Even With a Scorecard, You Can't Tell the Players

Times Staff Writer

Ramon Reyes, an Angel pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic, will have an unusual addendum to his media guide biography this season. It will read: "Ramon Reyes, the player formerly known as Juan Mena."

The San Diego Padres had a minor league pitcher last spring named Isabel Giron. Only Isabel Giron was a 24-year-old woman in the Dominican and the younger sister of the Padre pitcher.

The baseball-playing Giron was 29 and used his sister's birth certificate to fake his identity. The Padres, upon discovering this news, promptly released Giron, never bothering to find out what his real first name was.

Dozens of baseball players, major leaguers and minor leaguers alike, aged virtually overnight last winter, when an immigration crackdown after Sept. 11 uncovered discrepancies in birth certificates.

But now, with the opening of spring training only weeks away, it's apparent that the U.S. State Department's recent enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy toward false visa documentation has led to an even deeper identity crisis in the game. According to Major League Baseball, 180 players from the Dominican played in the minor leagues under false names last season.

In all, Major League Baseball has found about 550 cases of fraudulent identity -- either false birth dates or names -- for Latin American players in the last two years, 99% of them from the Dominican Republic.

"I can't say I was shocked," said Tye Waller, the Padre player development director whose internal audit of his system found 18 players using fake names. "But I was surprised by the number of guys who got away with it."

Players from impoverished countries such as the Dominican, a tiny, baseball-crazed Caribbean island where the per capita income is $1,600 a year, are often encouraged to lie about their ages by family members or buscones, the independent scouts who scour the nation for talent, arrange tryouts and deliver players to teams or agents.

A 16-year-old with a strong throwing arm or home run-hitting power is deemed to have far more potential and would garner a higher signing bonus than a 21-year-old with the same tools.

The Dodgers, for instance, agreed to give 17-year-old Jonathan Corporan a $930,000 signing bonus last April, but the deal was put on hold pending confirmation of the pitcher's age and identity. In late August, Corporan was found to be 21-year-old Reyes Soto, and Soto signed for $150,000.

For several years, many Dominican players felt the path to larger contracts and a brighter future was an altered birth certificate, but closer scrutiny of visa documentation last winter exposed a large number of bogus birth certificates; Angel pitcher Ramon Ortiz, for example, went from age 26 to 29.

So, some players took deception to another level, using the legal documents of another person -- they'd often turn to a younger sibling or cousin, but in some cases players would pay another person for documents -- to forge a new identity entirely.

That strategy worked for many ... until now.

In an address during the general managers' meetings in November, David Beam, head of the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican, told front-office executives that any player caught falsifying his identity will never qualify for a visa to enter the United States. This was not a new law, just a much stricter enforcement of existing laws.

"I got the impression from listening to Beam that players will be permanently banned from the U.S. if they use a false ID," said Lou Melendez, baseball's vice president of international baseball operations. "They may be more lenient with a fake birth date, but not a fake ID.

"I would love to say this will put an end to the problem, but when you understand the culture of that country, the poverty they live in, you know the extreme lengths they'll go through. But I think we've put a serious dent in the problem."

After Beam's presentation, word of the State Department clampdown spread quickly. Each major league team faxed information to their baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, and that information was passed to players.

The buscones were notified, and word spread to remote areas of the country. A prominent article in the Dominican Republic's largest daily newspaper explained the situation and the consequences players face if they fake their identities.

"We believe the word is out," said Rafael Perez, manager of Major League Baseball's Latin American office in Santo Domingo. "Any player who wants a visa has to have the right documentation."

The result: Dozens of players, fearful of losing the chance to fulfill their dreams of playing in the big leagues, revealed their true identities to their teams. Ten of those players were in the Angel farm system.

"We had a few players come forward and come clean," Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman said.

"[The State Department] is going to come down hard. We've been told there's a chance they'll be banned from entering the U.S., period, if they play these games. I don't tolerate or condone guys screwing around with names and birth dates. I'm confident this will stop them."

Eleven of the 18 players found to be using false names in the Padre system played in the United States last season. Five of the 10 Angel minor leaguers using false names played in the United States. Since the Corporan-Soto case last season, the Dodgers have not found any players using false names.

"This is not targeted specifically at baseball players, it's for everyone," said Kelly Shannon, spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington. "It's something to remind people that we don't appreciate fraudulent documentation when they present themselves for visas."

The reason is obvious: The United States, as part of its war against terrorism, wants to know exactly who is coming into the country and why. But as long as there are baseball teams willing to pay millions for talent and eager Dominican players looking for an edge, there will probably be efforts to sidestep those laws.

"I don't blame them for wanting a better life," Waller said. "Most of these kids don't have schooling, they start working and taking care of themselves when they're 12, they're trying to make a living and survive, to find a place to lay their head and food to eat. It's enough to make you do anything to get out.

"Even a guy in rookie ball with a bed and a television in his room thinks he's living in paradise, by comparison. It's a shame, but that's the reality of the situation."

In December 2000, baseball opened its first Latin American office in Santo Domingo in an attempt to control the underage signings, secret tryouts and the influence of the buscones, all of which combined to create a Wild West atmosphere in the Dominican Republic.

In June 1999, the commissioner's office granted free agency to two Dodger minor leaguers who accused the team of holding secret tryouts in Cuba and ferrying them to the Dominican, where they were placed in the Dodger Baseball Academy.

Later the same year, it was revealed that Dodger third baseman Adrian Beltre had been signed by the club before he reached baseball's minimum age of 16.

Beltre's personnel file contained two birth certificates, one showing he was 15 when he signed and another with the year of birth whited out and changed to a date that would have made his signing legal.

Soon after the doors to Perez's Dominican office opened, a more widespread problem -- the falsifying of documents to make players look younger, and more attractive, to teams -- emerged.

Some players, desperate for a chance at a signing bonus that could support their families for years or a spot in an academy that pays about $850 a month during the summer-league season, would attend a tryout at one team's academy, get cut, and show up at another academy a few months later using a different name.

"Baseball was all I ever thought about and dreamed about," Junior Guzman, a minor league catcher, told The Times during an interview at the Angels' Dominican academy in San Pedro de Macoris in January 2001.

"It's a big opportunity to play here, but the biggest opportunity is to be able to play in the U.S. and in the big leagues, because then you can take care of your family for life."

As Guzman spoke that day, he was sitting on a concrete bench, the dirt floor of the Angels' dugout below, a corrugated tin roof above, a scraggly baseball field with no sprinkler system before him and cows grazing nearby.

Attached to the academy dugout was a two-story cinder-block building containing a cramped clubhouse, a kitchen and small dining hall, a dormitory with 21 bunk beds crammed into a 1,200-square-foot room, and an adjoining bathroom consisting of two toilets -- with no privacy doors -- a urinal and a sink, all to accommodate about 40 players who live there 10 months a year.

The following season, 2002, Guzman's dream ascended to Provo, Utah, the Angels' advanced rookie league team in the Pioneer League, still five rungs below the major leagues on baseball's ladder.

But when Guzman continues his climb through the Angel farm system this spring, he will do so as 22-year-old Wilkin Contreras, not 20-year-old Junior Guzman.

The catcher is among the 10 Angels who recently admitted to playing under a false name.

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