Although the FBI and Major League Baseball's investigation into whether Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden and associates, including Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo, skimmed money from bonuses to Latin American prospects is still in its early stages, the team's signing of shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez in 2006 is a focus of the probe, according to sources close to the investigation.

On July 2, 2006, the Nationals paraded Gonzalez, decked out in a Nationals jersey and cap, in front of the D.C. press corps as they announced that they had signed the 16-year-old switch hitter to a $1.4 million bonus. The hefty bonus served notice to other Dominican prospects, their handlers and to other teams that for the first time, Washington, under new ownership, was willing to invest large sums on players in an effort to compete for the island's top talent. However, multiple sources have estimated that Gonzalez received a small fraction of that bonus.

Bowden and Rijo, who was the MVP of the 1990 World Series while pitching for the Reds, have denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to SI.com, Bowden wrote, "I am very supportive of the investigation and I have no knowledge of any wrong-doing. The FBI and MLB have an on-going investigation. It would be inappropriate for me to further comment so that the investigators can do their jobs. I am fully supporting their investigation and, along with the Washington Nationals, will continue to cooperate in any way needed." When reached by phone in the Dominican Republic on Saturday afternoon by SI.com, Rijo sounded upbeat and said that he had no reason for concern because he has nothing to hide. Rijo declined to discuss any specifics pertaining to Gonzalez, citing the ongoing investigation and saying that he did not handle any of the details of Gonzalez's contract.

Bowden is the highest-ranking baseball official currently under investigation, but all 30 teams are being examined, SI.com has confirmed. The Nationals inquiry follows the May 16 announcement that the Chicago White Sox had fired senior director of player personnel David Wilder. Sources say that Wilder is being investigated by the FBI to determine if he siphoned money from player bonuses. No charges have been filed against Wilder, who has made no public comment since his dismissal.

SI.com spoke with dozens of team scouts, buscones (independent coaches who identify, develop and then sell prospects to major league teams), investigators, and other front office personnel who all concede that the breadth of the corruption is matched only by the difficulty that investigators will have in proving it.

With some variation, the mechanism by which team representatives can skim is simple: The team official overvalues the player and asks for money back from the player and his family. Until the Wilder case emerged, teams sent the bonus money in the form of a check to MLB headquarters in the Dominican Republic. A team official and a parent or guardian accompanied the player to the offices where they received the check. Most players, according to those entrenched in Dominican baseball, typically head straight for the bank to cash the check. Once the check is cashed, the handouts begin.

A source familiar with the Wilder investigation explains that a major league team official, with a nice shirt and pressed pants and in a position of authority, will likely get little resistance from the largely poor and often undereducated player. In some cases the buscon who acts as the agent for the player and the team official agree on how much each of them will receive out of the player's bonus before the player signs the contract. The buscon, who often has a long relationship with the player, convinces the player -- usually around the age of a high school sophomore -- to turn over the money. In the wake of the Wilder investigation, teams are now directly depositing the bonus into a bank account opened on behalf of the player.

The son of a rice farmer, Gonzalez, who grew up in a rusting, corrugated tin shack in Baní, remembers sitting at the exclusive Capital Grille steakhouse in Washington, D.C., on the eve of his signing as Bowden, Rijo, team president Stan Kasten and others discussed his contract in English, a language he does not understand. "I didn't know what they were saying," Gonzalez says, in Spanish. He says he received the entire sum he signed for. He also tells SI.com that he paid his buscon, Basilio Vizcaino, and his agent, Rob Plummer, their due percentages and that he has not been cheated out of any money. "Gracias a Dios [Thanks be to God], that didn't happen to me. The people I trusted didn't cheat me. They gave me all that I needed." He also says that Vizcaino, who housed and fed him as his buscon, had lent him money prior to signing and that he repaid his loans to him.

Several factors make those familiar with Dominican baseball suspicious, however. First, there was considerable debate over the Nationals' description of Gonzalez as a five-tool player. "He's not. He doesn't run all that well, has an average arm," says an executive with another club. The Nationals offered $1.4 million while the Texas Rangers, the next-highest bidder, offered $700,000. Plummer, Gonzalez's agent prior to the signing who was fired by Gonzalez shortly after the player inked his deal with the Nationals, negotiated with other interested teams -- but not the Nationals. Vizcaino, Gonzalez's buscon, is a childhood friend of Rijo's and a protégé of Jose Baez, the Nationals director of operations in the Dominican Republic. "I didn't feel like he was paying enough attention to me," Gonzalez says when explaining why he fired Plummer.

Gonzalez's mother, Ana Mercedes Marte, says she received the full amount of the bonus in Dominican pesos and remembers people stopping by their house to collect their money for their role in coaching her son. Now, two years after receiving the bonus, she proudly welcomes guests into the family's new four-bedroom house with its shiny white tile floor, bright yellow trim, and spacious bathroom. It is still, by some people's standards, a humble home, she knows, but she talks hopefully about the larger house that her son's baseball career can provide.

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