Is corruption in the Dominican Republic baseball academies hurting the MLB?

1 Jan

While the Dominican Republic has provided the MLB with some of the most talented and exciting players we have ever seen, there is no denying that corruption in the baseball academies operated within it’s borders are having a negative impact on the game. To lay the blame fully at the hands of the academies isn’t truly fair, as the first line of defense they are failing miserably. Whether it’s drugs, kick-back schemes, or falsified records, the problems with the D.R. baseball academies is reaching epic proportions and may serve to be the next great scandal in the MLB.

The biggest problem that nobody wants to talk about is the use of performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) in the academies. What makes this especially sad is that these are kids who are primarily under the age of 18. In fact, the most talented kids may leave their home at as young as fourteen to live and play ball at an academy full time. What goes on at these facilities is something most MLB teams have been willing to turn a blind eye to because the talent arriving has continually gotten younger and more developed than at any other time. By financing these facilities and loosely regulating them at best, this behavior actually seemed to be encouraged. Grow them bigger and faster than before seems to be the mantra. As these players aren’t yet subject to drug testing under the collective bargaining agreement, the Commissioners Office can say or do little to end it.

The end result is a generation of players in which many have opted for or been goaded into taking the chemical edge. By the time they reach the U.S. and officially enter the minor league system at 18, they often find they depend on that chemical crutch. Just looking at the list of suspended players since the new steroid policy went into effect, in the minors more players that arrived from Dominican Republic baseball academies have failed testing than any other demographic. In fairness however it must also be said that they are the second largest demographic only behind American born players, many of whom have been under NCAA testing since they were the age of these newly arriving D.R. academy players. Like all statistics it must be viewed in the proper perspective.The problem is that players that straighten up and follow the rules all too often fail to show their earlier promise and become after-thoughts that are shipped home within three years for failing to progress.

The second major problem which has made a return to the press spotlight is players falsifying their birth certificates to appear younger. It is no secret that this has gone on for decades with players from everywhere, however now it is more prevalent than ever. In previous years it was mainly the Cuban ballplayers that shaved a few years off their age. The fact that guys like Orlando Hernandez or Luis Tiant may have forgotten a few birthdays was accepted because they were known commodities that had proved them self already. Teams were willing to overlook it. Now however something quite different is happening, players nobody has ever heard of, kids without a contract even are turning back time. While most 16 year old kids would love to be accepted as 18, in Dominican baseball academies 16 is a far more valuable age than 18.

Usually if a player has not panned out by the time they hit eighteen, they can forget about making a trip to the minors. There are hundreds of kids in academies younger than they are with more time to develop. Therefore a younger prospect that looks more polished can command a better deal. A perfect example is Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez who was once viewed as the next ozzie Smith and a future cornerstone of the Washington nationals. As a 16 year old prospect he commanded a 2006 contract that carried a signing bonus of $1.4 million. He was seen as that good, endless upside and plenty of time to develop it.

The problem is he wasn’t 16, he wasn’t even 18, he was really 20. That is a huge difference in development time in regards to professional sports. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t even Esmailyn Gonzalez, he was really named Carlos David Alvarez. The Nationals wound up with not just an older player, but a whole different person! How fair is that to the organization which made future draft choices and trades based on the idea this was a guy that would be a central part of the team when he matured? While he was considered a phenom at 16, at 23 which he is today his value has dropped down to marginal at best. There is a huge difference between breaking in at 21 and 25 years old.

Gonzalez is hardly the only recent player to pull some form of this scam, current big leaguers like Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Furcal, and former Cy Young winner now minor league journeyman Bartolo Colon all doctored their birth certificates. While they have gone on to productive careers, for each of them dozens of others they try and get caught only to slip into obscurity we never hear about. What is disturbing is the local scouts employed by the teams know full and well who these players are and how old they are but say nothing. To them it is worth the risk. If the player pans out all will be forgiven, if not at least the kid got a shot. Either way teams keep bankrolling the academies.

Finally, a current federal investigation into skimming bonus money by scouts in the D.R. who oversee at least in part these academies, as well as agents and one General manager, Jim Bowden, has shown corruption is everywhere. Bowden they claim has been skimming bonus money from Dominican prospects since at least 1996, maybe 1994 while with the Reds. To their credit the MLB investigators managed to keep a lid on this until turning it over to the government for further investigation and probable prosecution. So far three White Sox scouts in the D.R. were fired in 2008, and Jose Rijo, another Dominican based scout on 2/28/09. It is believed several teams may have some involvement in this although details are sketchy at best at this time.

What it all boils down to is the MLB is for the most part doing the same thing with every other scandal they have faced, they talk tough and turn a blind eye. All of this behavior is still going on aside from perhaps bonus skimming at the MLB level. Still it goes without saying that if they are doing business with people that are taking an unwarranted piece of the pie the MLB is just as guilty. What makes this sad is that there is no need for any of it. Dominican born players can and should be seen as equals when it comes to developing with everyone else. These kids are mercilessly exploited at an alarming rate. With less than 1% ever reaching the bigs, baseball is really only the answer for a few, and the academies are the slaughterhouses they pass through.

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