- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

The revelation that a top Washington Nationals prospect from the Dominican Republic falsified his identity and age has underscored the challenges teams face in Latin America.

Experts on baseball in Latin America and officials from several clubs said fraud is considerably less common than in the past, but many players and members of their inner circles still are inclined to lie. It’s often seen in countries like the Dominican Republic that are rife with poverty, corruption and poor record-keeping.

Nationals officials acknowledged Wednesday that prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez was actually Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, a 23-year-old who was four years older than the team believed. The Nationals in 2006 gave Alvarez a team-record $1.4 million signing bonus, believing him to be 16 when instead he was 20.

Though details of the depth of the fraud against the Nationals are striking, the case is not rare.

Last year, Houston Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was signed by the Oakland A’s in 1993 as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, admitted to being two years older than he claimed. In 2002, the Atlanta Braves revealed shortstop Rafael Furcal was 23 instead of 21. Current Seattle Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre has acknowledged he claimed to be 16 when he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers; he was actually 15 - which would have made him too young to sign.

“This isn’t a new issue or a new problem,” said Randy Smith, the director of professional and international scouting for the San Diego Padres. “There’s talent there; it’s a very competitive market. Obviously you’d like to deal with the most legitimate [situations] possible with regard to ages and identities, but there are still going to be some that beat the system.”

In recent years, most teams have established high-end academies in the Dominican Republic and other places in Latin America. Officials said the academies don’t necessarily eliminate fraud, but they provide a structured environment and let teams observe young players more closely. Some teams have gone so far as to perform DNA tests and bone density scans on players whose age is in question, but at least one team official said players may sign with another team if they feel they are being too heavily scrutinized.

Team officials and experts on baseball in the Dominican Republic said athletes often lie about their age in order to make themselves more attractive. They acknowledged that in many cases a 16- or 17-year-old would be more desirable than a 20-year-old with identical ability. Extreme poverty also plays a major role.

“These kids are vulnerable; they might have eighth-, ninth- or 10th-grade educations and are coming from poverty we can’t imagine,” said Rob Ruck, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.” “It’s not quite as selfish an act as one might think. The more financial lure there is, the more we’re going to see guys skirt the rules.”

Clouding the process are unofficial agents known as “buscones” who promote and often house, feed and clothe players.

“A much higher percentage of these cases are being caught… but in regards to individual buscones, it’s a whole different deal,” said one longtime American League scout who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Baseball has no authority or power. They operate on their own.”

But observers said a fraud like the type experienced by the Nationals has not occurred in several years. Major League Baseball’s ability to catch false documents has improved since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the United States became more diligent about verifying the accuracy of visas for athletes entering the country. The league also now investigates the age and identity of players, though some teams sign players without an investigation. Last spring, baseball instituted a rule that forbids a player from signing with a team for one year if he has been shown to falsify his age.

“The improvement has been about 300 percent,” said Alan Nero, managing director of baseball for sports agency Octagon. “I have not seen a case of fraud like [the Nationals’] in five, six, seven years.”

In the case of the Nationals, the fraud involving Alvarez surfaced even after three probes failed to discover any problems.

“The protocols are the baseball protocols,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said Wednesday. “I think 90 percent of the time they’re very effective. We’ve turned kids in that baseball has kicked out for fraudulent IDs. That’s usually how it works, and it didn’t work in this case - and that’s a shame.”

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