BANI, Dominican Republic — Much has changed for the player who helped transform the way baseball teams operate in this country. Carlos Alvarez is 29 and maybe 30 pounds heavier than he was in his early years as a top Washington Nationals prospect. He is no longer in the organization whose fate he changed when his false identity and true age were discovered in 2009.
Alvarez — known then as Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez — still believes he has a future in baseball, but it isn’t promising. He spent this past year playing for the Freseros de San Quintin in the Liga Norte de Mexico, a lower-level professional league, before returning to his native Dominican Republic to play winter baseball for the Tigres del Licey.
“You try to stay in baseball as long as possible, but it’s not always going to be the pro leagues,” Alvarez said last month, seated on a couch in the living room of his home in Bani, a city about 45 minutes west of capital Santo Domingo.
Even as the Nationals move further from that sordid moment in their history, Alvarez’s effect on the organization lingers. The discovery that the 16-year-old prospect signed for $1.4 million in 2006 was actually 20 and using a false identity led to the firing of then-general manager Jim Bowden and top adviser Jose Rijo and put Mike Rizzo in charge. The Nationals dismantled their Dominican operation, hired new officials to re-establish it and have developed their first wave of post-scandal prospects after cautious and tempered rebuilding. Major League Baseball also overhauled its operations in the country and enacted stricter regulations.
He also remained in the Nationals’ system for five more years, through the 2013 season. In 2009, his visa was revoked following the fraud revelation, so he remained in the Dominican, playing for the Nationals’ summer league team. He hit .280 in 2009 and .307 in 2010. But he was nearly five years older than his competition and no longer a valued prospect.
In 2011, Alvarez hit .321 between the Gulf Coast League and short-season Class A Auburn. But he played in only 46 games, his arrival delayed by visa issues, a common problem for players with checkered pasts. The constant tardiness because of his visas, Alvarez said, plagued him. In 2012, Alvarez played for the Gulf Coast League team, Auburn, and Class A Hagerstown, but hit .210 in 45 games across all levels. He wasn’t primarily a shortstop anymore and was 26.
“I always got there a little late,” he said. “Everyone else was already playing. When I got a chance, I really didn’t get one. Other players were already playing and well, and I didn’t get much of a chance. I still felt okay with the [Nationals].”
But Alvarez understood his situation. He said he used his time with younger teammates to counsel them about baseball and life. “It was God’s purpose to put me there to help,” he said.
In his final season with the Nationals in 2013, Alvarez said he again arrived late because of visa issues and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League. He went 2 for 6 with two home runs in four games. He was 27; his teammates were, on average, seven years younger. Alvarez said the coaching staffs and teammates always treated him well, and he isn’t resentful toward the Nationals.
“They’re the ones who got me my pardon [for my visa] and brought me back there, so I thought I had a chance with them,” he said. “It just didn’t happen. I tried. I wanted to. I felt like family with them. Good and the bad with them. I’m grateful to them. Still, if I got a chance to play, I feel like I could have gotten further. . . . But I understand that what happened to me before complicated everything.”
Alvarez said he still watches Nationals games on television and reads about them online. He has fond memories of working with coaches such as Bobby Henley and Patrick Anderson. He likes following the progress of people he played with or talked to, such as Ian Desmond, Wilmer Difo, Tyler Moore and Michael A. Taylor. “I learned a lot with the Nationals, and I met good people there,” he said.
The reminders of Alvarez’s past life with the Nationals are all over his comfortable two-story house in an upper-middle class section of Bani. With his signing bonus, Alvarez bought the house and put it in his mother’s name. He shares it with his parents, who said their names are David and Merry. Both no longer work; Merry said she still receives a pension from her 30 years cleaning a local school.
Stuffed into the frame of a four-foot picture of Jesus on the living room wall is a small photo of Alvarez in a Nationals uniform, taking grounders.
The walls of the stairway to the second floor are covered in framed reminders: a sun-faded photo of Alvarez with the Nationals’ 2010 Dominican Summer League team. A plaque awarded by the Nationals: “Viera Nationals. Minor League Player of the Month. July 2008. SS Esmailyn Gonzalez.” A poster of Esmailyn Gonzalez in Nationals gear with a message: “For my family, with much love and kindness, that have struggled so much to see my dream come true. Love you a lot.”
The baby face in those photos is gone, replaced by a goatee and stubble. On this recent afternoon, he wore a yellow Kobe Bryant jersey (“He’s the player most like Michael Jordan and a great shooter”), a red USA hat and shiny white Jordan brand flip-flops. Although life may look comfortable, Alvarez said he still needs to play baseball to support his family.
It is unclear how much of his $1.4 million bonus Alvarez got to keep and how much he has spent. In the Nationals’ 2013 lawsuit against Westchester Fire Insurance Company trying to recoup Alvarez’s signing bonus, Alvarez said in an affidavit that Rijo was kicked back $300,000. Rijo has denied receiving any of the signing bonus. Alvarez also had to pay his buscon — part trainer and part agent — Basilio Vizcaino, a cut of his bonus, and that often ranges between 20 percent and 30 percent.
Alvarez was reluctant to talk about money. Asked whether he still needed to play baseball with all that he made, he said: “Yes, it’s not enough. That’s how it is.” But why? “How do I say it? With the little you have, you need to maintain the family and take care of those who are sick.”
The need to keep chasing his baseball dreams and earn a paycheck pushed Alvarez to Mexico. Alvarez became a minor league free agent after the 2013 season, and he said the Freseros de San Quintin contacted him. The Liga Norte de Mexico, equivalent to Class AA minor league baseball, started in April and ended in July. Alvarez finished fourth in the league with a .369 average, along with four home runs, 31 RBI and a .985 OPS. He said he played every day, mostly at shortstop. He was selected to the all-star game.
“It’s not like the U.S. but it’s still good,” he said. “Some big leaguers play there. A lot of Mexican players sign, play and come to the U.S., and there are Dominicans, too. A lot of foreigners.”
After his Mexican season was over, Alvarez returned to the Dominican and was picked up as a reinforcement for Licey, a popular Dominican team whose general manager is former Nationals manager Manny Acta. While training, Alvarez hurt his oblique and missed time. He returned, appeared in only two games for Licey and went 0 for 4. Alvarez, who handles his own contract negotiations now, said he has received cursory interest from Japanese teams about next season.
“You never know,” he said. “You stay ready, keep playing and maybe you’ll get a chance to sign with someone.”
What put Alvarez in this position is old news. He admitted to the fraud publicly in 2009. Six years later, he maintains it wasn’t all his fault and the scheme happened because of “other people, too.” He says he has matured.
“I’ve learned a lot as a person,” he said. “A lot of mistakes you make, you change.”
Alvarez sympathizes with the pressures placed on Dominican players, many trying to improve their family’s financial footing. Players aren’t allowed to officially sign with a major league team until 16, but they are often giving up school and training heavily in their early teens. “What happened to me, I did it because I didn’t know how else to get ahead,” he said.