Monday, July 14, 2008

The Latest: SmileyGate

Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Segura gives us the latest update on the alleged Dominican Republic bonus-skimming scandal, reporting that the FBI is focusing their investigation of the Nationals on the signing of Esmailyn Gonzalez:

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.

I thought “paraded” was an inappropriate, editorializing choice of words by Segura, which frankly raised doubts in my mind about the objectivity of the whole article. However if indeed Gonzalez only received a “small fraction” of the money he’s entitled to, then this is a truly awful situation.

Reportedly based on a large number of interviews with buscones, scouts, and MLB execs, the article gives us significantly more detail on exactly how the allegedly widespread bonus-skimming was done:

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 (the Chicago White Sox scout arrested after getting caught trying to enter the U.S. with a large amount of cash) 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.

With so many millions flying around in a developing country, the potential for corruption is so obvious that as far as I’m concerned it’s basically a tacit endorsement of these practices if the league wasn’t aggressively protecting the players every step of the way. And the way this article presents it, the league was not only not making an effort to protect the players, the league representatives were routinely facilitating and benefiting from the scam.

We then hear from Smiley himself:

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 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.

I appreciate that the focus on Gonzalez in this article. We need to keep in mind the truly repugnant nature of the crime that’s alleged, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a destitute family by conning a trusting, uneducated kid.

But here again Segura writes with a slant against the Nationals and MLB. It’s relevant certainly if Kasten, Bowden, and Rijo somehow tricked Gonzalez into signing something that wasn’t explained to him or printed in his native language. And if you have evidence or that, report it. But why imply that with this anecdote about the rich white guys yukking it up in the steakhouse like Tony Soprano’s gang? It's gratuitous and not helpful.

Nonetheless I have my doubts about Gonzalez’s insistence that he wasn’t ripped off. I assume this is a proud kid who doesn’t appreciate being portrayed as a dupe, and then there’s that one word that jumps out at you: “they gave me all that I needed. English isn’t his first language, so it’s easy to imagine that he meant, “they gave me all I was entitled to,” or something, but still it sounds like he is rationalizing or repeating a line given to him by a con artist.

Then we get more details on the red flags that apparently prompted the investigation:

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.

So there are a number of suspicious factors: the trust Vizcaino built by taking in Gonzalez, the conspicuously high bonus, the overrating of the player’s ability, the dubious explanation for the firing of Plummer, and the personal connections between Vizcaino, Baez, and Rijo. But none of these circumstances, even if true, represent a smoking gun.

But I will say that if this article basically gets it right on the facts, then as far as I’m concerned there aren’t any clean hands in MLB, and the FBI should basically treat the whole league as one big syndicate. Not only should Bowden be fired, but he and Bud and the execs from any teams involved in the DR should do time. They probably won’t, but they should.

Otherwise I thought this was a really detailed article that may have been well reported, but was written with so much bias that it undermined its own credibility, which I think is a shame given the seriousness of the crimes alleged. I once again think that at some point some news outlet (the Post) needs to start putting some hard news, corporate crime reporters on the story.

  • In other news, Jon Heyman says Bowden's the worst GM in the NL this year, but not because of SmileyGate. He says, "Let's face it, Bowden's constructed a team that has one, maybe two, legit starting position players." That's not totally fair, since without the injuries we would have had at least three legit starters.

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