Yanks sued for wrongful termination

Updated: May 4, 2009, 7:58 PM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

The former Dominican scouting director for the New York Yankees says he has filed a $3 million wrongful termination lawsuit against the team with a court hearing scheduled on Friday in the Dominican Republic.

Ramon Valdivia, one of two Dominican Republic-based scouts fired by the Yankees last year during a bonus-skimming investigation by Major League Baseball, is seeking damages against the team after he was alleged to have taken bonus money from 18-year-old Yankees prospect Kelvin De Leon.

Valdivia received a potential boost to his case against the Yankees when on April 22, a Santo Domingo court ruled that De Leon must pay Valdivia $55,000 in damages as a result of what the court found to be De Leon's libelous comments, according to documents obtained by ESPN The Magazine. De Leon had told several media outlets that Valdivia and Carlos Rios, the other former Yankees scout, had received $100,000 of the player's signing bonus. Additionally, the court also ruled De Leon must perform 64 hours of community service.

Testimony from one of MLB's own investigators actually helped Valdivia win his defamation suit against De Leon. According to court documents, the testimony by investigator Victor Burgos -- who was appearing on De Leon's behalf -- did not prove that Valdivia had ever received any money from De Leon. Burgos' testimony now casts doubt on the merits of the Yankees' firing of Valdivia.

"In no moment has [Burgos] been able to prove with certainty that Mr. Ramon Jesus Valdivia is guilty of the serious transgressions he's been accused of in the investigation, which subsequently caused his firing," the court decision reads.

Soon after he was fired in August, Valdivia said an MLB arbiter ruled that he had to pay the Yankees back $24,000, his salary for 2008. The arbiter also terminated Valdivia's three-year contract with the Yankees that was to start in 2009 and which he said was to pay him a total of $105,000. He also said he was suspended indefinitely by MLB and told that he couldn't apply for reinstatement until he pays back the $24,000.

The lawsuit does not make any determination on Rios' culpability. Rios was the Yankees Latin American coordinator at the time of his firing.

When reached at his office in the Dominican, Alberto Naim Barjam Ortiz, one of De Leon's attorneys, declined to comment. Lou Melendez, baseball's vice president of international operations, said: "That's a matter between the Yankees, Valdivia and De Leon."

"I know I've done nothing wrong," Valdivia said when reached at his house in the Dominican in his first public comments since his firing. "People think I'm a criminal. I'm no criminal."

Valdivia's firing was part of the aftermath of an FBI investigation into the activities of former Chicago White Sox scout Dave Wilder, who is accused of skimming signing bonus money. MLB investigators soon thereafter been a league-wide investigation into bonus skimming, which turned up discrepancies with De Leon's bonus.

Burgos provided details of MLB's investigation against Rios and Valdivia in his testimony. Rios and Valdivia were both present in December 2007 when De Leon cashed his bonus check at a currency exchange in Santo Domingo, according to Burgos' testimony. Burgos' investigation led him to conclude that Rios had received a check for $100,000, but he admitted to the court, "I don't have any proof that Valdivia received any money."

Valdivia disputes Burgos' testimony that he was present when De Leon cashed his check, but he does admit he was with De Leon at MLB's Dominican-based office when the player received his bonus check of $1.1 million from the Yankees. At that time MLB required a team representative to be present when a bonus check was handed out. Now MLB directly deposits money in a bank account in the player's name.

Valdivia said he then drove De Leon to the currency exchange, brought the player into the office and then went home because Rios, Valdivia's boss, was there to help De Leon complete the transaction.

Burgos' testimony states that several exchange workers saw Valdivia in the office.

"Of course they saw me, because I took him there," Valdivia said. "I'm not going to risk anything that I do because I know it can come back to me. Any video at the exchange house or any receipt would implicate me. But there is nothing to show I was there when the money was exchanged. I ask MLB and Burgos to show any proof that I was there when the money was exchanged."

Valdivia says he has no knowledge of whether Rios accepted any money from De Leon.

"I don't believe it," he said. "I never saw it."

Valdivia said he had been contacted several times by the Yankees to settle his lawsuit with De Leon prior to the verdict and to withdraw his wrongful termination suit against the team. He never accepted the team's monetary offers. He said the team never offered his job back.

Valdivia said he has not been contacted by the Yankees since winning his lawsuit against De Leon.

Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman declined to comment on the De Leon case or on Valdivia's case against the team.

"I'm not interested in bad mouthing the Yankees or bad mouthing MLB," Valdivia said. "I just want everything to be fixed so that I can work again in the majors, even if it's just throwing batting practice or working on the field. I just want to work again."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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