Roberto Hernandez changed his name and age for a chance to seek fame and fortune in the big leagues. He found both, but now he’s paying the price, as Paul Hoynes explains in this article for The Plain Dealer.
Twelve years ago, Hernandez became Fausto Carmona and dove headlong into the deep pool of lies and deceit that is baseball in the Dominican Republic. Hernandez emerged from that murky water last month with more than $15 million in career earnings and a big problem.
He was arrested on Jan. 19 by the Dominican National Police outside the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo after he applied for a visa using a false identification. For the time being he is a prisoner in his own land.
Indians fans know Carmona as the hero of the Bug Game against the Yankees in the 2007 playoffs. They are still trying to figure out who Hernandez is. They know at least this much, he’s 31 instead of 28 as listed in the Indians media guide.
There are so many questions. When did Hernandez become Carmona? How was the arrangement made? How much money exchanged hands? How was he caught? When will he be able to rejoin the Indians, who opened spring training a week ago?
The one question that does not need an answer is, why?
In the Dominican Republic, players change names and ages without a thought. Agents called buscones — Spanish for seekers or lookers — tell them big-league teams will pay more for a 16 year old than a 20 year old. When the Indians signed Hernandez, they believed he was 17, but he was really 20.
The lengths to which the buscones and others have gone to deceive MLB teams is legendary. Sometimes towns, schools and hospitals are involved in the scam. All to make a player a couple of years younger and fatten his signing bonus.
“This has been going on forever,” said Jorge Brito, Hernandez’s agent. Last year the Dominican Republic, a tiny Caribbean island, saw 86 of its native sons open the season on big-league rosters. No other country outside the United States supplied more players to The Show.
The Dominican has always been a buyer’s beware market. Some scouts call it the wild west in terms of player acquisition. The talent is cheap and plentiful, and not restricted by the annual MLB annual draft. Such conditions spawned a culture of fraud that knew no bounds.
Things began to change after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. tightened its borders and scores of Dominican players were found to have bogus ages in the spring of 2002. Indians pitcher Bartolo Colon went from 26 to 28 and his brother Jose, in the minors with the Tribe, went from 23 to 26.
How is this story going to end for Hernandez? If you’re worried about not seeing him standing on the mound with sweat dropping off the bill of his cap on a hot July night, calm yourself. At some point before the Indians break camp on April 2, according to sources, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to grant him a waiver to join the Indians. He could still face a suspension by Commissioner Bud Selig.
Hernandez had been coming to the United States as Carmona since 2002, when he was in Class A ball. When he was arrested on Jan. 19, however, he could not have been that surprised. The baseball grapevine in the Dominican had been buzzing for over a year about his true identity.
A year ago, a story in a Dominican newspaper claimed that the Fausto Carmona pitching for the Indians was an impostor. About a month before Hernandez was arrested, a spiritualist named Yohanny Ventura Solares went on “El Gobierno De La Manana,” a popular morning radio show in Santo Domingo, and said the pitcher Fausto Carmona was really Roberto Hernandez.
Solares said she had been threatened and beaten by Hernandez’s father, Beato, because she kept requesting the $1 million pesos ($26,000 in U.S. dollars) that Hernandez promised her for, according to the radio station’s Web site, “spiritual work with candle lights and oil” on a birth certificate that Hernandez gave her. She said Roberto Hernandez used the birth certificate to sign with the Indians.
She said she once talked to the real Fausto Carmona, warning him about the potential danger, but he did not seem concerned about the situation. She said the real Fausto Carmona told her that he had assumed another name.
Acting on this and other information gathered by MLB investigators, the Dominican police were waiting for Carmona outside the U.S. Consulate. He was released Jan. 20 on $13,000 bail.
Hernandez, according to sources close to the investigation, has been cooperating with Dominican and U.S. authorities on just how the fraud took place. He had no choice if he wanted to continue pitching in the big leagues. William Weissman, U.S. consulate general in Santo Domingo, made it clear in public comments following Hernandez’s arrest that one of the possible penalties for players using false identifications was a lifetime ban from the United States.
Hernandez has been visiting independent baseball schools since early February, warning young players about the dangers of changing their names and ages. After each speech he passes out T-shirts with the message “In Truth There is Triumph.”
Brito says his client tells players that teams will still sign them when they’re 18 or 19.
“He tells them not to listen to the [buscones, coaches and trainers] who are trying to convince you to change your identity or age,” said Brito. “Those people are trying to take advantage of you.”
Hernandez’s teammates call him “Grande” — Spanish for large — because he’s 6-4 and weighs close to 250 pounds. As big as he is, Hernandez has made a career of making himself invisible when necessary. When he won 19 games in 2007, teammate CC Sabathia owned the headlines and the Cy Young Award. In dealing with the media, Hernandez has always done what he’s required to do, but little else. He’ll talk after one of his starts and then makes himself scarce.
“Quiet,” is how former Indians bullpen coach Luis Isaac described the pitcher.
Perhaps now we know why.
Hernandez grew up in a village in Yasama, a mostly agricultural region northeast of Santo Domingo. He worked on his father’s farm and had already traded his name and identity with Carmona when he left home to sign with the Indians.
Winston Llenas, who ran the Indians’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic at the time, signed Hernandez. Llenas remembered him as being tall and thin with a strong right arm, good movement on his fastball and a bad set of teeth from eating raw sugar cane.
“He was just a country boy, who didn’t have access to proper health care,” said Llenas.
At the Indians’ baseball school, Hernandez was quiet, polite and a fast learner. When the Indians paid to get his teeth fixed, he started gaining weight and velocity on his pitches. He stayed at the school for about a year, played one season in the Dominican Summer League and was off to the States.
The Indians say they didn’t know Hernandez’s real name or age when they signed him for an estimated $9,000 on Dec. 28, 2000. A college junior in the United States can still be considered a prospect at 20. Traditionally that has not been the case in the Dominican, where MLB teams prefer their prospects to be 16 or 17.
“We had good people there, respected people,” said John Hart, Indians general manager at the time, “but we weren’t doing the kind of thorough background checks that they do now.”
The Indians placed Hernandez on the restricted list on Jan. 26. He doesn’t count against their 40-man roster and won’t get paid his $7 million salary until he’s allowed back into the United States.
Marlins closer Leo Nunez was charged in September in the Dominican under similar circumstances. His real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo, and he played in the big leagues for the past seven years under an assumed name and age.
Oviedo, who is 29 instead of 28, turned himself in to Dominican authorities. He recently signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Marlins but, like Hernandez, he’s on the restricted list and will not get paid until he’s able to join his team in the United States.
How many more players are playing under assumed names in the big leagues and minors? Some estimates put the number as high as 30.
“Given where we’ve been over the last five years, and the fact that we’ve had two in the last year, I would be hard pressed to say there is no one else in that situation,” said Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president of labor and human resources.
The Marlins supposedly knew for months about Oviedo’s true identity. How much did the Indians know about Hernandez? Like a lot of their players from the Dominican Republic — Colon, Jhonny Peralta, Andy Marte — the Indians heard rumors about Hernandez’s age and identity. Acta, a Dominican native, knew about the newspaper story from last year, but did not know if it was accurate. Indians’ officials said the arrest caught them by surprise, but the next day they traded for Colorado right-hander Kevin Slowey to compete for Hernandez’s spot in the starting rotation.
One explanation for catching long-time identity thieves like Hernandez and Oviedo is that MLB’s Investigative Unit is doing a good job stopping fraud among younger players.
“Our focus is a few degrees off of Fausto Carmona,” said Manfred. “Our diligence is on the issue of incoming players. When we sign Rob Manfred, age 16, we want to make sure that we’re getting Rob Manfred, age 16.”
Last year, MLB investigators did background checks on more than 800 players who signed professional contracts in the Dominican Republic. In about 15 percent, fraud was found. MLB statistics say fraud was discovered in over 60 percent of the players investigated in 2002.
With fraud among the younger players decreasing, one investigator said they are hearing more and more about older players.
Headquarters, Santo Domingo
MLB established an office in 2000 in Santo Domingo to try to oversee the flow of players from the Dominican to the U.S. MLB’s investigative unit, scouting bureau, baseball academy, drug prevention program and youth baseball program operate out of the building.
Three years ago MLB’s Department of Investigations, headed by Dan Mullin, a former deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, took over the investigation of players’ identities. The unit includes three full-time investigators, 10 contract investigators and two U.S.-based supervisors who spend two months at a time in the Dominican.
The investigators are subject to lie-detector tests twice a year to guard against fraud. In the past, investigators hired by teams have been involved in the scams they were paid to expose. MLB team employees have also been caught. In 2009, officials and scouts from several teams, including David Wilder, senior director of player personnel of the Chicago White Sox, were fired for allegedly skimming bonuses from Dominican prospects.
No Dominican player can sign a pro contract unless he’s first investigated by MLB. Since 2008, a player found to be lying about his age or identity faces a one-year suspension.
Not all prospects receive complete MLB clearance. That usually involves questions about the player’s identity. A common practice among buscones is to move a player from one town to another and have him assume the identity of another family. When a player’s family history comes into question, he can take a voluntary DNA test — DNA tests for employment are prohibited in the Dominican Republic — to prove who he is.
MLB labels its investigation into such players as “inconclusive.” It doesn’t stop teams from signing them, but it is a red flag.
The investigators are not as rigid concerning a year or two difference in age. They believe age is more of a concern for the team interested in signing the player. The Indians follow MLB’s investigation with one of their own on every Latin American player they sign. They avoid players labeled “inconclusive” and administer steroid tests to every player they sign. It is not a fool-proof system.
In 2008, the Indians signed 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Jose Ozoria for $575,000. In 2009, MLB informed them that Ozoria was really Wally Bryan and that he was 20 instead of 17. The Indians kept Bryan in the system, but he was eventually suspended for a year. He is no longer with the organization.
The signing bonus? The Indians never retrieved a cent. When it happened, John Mirabelli, Indians director of scouting, said, “It’s a cost of doing business in that part of the world.” Since then the Indians have included language in all contracts that says a player will receive his signing bonus only if that player is approved by the U.S. Consulate for a visa to travel to the United States.
Rafael Perez, MLB’s director of Dominican Operations (not to be confused with the Indians reliever), says the Department of Investigations is bringing order to a corrupt system.
“We’re on the right path,” he said.
As part of the process to establish a player’s true identity, MLB’s Dominican office prepares a list of the country’s top 100 amateur players. The players, who must be at least 15 and have their parents’ consent, are registered, tested for steroids and scouted in preparation for the international free agent signing season, which begins July 2.
The next challenge to the Dominican’s ecosystem for finding, developing, identifying and signing players is the new basic agreement between MLB owners and players. This year each team is limited to just $2.9 million for signing international free agents starting July 2. Last year, Texas alone spent $17.6 million. It seems clear that this is MLB’s first step to eliminate the power of the buscones and usher in a worldwide draft.
Through it all, Perez says the supply of players in the Dominican will never end.
“Baseball is the sport. It is the passion in the Dominican,” said Perez. “The Dominican player can fulfill the American dream with baseball.”
Change in culture
Ulises Cabrera and Brian Mejia are challenging the old ways. In October 2009, they formed the Dominican Prospect League. Since its start, over 200 DPL players have signed contracts worth $35 million.
In the Dominican, there is little, if any, high school baseball. Youth leagues are few and far between. The government doesn’t have the money to support such ventures. The DPL, open to players aged 15 to 20, plays games on a weekly basis. It allows big-league teams a chance to evaluate the best players on the island and decide if they want to sign them.
Under the traditional system, buscones teach players the fundamentals — hitting, fielding, running, throwing. Some buscones house and feed their players. What they don’t do is play games.
“That’s not playing baseball,” said Cabrera. “You’re asking big-league teams to commit a lot of money to players based on a tryout.
“By playing games twice a week, we’re giving a big-league scout a chance to see a player for 75 at-bats … just like they could with an American high school kid. The Latin American player deserves to be treated just like the American player.”
One of the reasons the league was formed was to help repair the image of baseball in the Dominican. Acta is a member of its advisory board.
“We got a lot of different people to sit down and work on this — buscones, coaches, trainers and players,” said Cabrera.
Cabrera, who played shortstop at Vanderbilt and spent two years in the minors with Texas, said few of the 200 DPL players who signed contracts have run afoul of identity problems.
“What happened with Fausto Carmona was 12 years ago,” said Cabrera, a former agent who still includes Acta as a client. “MLB has a lot more oversight in place now. Everybody in baseball knew what was going back then, but they didn’t ask those kind of questions. They left it untouched.”
Cracking the age barrier
When Hernandez changed his identity in 2000, he was already old by the standards set for Latin American prospects by MLB. Perhaps those times are changing. Cabrera thinks so and believes the DPL has had something to do with it.
“In reality, the majority of players who are signed from Latin American in any given year are older than 16,” he said. “The average age is closer to 18 to 19. What the DPL is providing is a chance for MLB teams to actually see these players and the results are that kids 18 and 19 have been receiving contracts larger than they were five to 10 years ago.”
Big-league teams prefer younger Latin American players because it can often take two or three years to assimilate a player to pro ball, the English language and American culture.
Age has always been a sore point with Dominican players and officials. Teams give big signing bonuses to Cuban defectors whose identities are harder to investigate than most Latin American players, but are reluctant to do the same with Dominican players once they hit the high teens or early 20s.
As part of the new basic agreement, an International Talent Committee was formed in December. Manfred and Michael Weiner, director of the MLB players association, are co-directors. The worldwide draft will be its main focus, but they will address a number of issues in their twice-monthly meetings.
“That is a topic, a big topic on the international committee we’ve formed,” said Manfred.
Will that be enough to stop the next tall, skinny Dominican pitcher from turning his life upside down for a chance at the big leagues? It would be nice to say yes, but as Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez said of his teammate and fellow Dominican: “It’s hard to say no when they tell you if you’re two or three years younger, you can make more money and get to the big leagues. Roberto wasn’t the first to do it and he won’t be the last.”
For the original report go to http://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2012/02/the_mystery_of_indians_pitcher.html