camp but unaware that he was still in the agent business.
And Epy Guerrero? What does he have to say about his brother's career? "You'd better talk to Mario about that," Guerrero said one morning last month. "I'd better not say anything about that."
Guerrero's silence was understandable. At the time, he was in the midst of a controversy over a public statement he'd made that 75 percent of the players who are competing in the six-team Dominican Winter League are drug users. Guerrero's statement, unsupported by facts, was widely denounced.
"If he says that, he must have used it (drugs) while he was playing," said Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Pena.
"I think he was just looking for publicity," said former major-leaguer Rico Carty, president of the Dominican professional baseball players' federation. "He's living off these players? How can he say that? That's stupidity."
"I told Epy that if he didn't have definite, concrete proof that he shouldn't be making statements like that," Gillick said.
Guerrero said he was grossly misunderstood by the Dominican news media. "What I really said was, 75 percent of the players are using 'greenies' (amphetamines)," he said. "The players drop them in their coffee, sometimes their beer, and that makes them fly. I know this because I see these pills all over the Winter League clubhouses."
Guerrero said his statement prompted death threats by anonymous phone callers -- threats that were reported prominently in Dominican newspapers. "There's been a lot of controversy over my statement," Guerrero said, "but I'm not normally a controversial person."
Guerrero should tell that to the Nicaraguans. Last summer, he angered sports officials in Managua by secretly signing Bryan Algea, an 18-year-old outfielder who was one of the top prospects on their national team, to a Toronto contract. "We still don't really know how Epy Guerrero signed this boy," said Juan Navarro, sports editor of the Managua newspaper La Prensa. "It was a secret mission. All we know is that Epy Guerrero was here, and then he was gone."
In a recent interview at his complex, Guerrero seemed nervous when he was asked to discuss his trip to Central America's only Marxist republic. But after some prodding, the story spilled out:
"I had seen this kid playing in an amateur baseball tournament in Canada. I asked for a visa to get into Nicaragua and -- nice people -- they gave me one. When I arrived in Managua, I called the boy's parents and told them I wanted to sign their son. They told me they would try to contact their boy, who was staying in an encampment because he is one of the country's best players.
"While I was waiting for them to find their son, the window in my hotel room blew up. I thought, 'My God! Nicaragua's having another terremoto (earthquake)!' But the window was broken by a bomb that had gone off 100 meters from the hotel. It was a little bit dangerous. When I went out on the street I carried a camera that I had brought so I'd look like a tourist. I said to everybody, 'Companero, companero (comrade, comrade)'.
"The boy received a 24-hour pass to visit his family. I wanted to meet him at my hotel but he said, 'No. Everybody will recognize me there.' So I met him at his house. I said, 'Do you want to sign a contract? Do you want to go out of the country to play ball?' He said, 'I love to play ball.' I said, 'If you sign this contract, maybe I'll try to take you out of here.' So he signed, and I arranged for him to get a visa to Mexico.
"I went to Mexico City and told the boy I would wait for him there. On the day he was supposed to be back in camp, the Nicaraguan baseball officials came looking for him. They went to the airport, but his plane had already taken off. In Mexico City I arranged to bring him to the United States, then to Canada, and he hit .340 on our rookie league team (in Medicine Hat, Alberta) last summer."
As he spoke, Guerrero stood beside a cherry tree in a jungly garden inside his complex. He picked a cherry off the tree, dropped it into his mouth, and shrugged. "No, I don't know what makes me a good scout," he said, allowing a faint smile. "It must be my eyes."