MLB scouts scandal: a little off the Dominican signing bonus top
LA CALETA, Dominican Republic -- Kelvin De Leon, 17 years old and a millionaire for a day, rumbles over a dirt road in his silver Japanese SUV and stops in front of his grandmother's house.He doesn't live around here anymore. Before it was torn down, the small house where he grew up -- a cinder-block-and-concrete box with a corrugated metal roof just down another dirt road -- was like the others in this town. Last year, he moved with his parents to Santo Domingo, the capital, about 30 minutes away. The family's new home was made possible by the $1.1 million signing bonus the New York Yankees paid De Leon to wear pinstripes. He signed a contract July 2, 2007, and everything about his life changed. "Imagine," De Leon says in Spanish. "I had reached another level; I was going to be a professional. I was about to play." Two years after he quit school to train with a buscon (Spanish for a "finder" and a kind of street agent), De Leon was sent to the Yankees' Dominican academy not far from where he grew up. But before he left, he had one more transaction to complete -- $100,000 of his signing bonus had to be delivered to two men: Carlos Rios, the Yankees' director of Latin American scouting, and Ramon Valdivia, the team's Dominican scouting director.
A three-month "Outside the Lines" investigation reveals that the scandal began to unfold in February as pitchers and catchers were starting a new season. A White Sox prospect in the Dominican informed the club that a team employee had asked for part of his signing bonus, and the complaint was passed up to MLB offices in New York. Two weeks later, David Wilder, the senior director of player personnel for the White Sox, was making his way through customs at Miami International Airport when he was stopped. He was carrying about $40,000 in undeclared cash back from the Dominican. And a tale began to unravel that has shaken baseball from its Park Avenue offices in Manhattan to the muddy back roads of this small Caribbean nation.
Buried in Sen. George Mitchell's famous 409-page report on doping in baseball is a recommendation on page 287 that received little attention. "The Commissioner Should Establish a Department of Investigations," Mitchell wrote.MLB seized on the idea and formed a unit in January. In February, after receiving the tip about the White Sox, the department began to dig into allegations that team employees were stealing money. Four Spanish-speaking investigators with law enforcement backgrounds were sent to Latin America -- a fifth was added later -- to interview scouts, buscons, players and their families in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. "It's like where every time you pick up a rock and all the bugs come out," says an MLB official with knowledge of the investigation. "Every time we're down there, we find something." The first instance of skimming uncovered by both MLB and the FBI involved the Wilder allegations. Wilder spent seven middling seasons as a player in the minor leagues, never reaching the majors, before he left the field for management and player development roles. He worked with four teams before he joined the White Sox in 2003, and he was credited with playing a significant role in the team's 2005 World Series title run. Once considered a rising star in baseball's executive ranks, Wilder interviewed for several general manager openings, including the Red Sox in 2005. He remained with the White Sox, though, as one of GM Ken Williams' closest confidantes. "Nobody saw this coming," one White Sox source says. "Not in a million years. Kenny was crushed." Other White Sox officials declined comment, citing the FBI's ongoing investigation. According to MLB sources and a former White Sox scout, Wilder's role in financial improprieties involving the signing of Dominican players wasn't just a recent development.
In the last five years, numbers provided by MLB show the average signing bonus given to prospects in the Dominican Republic has more than tripled. The totals for 2008 are through Sept. 19.
|Year||Total bonuses||No. of signings||Average|
To Arturo Marcano and David Fidler, it all sounds familiar. Marcano, a lawyer from Venezuela now living in Toronto, and Fidler, a law professor at Indiana University, have spent the past decade teamed up in an effort to expose the exploitation of young ballplayers in Latin America. Their 2003 book, "Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz," charges that MLB fostered a system that takes advantage of young, cheap and often desperate talent and pays little attention to human rights and labor standards. Like some scouts and buscons in the Dominican, Marcano says it has been well known for years that some team employees were skimming -- though perhaps no one knew it had reached all the way to the States, and to high-ranking executives such as Wilder. Marcano says history suggests whatever oversight MLB is employing now isn't likely to last.
In the case of Kelvin De Leon, not everyone is convinced he is an unwitting victim. One major league source familiar with MLB's probe says De Leon told investigators his family met with Rios and Valdivia and reached an understanding: Kelvin would sign with the Yankees and give the men $100,000 if they could get him $1.1 million. "He knew exactly what they were doing," the source says.
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