- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

VIERA, Fla.

Washington Nationals team president Stan Kasten may have no more to say about the Smiley Gonzalez scandal, and he may have imposed a gag order on general manager Jim Bowden and others not to discuss it.

But the Nationals’ code of silence does not extend to the Dominican Republic or to Basilio Vizcaino - the “buscon” who helped broker the high-profile, $1.4 million deal in 2006 with the Nationals to sign Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez - who it was revealed last week is four years older than they thought with a completely different identity.

Vizcaino, in a telephone interview, made the case that when it comes to placing blame in the embarrassing deal that is being investigated by both Major League Baseball and federal authorities, there is a long list of victims who were duped by the player who turned out to be Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo - and 23 years old instead of 19.

The biggest sucker may have been Major League Baseball itself.

Vizcaino said five different major league teams, including the Nationals, had interest in signing Alvarez in 2005 - when he was believed to be 16 - and asked MLB’s Dominican office to conduct an identity check on the player.

“He passed the check for all five,” said Vizcaino, who as a buscon works with young amateur players in the Dominican Republic in exchange for a percentage of future signing bonuses.

At the same time baseball discovered problems in the Smiley Gonzalez deal last year, the Major League Baseball investigators who had been in the Dominican baseball operation, responsible for these identification checks, were all fired “for the quality of their work,” according to a baseball source.

Baseball now has created a separate investigative unit - sort of a baseball FBI - that came out of the 2007 Mitchell Report on steroids, and that unit is involved in the Smiley Gonzalez probe.

Foreign-born players lying about their age is hardly anything new in baseball. It’s almost part of the game’s lore.

But two things separate the Smiley Gonzalez case from many of the others.

One is the elaborate scheme behind creating Smiley Gonzalez. It included actually manufacturing a fake family, almost like a Dominican version of “The Truman Show.” It had to be, if Vizcaino - who Alvarez lived with for several years - is to be believed about his lack of knowledge of the con.

The second is the question of how much, if any, of the $1.4 million may have been pocketed by anyone connected with the Nationals. That is why this has become a high-profile case and drawn the attention of federal investigators, particularly in the aftermath of the case involving a former White Sox scout last year who was accused of skimming bonus money from prospects and teams.

Vizcaino claims no one took any of the money, which baseball investigators could not locate. He said the money went to real members of Alvarez’s family and not to any of those involved who purported to be his real family.

“The family that said they were Smiley’s did not get any money,” Vizcaino said.

If it does turn out that there was no money taken by anyone in the organization, that certainly changes the complexion of the case and the consequences that could result from the probe. But following the money in the murky world of Dominican baseball may be an impossible task, a place where deals are made and then disappear.

Vizcaino said Alvarez, when he was Smiley Gonzalez, signed an $850,000 deal with the Texas Rangers, but that contract was voided. Rangers spokesman Rich Rice said the club had no comment.

The Rangers then wound up second behind the Nationals’ $1.4 million bid. Texas offered $700,000, according to the SI.com report that broke this story last week.

Vizcaino said the first time he met Alvarez, then known as Smiley Gonzalez, was at the New York Yankees’ Dominican camp in 2005.

“I thought he was 16,” he said. “Last year was when I found out about his age.”

That was when former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, a close friend of Vizcaino’s and a special assistant to Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, also first met Alvarez and knew him as a 16-year-old named Smiley Gonzalez, Vizcaino said.

Rijo, under scrutiny for his role in the situation, has left the Nationals’ spring training camp and is taking a leave of absence. He has maintained he did nothing wrong, and Vizcaino defended his friend.

“Jose Rijo had nothing to do with this,” Vizcaino said. “He has nothing to hide.”

Vizcaino also said he spoke with Alvarez recently, and the player expressed remorse for this scheme that has put Rijo and the Nationals under the microscope.

Vizcaino said Alvarez told him: “Tell Jose I am sorry. I did it because I wanted to play. I was 18. No one would give me a chance.”

That heart-rending tale of desperation might ring more true if a $1.4 million signing bonus weren’t involved. But when you have a con as elaborate as this one appears to be, there are a lot of people to pay off.

That is the only question that will matter in the end - who got paid.

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