Turning the double play or mastering the splitter is no longer enough for Dominican Republic baseball players hoping to reach the major leagues. This year, they also have to show up at the U.S. Embassy with accurate birth certificates if they want work visas needed to play ball in the United States.
Consular officers are demanding interviews and birth documents for the first time, cracking down after decades when many Dominicans forged identity papers lowering their ages to increase their appeal to major league scouts and managers, baseball and diplomatic sources said. At this year's major league spring training camps, more than 30 players have grown older, according to new documents, by as many as six years.
The Orioles learned yesterday that top shortstop prospect Ed Rogers, 23, is three years older than they thought him to be. Minor league pitchers Miguel Felix and Juan Figueroa are both two years older than previously thought, while outfielder Ruben Francisco aged 3 1/2 years, sources said.
Elsewhere, Cleveland Indians all-star pitcher Bartolo Colon turned out to be 28, not 26. Most teams seem to be taking the news in stride, but the Texas Rangers released second baseman Marcus Agramonte when he turned out to be a less enchanting prospect at 25, his true age, than the 19 years the Rangers thought him to be.
Atlanta Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal surrendered the distinction of stealing more bases as a 19-year-old than any player in major league history when he turned out to be 21 at the time. The title belongs again to Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.
Nearly 25 percent of the players in the major league system come from the Dominican Republic, birthplace of 1,644 players under contract. Most Dominican baseball stars are legal permanent residents of the United States, but more than 560 ballplayers have applied for visas this year in Santo Domingo.
The new visa requirements can be traced partly to greater visa scrutiny worldwide after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even more important, U.S. officials said, was the case of Dominican pitching phenom Danny Almonte, who threw a perfect game for his Bronx, N.Y., team in last year's Little League World Series and said he was 12.
Almonte turned out to be 14, and ineligible.
Visa officials are focusing more attention on discrepancies. In one series of cases, officials spotted age differences when players already in the United States invited their mothers to visit. Mothers seeking permission to travel offered their sons' birth certificates as proof of their relationship. Visa officers noticed that the birth date on those documents did not always match the dates provided by the player.
Now, when questions are raised, the ballplayer is required to seek a certification from the Dominican Electoral Committee or to return with a new passport reflecting the proper birth date. Most cases result in a new passport, according to U.S. officials. If the player's official age has changed, the consulate requires players to notify their American team and obtain written assurance that the club still wants them.
The U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo initiated the policy -- unique to Dominican baseball players -- about three months ago, startling ballplayers and slowing the arrival of dozens of players to spring training. Many of the hundreds of Dominican players applying for work visas have been sent away to obtain more accurate documents, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. diplomats met Tuesday with baseball representatives in the Dominican capital after some teams complained about the new policy.
"The issue of fraudulent documents has long been a problem for Santo Domingo. We've seen a trend of bad birth information being presented on visa applications, where things don't match up when comparing birth certificates with local records or what people say," said Christopher Lamora, a State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman. "The Danny Almonte case reminded everybody."
Almonte's father provided a baseball coach in the Bronx with a false birth certificate issued shortly before Danny and his father moved to the United States. When the father's action was revealed, spoiling one of the year's feel-good sports stories, Little League Baseball banned the father and the coach and required Almonte's exuberant 12-year-old teammates to forfeit the season's wins.
Almonte's transgressions, as well as those of big league ballplayers, are not unique. Dominican ballplayers twice Almonte's age have been found to have lied to U.S. consular officials and the American clubs that employ them.
Until three months ago, U.S. consular officers in Santo Domingo considered ballplayers' visa applications without requiring a personal interview or a birth certificate. They now require both, and now suspect recently issued birth documents. Other birth certificates have in the past displayed false markings, said U.S. officials, who sometimes search local Dominican records for duplicates or inconsistencies.
For years rumors of Hispanic players, particularly Dominicans and Cubans, not using their true ages, have been rampant. In perhaps the best-known case, New York Yankees pitcher and Cuban defector Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez was found to be four years older than he claimed.
The Yankees shrugged off the news. Hernandez was a hero of their World Series championship teams in 1998, 1999 and 2000. But when less-heralded Yankees third baseman Andy Morales, also Cuban, turned out to be three years older than he claimed, the Yankees voided his four-year, $4.5 million contract. The players' association filed a grievance that is pending.
Age deceptions can work both ways. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins have been disciplined for signing players before their 16th birthdays, a violation of Major League Baseball rules. The teams said they were deceived by forged birth certificates claiming the players were 16 when they were actually underage.
This week, MLB shut down the Cleveland Indians' Venezuelan operations for two months and fined the team $50,000 for signing a 15-year-old player, Laumin Bessa, and trying to hide him until he became eligible at 16.
At least one player in the current crackdown, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Odalis Perez, has gotten younger -- by five days.
A player's motivation for claiming to be younger is simple. A 19-year-old with impressive physical talent is seen as ahead of other players his age, a top prospect with a big league future. A 22-year-old with the same ability may be seen as marginal.
"It changes the entire equation," said Don Buford, the Orioles' director of minor league operations. "You have to look at him in a different light."
Teams have become more diligent in recent years, baseball officials say. MLB opened a field office in the Dominican two years ago, partly to monitor the visa process. It consults U.S. consular officials regularly and works with the agents who scout, train and often heavily promote young players.
When the U.S. diplomats imposed the new policy, they consulted with major league representatives and met again Tuesday in the Dominican capital after MLB officials complained.
Critics say the new crackdown could harm impoverished ballplayers who might not have proper birth records or who may be pressured by overzealous scouts into lying about their ages. "Especially in the outer parts of the island, there might not be any record of a kid's birth," Buford said.
Scouts in the Dominican have to "go by what they see in the face," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting. "If a player lies by one year in either direction, how are you supposed to know that? We do the best we can." He said the U.S. government is "trying to fix a problem that has been there for 50 years in one month."
Andy Mota, an agent for several Dominican players, said there are "a lot of injustices" in the new visa policy. He asked why consular officials are focusing on Dominican players: "If they're going to do it in the Dominican Republic, they should do it across the board."
State Department spokesman Lamora cited Cuban ballplayers who do not typically reach the United States by conventional routes from a country with severe travel restrictions. Rather, Cubans often travel through Mexico, ride boats across the Florida Strait or defect while playing exhibitions in the United States or other foreign lands.
Not that the debate is new. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, recalls players falsifying their ages as far back as 1949, when he was breaking into the game as a Yankees prospect. In fact, the Yankees questioned whether Thrift himself, then 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, was really 20 years old as he claimed.
"No one believed me," said Thrift. "This has been going on forever. Everyone wants to be younger. I imagine there are movie stars who have done it, too."
Thrift, 72, admitted that as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1965 he helped pitcher Woody Fryman land a contract by saying he was four years younger than he actually was.
"We knew we wouldn't be able to sign him as a 26-year-old," Thrift said. "But he was good, so we all agreed to say he was 22." Fryman spent 18 years in the major leagues and won 141 games. He finally admitted his true age when he retired.
Sheinin reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.