The small island country of the Dominican Republic is littered with makeshift ballparks, bursting with young boys who have big league dreams.
Rene Oriental was once one of these young kids with big dreams. The 22-year-old grew up playing on a dusty field in the small town of Monte Cristi, where dirt roads abound and electricity runs sporadically. He appeared to be on his way to the big leagues when he signed a $100,000 contract with the Kansas City Royals in 2001. But two years ago, Oriental made a decision that ended up crushing his major league dreams.
A man came to his house with a proposition. Oriental was offered just under $4,000 to marry a stranger and take her to the United States on his baseball work visa. As Oriental recalls, "they tell me that that's fair ... everything is fair for the American Consulate. I believe in that person. I trust in that person."
Former Tampa Bay Devil Rays minor league player Salvador Paredes shares a similar story. After agreeing to accept $4,500 from a man claiming to be a lawyer, he was taken to a nearby town and says he was introduced to his soon-to-be bride just minutes before he exchanged vows with her.
As the players began preparing to travel to the United States for spring training, they headed to the consulate with their new wives to get their work visas in order. But players told ESPN that officials became suspicious after noticing that so many minor leaguers had been married in recent days, and the same witness had been present at many of the shotgun weddings. Oriental, Paredes and numerous other minor league ballplayers were summoned back to the consulate and faced with their worst nightmare -- their visas were permanently canceled and they were banned from setting foot on American soil.
Paredes cried as he recalled that day, and said in Spanish, "My blood pressure dropped. Everything, everything, crumbled, everything I thought, my plans, the major leagues and all that. I thought of my family's future and my future, everything."
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo confirmed to ESPN that a marriage-for-visa fraud was thwarted at the U.S. Consulate in early 2005. While it is State Department policy not to release the names of visa applicants, the official confirmed that at least 15 minor league players and their alleged wives all had their visa privileges permanently revoked on grounds of attempting to smuggle aliens into the United States.
After speaking with numerous players who were caught in this plot, ESPN has confirmed that at least seven major league teams -- the Yankees, Rangers, Orioles, Royals, Devil Rays, Angels and Pirates -- had players nabbed. Sources told ESPN that some of the women, whose whereabouts are unknown, actually made it to the United States before the consulate picked up on the scheme. ESPN also was told that in several instances, the women's families mortgaged their homes to pay for their daughters' sham marriages, and the intermediaries would pocket upwards of $15,000.
This type of immigration fraud is common in a country where abject poverty leads people to take drastic measures to get to America. But a more sinister motivation is often behind some of these scams, particularly in the Dominican Republic, where human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women for prostitution and forced labor, is a common problem. According to a 2006 U.S. State Department report, international human rights organizations estimate that approximately 50,000 Dominican women work in prostitution throughout the world, and one-third of them are victims of trafficking.
When asked if this scam was indeed part of a larger human trafficking ring, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo told ESPN that his department is still investigating the situation; the official also has heard that someone "put the players up to it." The official went on say that while the State Department takes accusations of human trafficking very seriously, "the visa applicants themselves are the ones who attempted to smuggle women into the U.S. through sham marriages bear the consequences of their fraudulent actions."
Like many players involved in this scam, Oriental has been released by his major league team, but not all teams are giving up hope. A Yankees official told ESPN that they have two players who were involved in the Dominican scam -- pitchers Maximo Nelson and Juan De Leon -- who still remain in their organization.
Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels is still holding out hope for pitchers Omar Beltre and Alexi Ogando, who remain with the Rangers. Although both stand accused of smuggling women and are unable to obtain visas to enter the United States, Daniels has decided to keep Ogando on the Rangers' 40-man roster. Scouts say each player, who can throw in the high 90s, has the potential to reach the majors.
"We're all accountable for our own actions, but there's no doubt these were kids, who, to an extent, were taken advantage of by an organized group that knew what they were doing and that profited off of them," Daniels told ESPN.
Several baseball sources told ESPN that Major League Baseball officials are actively talking with the State Department and Homeland Security about resolving the visa issue. When asked what steps the Rangers have taken on the players' behalf, Daniels said, "we talked to the right politicians, we've talked to the right departments, we've filed petitions and waivers on their behalf, we've tried to set up meetings with the right people, but we haven't gotten the response that these kids need us to at this point."
Paredes remains under contract with the Devil Rays organization and continues to practice in Santo Domingo, hoping he still might get his chance in the big leagues.
"The only thing that I want is that they give me the opportunity to play, to keep playing, to be someone in life, to play in the United States, continue my career in order to help my family," he said.
But Paredes and other players involved in the scheme are beginning their third season since being banned from obtaining a visa to enter the United States, and the players and clubs know that time is slipping away.
Nicole Noren is a producer with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and Pedro Gomez is a reporter with ESPN and ESPN Deportes.