September 21, 2010

The Washington Nationals' top instructor in the Dominican Republic failed to disclose to his superiors that the prospect the organization had signed to a team-record $1.4 million bonus in 2006 was neither who he claimed nor the age he purported to be, according to court testimony obtained by Jose Baez, the Nationals' Dominican academy coordinator from February 2005 through February 2009, also told the fake prospect to "remain calm and keep playing," according to court documents.

Carlos Alvarez, who was 20 when he passed himself off to the Nationals as 16-year-old prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez, testified in June in a Dominican appeals court that he told Baez that he wasn't in fact Gonzalez after he had signed with the team. Alvarez told the court that he confessed the fraud to Baez because the family who provided him with fake documents had tried to blackmail him. Nelson Tejada, the investigator for Major League Baseball who discovered the fraud, testified that "Baez told me that he knew of this name change" and that Baez's mistake was "knowing [of the fraud] and not reporting it."

Alvarez also told the court that Jose Rijo, who at the time was special assistant to then Washington general manager Jim Bowden, knew of the fraud. Rijo was fired along with Baez on Feb. 26, 2009, and Bowden resigned three days later.

Alvarez made his statements during a case involving a labor dispute between Baez and the Nationals. Alvarez's testimony proved critical in the appeals court's Aug. 30 decision in favor of the team, and it may be helpful to FBI investigators who are examining if any team officials knew of the fraud or profited from it. As previously reported, MLB and federal authorities have been looking into the relationships between Baez, a mentor to both Rijo and Basilio Vizcaino, a childhood friend of Rijo's and the trainer who represented Alvarez in negotiations with the Nationals, and Bowden, a close friend of Rijo's.

In April 2009 Baez filed a wrongful termination suit against the Nationals. An employment judge last October ordered the Nationals to pay Baez nearly $75,000. The Nationals launched an aggressive and costly appeal. Said team president Stan Kasten, "We're all determined to not allow these things to be swept under the rug, to not allow people who have been guilty of wrongdoing to get away with it."

Baez, however, remains steadfast in his denials of any wrongdoing in the Gonzalez case. "I'm going to show they did a dirty job," says Baez, who also says that he will take his case to the Dominican's supreme court. He claims that Alvarez told him of the identity switch on Feb. 10, 2008, and that later that same day Baez informed the team that they had been duped.

Getting a player to testify marks a significant win for MLB's nascent investigative team. Alvarez's testimony, according to the verdict, played a crucial role in overturning the lower court's ruling. "Given the witnesses above, it appears there was sufficient proof to terminate," the appeals court decision states. Says Dan Mullin, senior vice president of the league's department of investigations, "We were told early on that we would never, ever get a player to come and do this, to testify in court against either a buscón [one who trains prospective players in exchange for a percentage of their future signing bonuses] or anyone from the team," Securing cooperation from players, who are often loyal to their buscones or afraid to cross them, could aid the department's efforts to clean up the Dominican player pipeline that has been plagued by corruption, age fraud and steroid use. Mullin told that the only inducement the department offered Alvarez to secure his testimony was to inform the U.S. consulate -- the American agency that grants visas -- that he had fully cooperated in its case.

Alvarez also testified that he heard other prospects talk of having to pay Baez portions of their signing bonuses -- a violation of MLB rules. Maria Ramona Cabrera Morel, the mother of Joseph Cabreja, an infielder signed by the Nationals in May 2008, informed the court that Baez demanded $30,000 of her son's $75,000 signing bonus "as payment for helping the Nationals sign her son." The court considered Cabrera Morel's" statements to attorneys, though the family declined to testify. "We were concerned about any damage that could be done to [Joseph] if we got involved," says Joseph's father, Pedro. Though released by the Nationals in November, Joseph, now 20, hopes to catch on with another team. When asked how he felt about allegedly paying Baez, Pedro says, "Clearly, it was money my son earned, but baseball is also a business." He adds that his family had no idea the payment violated MLB rules. Baez did not challenge Cabrera Morel's allegations, and the appeals judges considered that "tacit acceptance" of her statements. But Baez fiercely denied Cabrera Morel's claims to and says that he plans to sue her and Tejada for what he describes as their false statements.

Baez provided with an email dated Feb. 1, 2008, from Nationals scouting director Dana Brown, which was addressed to many of the team's top executives. In the email Brown writes, "[Cabreja] is also worth $200,000 but Baez can sign him for $75,000." Baez points to the email because, he says, "If I was taking money from him, I'm going to want to sign him for more."

Sandy Alderson, MLB's emissary charged with overhauling baseball's Latin American operations, called the case a "watershed" in relations with the Dominican Republic but cautioned, "It's only one case."

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