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Esmailyn Gonzalez

Nationals Prospect’s Fraud Symptomatic of Corrupt Dominican System

February 20, 2009 11:28 AM
by Denis Cummings
Esmailyn Gonzalez used a false name and age when signing his contract, a common practice in a country where players are often exploited by street agents and scouts.

Gonzalez Used Fake Name, Age

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Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday that 19-year-old Washington Nationals prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez is actually a 23-year-old named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. Lugo had lied about his age while being scouted in his native Dominican Republic to draw interest from major league teams.

Nationals president Stan Kasten said in a conference call Wednesday that he was “very angry” about the situation. “There were really elaborate stuff and I have to give MLB’s department of investigations a lot of credit for finally cracking through this,” he said. “I can assure you, this will have serious repercussions. I have people examining all possible avenues and recourse with regard to legal and financial concerns.”

Lugo signed with the Nationals in 2006, receiving a $1.4 million signing bonus. The shortstop, who was named the Nationals 10th best prospect by Baseball America, hit .342 with 33 RBIs in the Gulf Coast (rookie) League last year. “Those are great numbers,” a scout told Sports Illustrated, “but you should be hitting that well if you’re that much older than your competition.”

It is not known what the Nationals will do with Lugo, who now has little value as a prospect. Lugo has obtained a new passport and work visa—despite prior warnings by the U.S. government that players with false identities would never be given visas—and is scheduled to arrive at the team’s spring training camp on March 13. The team may try to recoup all or part of his signing bonus, though it is more likely that they will simply release him.

Lugo is just the latest in a long line of Dominican players to lie about his age to major league clubs. The practice is encouraged by Dominican street agents, known as “buscons,” who have been accused of exploiting young players and stealing money.

Stanley King, Lugo’s agent, said Thursday that he believes Lugo is a victim in the situation: “I don’t know where the origins of this thing are. It seems to me this thing is much too complicated and involved for a 19- or 20-year-old from an impoverished neighborhood to pull off. … He may have been duped as much as anyone.”

Lugo’s buscon, Basilio Vizcaino, is a friend of Nationals executives Jose Rijo and Jose Baez. The Lugo deal was investigated last year by Major League Baseball and the FBI as part of a larger investigation into the buscon system that revealed that MLB team employees had conspired with buscons to skim money from players’ contracts. Rijo and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden were targeted by the investigation, though no charges have been filed against them.

Background: False identities and the corrupt buscon system

False Identities

Prospects in the Dominican Republic, where birth records tend to be poorly kept, routinely lie about their ages to become more attractive to major league scouts. Most, like Lugo, claim to be younger so that they appear to have more potential. Occasionally, as in the case of Adrian Beltre, a player under 16 will claim to be 16, the minimum age that a player can sign a contract.

Players, usually with the aide of a buscon, create false identification or use the identification of a family member. In a particularly odd case, former Padres minor leaguer “Isabel” Giron used the birth certificate of his sister, who was five years his junior.

MLB and the U.S. government have taken steps this decade to cut down on the practice. In 2000, MLB established an office in Santo Domingo that works with the government to authenticate birth certificates.

In 2001, following the attacks of Sept. 11, the State Department announced that it would crack down on false identifications. At a 2002 baseball general managers meeting, the head of the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican Republic told baseball executives that players caught with false identification would never be given visas.

Over the next several years, hundreds of Dominican players in the major and minor leagues admitted to lying about their age or identity. The players included all-stars Bartolo Colon, Rafael Furcal and Miguel Tejada, who was exposed in a controversial ESPN piece as being two years older than he claimed and using a different spelling of his last name, which was originally Tejeda.

“I was a poor kid,” he told reporters. “I wanted to sign a professional contract, and that was the only way to do it. I didn’t want or mean to do anything wrong. At the time, I was two years older than they thought.”

The Buscon System

A buscon, which is Spanish for “finder,” serves as a scout, coach and agent for young Dominican players. Buscons scour Dominican villages for talent and try to develop that talent in hopes that the player will attract interest from a major league team. The buscon then receives a cut of that player’s contract.

There has been little oversight in the country and players have been frequently exploited by buscons and MLB scouts. T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada, writing for an ESPN Outside the Lines investigation, report that some buscons encourage players to falsify their identification, give them animal steroids or steal part of their contract money.

In February 2008, after a White Sox executive was caught leaving the Dominican Republic with $40,000, MLB launched an investigation into the situation and found that many MLB team employees were skimming money from player contracts.

“These recent scams vary in execution, but the basic plan is the same: A major league scout inflates the value of a player, a team signs him, and the scout then receives a little off the top of the bonus in cash from the player,” wrote Quinn and Fainaru-Wada.

Employees for the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees were fired for allegedly skimming money or accepting illegal monetary gifts. Bowden and Rijo were investigated; neither has been charged, though they could potentially face fraud charges, according to MLB.com.

MLB hopes to crack down on corruption by MLB scouts and team officials, but Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball’s vice president for international operations, admitted to The Boston Globe that it is nearly impossible to clean up the buscon system. “You’re not going to change the system,” he said. “All you can do is try to manage it to make sure there is no abuse as it applies to [MLB] clubs.”

Related Topic: Danny Almonte

Perhaps the most famous case of a Dominican ballplayer with a fake age is Danny Almonte, who starred in the 2001 Little League World Series. Danny was taken to New York in 2000 by his father, who used a false birth certificate to claim his son was two years younger than he really was.

Almonte’s dominance in the tournament raised questions about his age. Sports Illustrated uncovered his real birth certificate soon after the tournament and the scam was exposed. Almonte’s father was charged in the Dominican Republic with falsifying documents.
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