- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Jose Rijo, the Washington Nationals executive at the center of a scandal involving a top prospect who created a false identity, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the club.

Nationals president Stan Kasten said Rijo - a special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden and a mainstay at spring training workouts - and the club jointly decided he should leave the team and return to his native Dominican Republic.

“Jose is on a leave,” Kasten said Saturday. “With all the questions swirling and with all the work being done still on this matter, we felt it would be a good time for him to be away from here.”

Rijo, who runs the Nationals’ Dominican academy, was instrumental in the 2006 signing of a prospect who went by the name Esmailyn Gonzalez and claimed to be 16. The shortstop’s representative at the time was Basilio Vizcaino, a buscon (street agent) and childhood friend of Rijo’s.

Washington gave that player a franchise-record $1.4 million signing bonus and touted him as a future star, but the club admitted this week that a Major League Baseball investigation revealed he had lied about his name and age.

That player’s real name, according to a new passport the Nationals received, is Carlos Alvarez. He was born in November 1985, making him four years older than previously believed.

The player, who hit .343 to win the rookie Gulf Coast League batting title last season at 23, remains in the Dominican Republic but could report to Viera with the rest of the organization’s minor league position players March 13.

The FBI has been investigating illegal practices by MLB clubs in which team executives skim the signing bonuses given to Dominican players. Bowden was interviewed last summer by the FBI, and Rijo’s name has since been linked with that investigation as well.

Both Bowden and Rijo have denied any wrongdoing. Bowden made his first appearance at spring training Saturday but declined to talk to reporters.

“When all this comes out, people will see I didn’t do anything wrong,” Rijo said Saturday night. “But I don’t want to be a distraction, so this is better for everyone right now.”

Rijo, a former All-Star and World Series MVP with the Cincinnati Reds, had been in uniform and on the field through the first week of workouts, even after the prospect scandal was revealed Wednesday. But after meeting with Kasten and other front office executives Friday night, the 43-year-old agreed to leave the club indefinitely and return to the Dominican Republic, where he can also tend to his ailing mother.

Kasten said there is no timetable for Rijo’s return but stressed that he remains a team employee.

Asked if there was a concern that Rijo could become a distraction, Kasten said: “Yeah, there was a general feeling, I think. And knowing how intrepid you reporters are, we didn’t want to invite continued scrutiny of Jose while he would otherwise be trying to work. So this is just sensible.”

Kasten said no other Nationals employees have left the club, though the ongoing MLB investigation could reveal improprieties within the organization during a scandal he has called a “deliberate, premeditated fraud.”

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” Kasten said. “You’ve only seen a small piece of it so far, but there’s a lot more to do. So in time we will be learning more and more about it.

“This has been long and drawn out. And we’re not going to stop until we get all the answers to all the questions this has raised. The first revelation was good. It was a long time coming, but it’s good that we got it and got it out. Whatever else remains to be found out, we want to find out. And the sooner the better.

“I promise you, we’re doing everything we can on our end to expedite everything we possibly can.”

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