In the baseball-crazy Dominican Republic, home to one in 10 major league players, that threat collides with a harsh reality, because finding performance-enhancing drugs here is as easy as buying aspirin.
Drugs are not the only concern for MLB in a country that produces more baseball talent than any foreign nation.
“Baseball in the Dominican Republic is in jeopardy,” says Charles Farrell, a former Washington Post journalist and co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy (DRSEA). “Just from the integrity issue. There’s no simple solution.”
Plenty of money is at stake, with 29 of the 30 major league teams operating elaborate training academies here, signing prospects for millions of dollars, and pouring an estimated $100 million annually into the crippled economy.
With stakes this high, cheating has become so prevalent there is a phrase for it here. La buena mentira. The good lie.
MLB and the FBI are investigating on three major fronts.
* Drugs. Over the last season and a half, 59% (81 of 137) of the minor league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs were from the Dominican, home to a quarter of all minor leaguers.
* Document fraud. In a bid to pass themselves off as younger, and thus better, prospects use fake birth certificates or other falsified documents even though hundreds of players have already been caught lying about their identity or age–the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal and the Angels’ Ervin Santana among them.
* Skimming and kickbacks. MLB and FBI investigators since 2008 have found that employees from several MLB teams working in the U.S. and Latin America were involved in skimming tens of thousands of dollars from contract bonuses intended for Dominican and Venezuelan players.
Commissioner Bud Selig this last spring formed a committee to look into these abuses, and others, and chose Sandy Alderson, a former MLB executive vice president, to lead it. Dozens of people have been interviewed, from baseball scouts to officials from the Dominican government, the U.S. Embassy and MLB.
“This is not just a Dominican problem,” said Alderson, who expects to file preliminary findings as early as next week.
“This is a baseball problem. So this kind of comprehensive review is intended to determine whether there are structural changes that baseball has to make in its own operations down there to ensure some of these issues are more fully addressed.”
Let’s say you have a prospect, but it is taking longer than you hoped to get him that lucrative contract. The next step is to rejuvenate his age, with the notion that younger is better, leading to document fraud.
“Identification is the No. 1 problem,” says Eddy Toledo, director of Dominican operations for the Tampa Bay Rays and a major league scout for nearly four decades who has worked with the Angels, Mets and now the Rays.
“You can control a little bit of the drug stuff,” he says. “Some kind of treatment, some kind of talking to the kids. But the identification? They need to make an effort to stop that.”
No team has escaped this ruse. Three years ago the Washington Nationals gave $1.4 million to a 16-year-old named Esmailyn Gonzalez, only to later learn his name was Carlos David Alvarez Lugo and he was four years older than he said.
Last year, the Cleveland Indians, after what they thought was a thorough check, paid $575,000 to sign 16-year-old Jose Ozoria, then found he was really 19-year-old Wally Bryan.
This summer, the Yankees got burned on a 16-year-old shortstop who said his name was Damian Arredondo. Shortly after he agreed to an $850,000 bonus with the Yankees, an MLB investigation voided the deal after determining that Damian Arredondo was neither 16 nor named Damian Arredondo. Then in early September, this same player, whose real name has not been made public by MLB, tested positive for metabolites of Stanozolol, a banned substance.
And now questions about the age of infielder Miguel Sano, seen as the top amateur in the Dominican, have delayed his signing.
The situation has led MLB investigators and many teams to ask players to undergo DNA and bone-marrow testing to prove their age and identity. Private investigators are also routinely hired to look into a player’s age.
Document fraud is hardly new, though. When the U.S. sought stricter document verification after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was revealed that 540 Dominican major league and minor league players had a different identity or were a different age, including Santana, who lowered his age by a year, and Furcal, who said he was 19 when he was really 21.
While drugs and identity fraud are at the bottom of this triangle, the payoff comes off the top.
A recent MLB and FBI investigation implicated at least 10 people in the skimming of signing bonuses, including Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who resigned, and Clay Daniel, the Angels’ director of international operations, who was fired. Bowden and Daniel have denied wrongdoing.
Even some of the investigators hired on contract by MLB have been implicated. At least five were fired this year for a variety of reasons, including falsifying reports in exchange for money, MLB officials said.
One of those fired is the brother-in-law of Ronaldo Peralta, MLB’s manager for Latin American operations who heads baseball’s administrative office in the Dominican.
Peralta, who is now banned by MLB from speaking to the media, often has likened the unregulated baseball landscape in the Dominican to the lawless Old West.
But the money continues to flow. According to MLB, the amount major league clubs spend each year on signing international players has more than tripled in the last five years, to nearly $71 million. And more than half has been spent in the Dominican.
Tampa Bay’s Toledo says he once signed a prospect for a $27,000 bonus, only to have three buscones threaten the player’s family with physical harm if he didn’t give them a share. When everyone was paid, the player was left with $2,000 and 200,000 Dominican pesos, worth about $5,500.
Toledo says that is why he is among those who have called for buscones to be regulated, including fines and suspensions for those who feed players steroids or try to get them signed by using fake documents. Currently only the players are subject to sanction.
Faced with case after case of fraud in which money was the driving force, Alderson says an international draft–something he has long advocated–would rein in the amount spent on signing bonuses here.
Many Dominicans, however, say such a proposal would be seen as imperialist. Maybe so, but the spiral of escalating paydays and fraud has brought unwanted scrutiny that has left this island shell-shocked.
“Can it be fixed? I think so,” Farrell says. “Whether there’s the interest that’s strong enough to fix it, I don’t know. That’s the big question.”
Toledo says enough is enough. “We need to change the direction of what’s going on here,” he says. “Somebody has to do something. We need help. Because I don’t see us solving it ourselves.”
Then he adds, “What kind of world would we have without baseball?”