- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

VIERA, Fla.

Just when you think the Washington Nationals might be out of comic material, baseball’s whoopee cushion delivers a side-splitting gem.

The club’s highly touted, $1.4 million international prospect - the one who now will be known as the player formerly known as Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez - is really Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, according to a report on SI.com.

And while Smiley Gonzalez - a fictional character apparently - is supposed to be 19 years old, Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo really is 23 years old.

The best, though, may be yet to come: Maybe neither Smiley nor Carlos actually got the $1.4 million the Nationals said they paid.

I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but apparently you can when it comes to Dominican players.

NatsTown - where you can be anyone you want to be.

But there may be nothing funny about the ramifications of the SI.com report, which claims Gonzalez is a fraud, part of a larger ongoing federal investigation into suspicions of skimming bonus money from Latin ballplayers.

If the report is true, this incident should cost Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who has enjoyed the protection of his buddy, owner Mark Lerner, his job.

Even if Bowden had no knowledge of any scam, it happened on his watch and marks yet another embarrassment for a franchise that already is the laughingstock of baseball.

Too many dubious deals and incidents will have occurred during Bowden’s administration to let him continue to run this franchise.

Bowden was arrested in Florida’s South Beach in 2006 for driving under the influence. A string of wasteful, multimillion-dollar contracts followed: Dmitri Young, $10 million; Paul Lo Duca, $5 million; Austin Kearns, $17.5 million.

The club has struggled under the Lerner ownership with a series of public relations blunders and in 2008 suffered a forgettable, 102-loss season in their first year at Nationals Park.

Now this.

The SI.com report claims the Nationals paid the player formerly known as Smiley double the offer of the next-highest sucker, the Texas Rangers. (Please note: The former Washington Senators franchise shows that you can take the team out of Washington, but you can’t take Washington out of the team.)

The report states that an agent named Rob Plummer handled the negotiations with all suitors for the player formerly known as “Smiley” - except for the Nationals. Those negotiations instead were handled by Basilio Vizcaino, Gonzalez’s buscon (a person who trains amateur youth players in exchange for a percentage of future signing bonuses).

Vizcaino is a childhood friend of Bowden’s special assistant, Jose Rijo, and a protege of Jose Baez, the Nationals’ director of operations in the Dominican Republic, according to the report.

The falsification of ages by Latin players is hardly news. It happens, and it usually results in little much more than a chuckle and some red faces.

But when the player in question represents the club’s signature statement about the future of the team, it goes beyond just an awkward mistake.

(This is a team, by the way, that last year wouldn’t spend the money necessary to sign its No. 1 pick, Aaron Crow. Or maybe he wasn’t Aaron Crow. Maybe his name really was Pincus McCoy.)

When the player in question is part of both an internal investigation by baseball’s recently formed investigative unit and a federal probe, it goes beyond just a laugh and fleeting embarrassment.

NatsTown - where age is just a number.

Team president Stan Kasten said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters that he is “very angry.”

“We’ve been defrauded. And make no mistake: This wasn’t a college kid with a fake ID that came in and did this,” Kasten said. “This was a deliberate, premeditated fraud with a lot more to this story, and we are going to get to the bottom of it. There were many, many people involved in this premeditated fraud. … I can assure you this is going to have serious repercussions.”

Kasten, who said Major League Baseball had approved the name and age listed on documents from the signing in 2006, made a clear line of demarcation for the bulk of the responsibility for this embarrassment.

Kasten pointed out that he and the Lerner family had just taken over ownership of the franchise in July 2006 when this deal was presented to them by the front office that had been running the baseball operation since the team moved from Montreal in 2005.

That would be Bowden.

Kasten was asked specifically if those who were in charge of the team when the present ownership took over were responsible for this mess.

“For today, there is nothing more I can say about that kind of stuff,” he said. “I have an idea where you are going. I am just not ready to talk about that just yet. There is an ongoing investigation continuing, and I really need for that to play out first.”

Bowden was in Arizona on Wednesday for arbitration hearings.

He’s not far from Mexico. Maybe he can make a run for the border on his Segway.

NatsTown - sort of like the Yankees, except nobody cares.

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