Fraud still rampant among Dominican baseball prospects
Pitching coach Edgar Arias has the pained look in his eye of a person who made a big mistake and paid dearly for it.

When he was 19, the St. Louis Cardinals wanted to sign the right-handed pitcher for a paltry 10 grand, so Arias’ handlers convinced him to fudge his paperwork to appear younger and more valuable. He became 17-year-old César Miguel de los Santos. With a new name and two years shaved off his age, he got a $175,000 contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

“ They tricked my mother and paid the principal of a school $5,000 to say I went there,” said Arias, now 23 and working as a trainer in Haina, a town outside the capital. “Investigators went to the school and said that it looked like the name had been scratched in on the class list, and it didn’t look right. I confessed.”

Arias is one of hundreds of would-be Dominican professional ballplayers caught up in a massive Major League Baseball crackdown on age fraud and identity theft. Nearly 10 years after MLB found some 500 players at all levels of organized ball had lied about their names or ages, baseball is still plagued by deception and now resorts to everything from fingerprinting to DNA testing to root out scams.

Of the 500 prospects a year who are investigated, more than a third are rejected because they lied about who they are or when they were born, MLB Senior Vice President Dan Mullin said.

But players, coaches and the Dominican baseball commissioner say innocent people are getting caught in the league’s assault on deceit. After more than a decade in the major leagues, recently Marlins relief pitcher Leo Núñez returned to the Dominican Republic for the first time using a passport with his real name: Juan Carlos Oviedo. As Núñez remains in seclusion while sorting out his legal problems, coaches and players say they are paying the price for shams like his — even though players from other countries can sign into their 20s.

“After 17, the teams do not give much money,” Arias said. “I’m 23; in the United States I could be signing, but in the Dominican Republic, I am worthless — an old man who nobody wants to sign.”

After sitting out a one-year suspension, Arias signed with San Diego for $3,000, but was injured and released.

MLB has been dogged by problems here for years. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. began tightening controls on visas. That’s when MLB discovered more than 500 players at various levels had fudged paperwork.

In the years that followed, the Astros’ Eny Cabreja became Wandy Rodríguez. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Adrián Rosario was really Ramón Antonio Pena Paulino. And L.A. pitching prospect Juan Mena became Ramón Reyes.

Players and coaches routinely lie about the prospect’s age, because teams pay formidable signing bonuses to younger players. Teams bank on how much a 16-year-old will improve, and largely shun players here once they turn 18.

MLB opened a Santo Domingo office in 2000 to crack down on the abuses, which grew to include skimming of player contracts, bribes and doping. Team employees were fired, and some independent scouts here known as “ buscones” — lookers — were arrested.

“Don’t let them have you think that everything bad was done by Dominicans — Major League played its role,” said Dominican baseball commissioner Porfirio “Popo” Veras. “The very scandalous situation that existed before is extremely controlled now. But it’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to breathe air anymore.’ Where there is money involved, there will always be an incentive to commit fraud.”

Go back | Date: 04 Oct 2011
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