Yesterday I wrote about a baseball scandal.
Throughout baseball, the story struck a chord. Immediately I got calls and messages from people in the game. Scouts, front office guys, trainers, agents and former players all wanted to weigh in. For the most part, it was folks railing against the dysfunctional system that has been in place in Latin America for decades and has only become more dangerous as the money has gotten bigger. There were some other fascinating conversations as well.
There was a much stranger reaction on Twitter. A lot of people quickly grasped the seriousness of the situation, but there was a more divided response. Just before we put the story online (37 minutes, to be exact), I sent out a tweet that said, “Big baseball scandal. Stay tuned.” For the people who know me, my assumption was that you could guess the probable subject matter. I’ve written about players faking their ages for million-dollar bonuses, MLB investigators getting thrown in jail, scouts taking kickbacks, anonymous steroid tests being leaked, players being sexually abused or killed. It takes a lot to rattle me after everything I’ve heard, but this one even shook me. A sloppy MLB investigation, an enormous bonus for a prospect who never hit much and arguably the biggest name in Dominican baseball for the last two decades (and I encourage you to read up on the back story) having his son use false paperwork. I knew what kind of strong reaction this would get in the baseball community, and I’m fairly sure there are at least a few general managers who lost a little sleep last night. In other words, this is a big baseball scandal.
Ah, but then there’s the Internet. It’s quickly become popular, although we’ll have to wait and see what kind of staying power it has. My intention was to let people know we had a story coming up that I think is important for people to be aware of, and it seemed like most people who know me understood that. But then things got a little nuts. I wasn’t following Twitter live, but going back, some of the responses at least were amusing. I’m not sure what some people were expecting, but apparently it was along the lines of Bud Selig’s investigators discovering that an MLB superstar was an unwitting assassin programmed to kill the Queen of England. So when the story fell short of that, it seemed like, based on my five words, there was some disappointment. Just another anonymous Dominican we don’t care about. One guy said he wanted me to “Go run into an AIDS fire.” Seems excessive, not sure what it means, but everyone’s entitled to an opinion.
A few people felt it was sensationalism. That makes me cringe. I think anyone who knows me understands that was not my intention, and if you’re familiar with my work, you now how much I loathe sensationalism. I love getting excited about talented young baseball players—you can go back and read my amateur scouting reports on Miguel Sano, Rougned Odor, Carlos Martinez or (gulp) Michael Ynoa—when they’re worth getting excited about. The problem is that sensationalism in the international market has very dangerous repercussions that I imagine most people would never consider. That’s another story though.
My guess is that, had I put “Dominican” in front of the word baseball, then that probably would have changed some of the reaction. But putting the modifier there cheapens the significance of what happened because this is not just a Dominican baseball scandal. I make no apologies for calling it simply a baseball scandal, and a big one. MLB in 2007 investigated the player and “verified” his age. The Mariners gave him $700,000, which by current standards is still a huge check to sign for an international player, but back in 2007 made him among the very elite in terms of bonuses. If there were an international draft, it would be the equivalent of not just a first-round pick, but a very high first-round pick.
My professional focus is very much on the real story of what is going on inside baseball. And inside baseball, this is a big deal. There is anger, disgust, frustration and a host of other emotions (and words that start with the letter F) that come out from people on the ground, both on the team side, the player representation side and from the commissioner’s office. I think a lot of fans who’ve been following what’s been going on understand the seriousness.
As @Peter_Ellwood asked me on Twitter, “Not to generalize, but does this call into some question the true age of every signee to come out of Soto’s system?”
I think it’s a very fair question, and I would take it one step further. Given that MLB originally decided it had verified the player’s age, and has continually passed players from “Esmailyn Gonzalez” to “Jose Ozoria” to “Alvaro Aristy” to “Yoan Alcantara,” it calls into question almost every investigation MLB has ever done, particularly prior to the arrival of the department of investigations. Their job isn’t easy and it’s only getting more complex to catch more sophisticated levels of fraud, but the ramifications are significant. It affects not only minor league prospects and unsigned amateurs, but any major leaguer signed out of the Dominican Republic or other Latin American countries where age fraud has occurred. Want to sign a 28-year-old Dominican major league free agent to a long-term deal? Teams feel like they’re rolling the dice hoping he’s not really 32. There’s such internal distrust in the system that some teams have hired their own private investigators to verify the ages of players. It’s probably a smart investment.
If there are some fans who haven’t grasped the magnitude of this story, I don’t blame them. There’s little transparency in the system, but it’s our responsibility in the media to fight through that and make sure that the public is aware of what’s going on inside baseball. I care very little about getting a story first. I appreciate the loyal folks who follow me on Twitter, but that’s not really what’s important.
Anyone I’ve built a professional relationship with over the years knows I have two primary concerns: To make sure the information we provide is accurate, and to make sure innocent people—particularly children—are kept safe in the process. I can’t measure the hours of sleep I’ve lost through the years agonizing over whether something I might write could potentially jeopardize the safety of an innocent human being, especially a powerless child. As long as the signing age for international players is 16, teams are signing children, and the people who control these children have power over them sometimes when they’re as young as 12 or 13. Many times they are treated like cattle, bought and sold from poorer trainers to wealthier ones, and pumped full of steroids (or told they would have to leave the program if they refused, in the case of one other trainer). It doesn’t matter whether the player is a household name or, in the eyes of many, just another anonymous Dominican. What matters is that human beings, often children, who have little money, no power and no voice to speak for them are being taken advantage of, and the system that has been in place for decades has made, in my opinion, many people complicit in heinous acts.
What yesterday tells me is that I need to work harder to make sure the public is educated about what really happens in baseball. Not Dominican baseball, not Latin American baseball, but all of the international baseball world (things get ugly in the Far East, just in a different way) because the gap between public knowledge and non-sugarcoated truth is too large. There are some wonderful people who work internationally, both on the team side and working with players. There should be tremendous honor in working with a Dominican amateur player, teaching him how to play the game, coaching him on proper mechanics, providing him with equipment, food, housing, medicine and an opportunity at a better life, often to escape poverty. There are many honest, ethical trainers and agents who are great for the game and unfairly get lumped in with their less scrupulous colleagues.
So why don’t more people just speak up? It’s not easy. Yes, they’ll talk to me anonymously, but there’s a strong element of fear that exists. Proving things sometimes requires years of evidence gathering, and the sheer volume of corruption can be overwhelming if you don’t maintain patience. Some of the best advice I’ve heard is that, yes, you do occasionally see the dark side, but it’s important to constantly look for the good in people and the reasons why you do what you do. At the end of the day, I have to put my name on a story. My life is no more important than an unknown Dominican’s, and if that’s what it takes to make people understand the gravity of fraud and all that it leads to, and it saves more innocent children and their families from having their lives destroyed, then it’s worth it.
No, the story yesterday was not about Bryce Harper or Mike Trout or Jorge Soler. For many people, this may have been the first time they heard about the parties involved. I make no apologies for calling it a big baseball scandal. The emotional calls and messages I got only reinforce that belief, but I also don’t blame anyone in the general public who disagrees.
In time, I hope we can change some of those opinions. And I hope we can make a positive difference not in Dominican baseball, not in baseball, but in in the lives of those who have nobody to speak for them.