It's not just hitters taking cuts
Pablo Lantigua of the Red Sox, one of the major league scouts fired in the recent Dominican kickback scandal, says he was simply doing business the way it's done on the island
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - In a land where the roots of desolate poverty run deeper than the sugar cane and boys become the blood diamonds of baseball, Pablo Lantigua was renowned as a risk-taker. He explored the lawless barrios and back roads of this Third World nation - hotspots other major league scouts skirted - in pursuit of the next Pedro Martínez and David Ortiz.
"This is a difficult area," Fausto Betemit, a youth baseball coach, said through a translator at a stony dirt field in a corner of Santo Domingo where men strode aimlessly in a 100-degree swelter past heaps of fetid garbage and pools of sewer water. Ortiz played here as a child.
"When I ask the New York Yankees to come here to look at a player, they never come," Betemit said. "But Lantigua always came."
No more. Pablo Lantigua, who for six years as a Red Sox scout in the Dominican Republic defied danger for his employers on Yawkey Way, took at least one chance too many - not for the Sox, but for himself.
In a wildly unregulated frontier where coaches, talent hunters, street agents, and assorted hustlers jockey to cash in on boys with multimillion-dollar baseball promise, Lantigua joined the jobless masses here when the Sox fired him amid an investigation into scouts pocketing kickbacks from signing bonuses to Latin American players.
The scandal broke amid a dramatic spike in the bonus money flowing into the Dominican Republic - about $33 million last year to a country half the size of Maine - and has compelled Major League Baseball to more vigorously police the way teams do business in Latin America.
Dominicans are not subject to baseball's amateur draft. They can be signed as free agents at 16 - the age of most 10th-graders in the United States - and the system is rife with irregularities and exploitation.
"I was the unlucky one," Lantigua told the Globe translator, Claudio Polonia, about his ouster.
Lantigua is one of six major league scouts who have been fired during the investigation - the Chicago White Sox have dismissed three, the Yankees two - and the number is expected to grow. Several individuals who deal with big league scouts in the Dominican Republic said kickbacks have become more common as signing bonuses have ballooned.
"More people are going to be fired," said Fausto Raynoso, a youth coach in the teeming capital of Santo Domingo. "It's something that has to be stopped."
A gift that proved costly
Lantigua said he was fired for accepting a gift from a "buscone," a talent hunter, who represents a Sox prospect. Lantigua did not specify the gift or identify the player or buscone, but Alberto Arias, who operates a youth baseball program in Santo Domingo, said Lantigua told him the transaction involved a player the Sox signed in the coastal city of Haina.
The Globe learned that Lantigua at least once before accepted a sizable gift as a Sox scout. Arias runs a program for 300 boys at Los Trinitarios, a scruffy field where St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols played as a child and scouts regularly evaluate prospects. Arias said he gave Lantigua 10,000 pesos, or about $300, two years ago after the Sox signed one of his players, Engel Beltre, for $600,000.
Top prospects on Dominican ball fields are nicknamed "Julio Dos," which means July 2 - the first day each year when teams can sign international free agents who have turned 16. So it was for Beltre, who was 16 when the Sox signed him July 2, 2006. He was 17 when the club traded him to the Texas Rangers with Kason Gabbard and David Murphy for Eric Gagné the following July.
Craig Shipley, vice president for international scouting for the Sox, said Lantigua was fired for violating a team policy but declined to discuss specifics, citing the ongoing investigation, which involves the FBI. The Sox also denied the Globe access to the players at their baseball academy in the impoverished town of El Toro.
Lantigua said he was "totally depressed" by his firing. After 22 years as a scout, including eight with the Florida Marlins before he joined the Sox in 2002, he said his career appears to be over. The Sox last year had named him their Dominican scouting supervisor.
"I didn't know I was making such a terrible mistake by taking the present," Lantigua told Polonia.
Arias said his gift to Lantigua was not a kickback. He said Lantigua never asked for money or discussed any inappropriate transactions. Arias said he has long presented gifts - from bottles of whiskey to cash - to scouts for the Sox and other teams that sign his players.
"It's part of our culture," he said. "If you help me, I give you a present to show my appreciation."
Arias recently considered showing his appreciation to Jesus Alou, the director of Boston's Dominican summer team, by buying him some fishing gear. Alou, a longtime scout for the Sox, Marlins, and Expos, regularly holds tryouts at the Sox academy, as he did recently for 63 players, including a couple from Los Trinitarios.
"Thank God I didn't do it," Arias said of exposing Alou to scrutiny.
Whether Lantigua fraudulently received any cash remains under investigation. The inquiry, which has prompted investigators to visit all 29 major league academies in the Dominican, is examining several ways scouts may have skimmed cash from teams or players they signed. One method involves scouts misleading their teams about the competition for prospects, thereby inflating the value of the players in exchange for kickbacks from buscones.
"This is a crime," said Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, which advocates for Dominican players. "It's unacceptable that scouts who are supposed to be role models for these kids, who are trying to come out of poverty, are committing what amounts to fraud against them."
Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball's vice president for international operations, said the ongoing crackdown is evidence that baseball is serious about rooting out wrongdoing. But he said MLB has no power to regulate the buscone system, which funnels virtually every Dominican player to America.
"You're not going to change the system," Melendez said. "All you can do is try to manage it to make sure there is no abuse as it applies to [MLB] clubs."
The scandal became public after Dave Wilder, director of scouting for the White Sox, reportedly was discovered returning from the Dominican Republic in March with $40,000 in cash. Wilder and two of his Dominican scouts were fired soon thereafter. The Red Sox then axed Lantigua, the Yankees dumped two scouts, and the search widened for additional offenders.
"This has been going on for years," said an executive with a major league team who asked not be identified because of the ongoing inquiry. "It's definitely a black eye of baseball."
System is hard to reform
The system may not be easily fixed, however. In a land where desperately poor families spur their sons to make it big in baseball, the fields are cluttered with boys - some as young as 5 - auditioning for scouts and other operatives searching for diamonds to sell to big league clubs.
"Things have changed here," said Alou, 66, one of three Dominican brothers who reached the major leagues in the 1950s and '60s. "When I was young, my parents said baseball was for people who had nothing to do. Now parents see baseball as a way to make a living."
What passes for Little League in America is high-stakes business in the Dominican Republic, and the industry has long been tainted by corruption.
For years, handlers falsified birth records of Dominican youths, deceiving teams into awarding bonuses to prospects the clubs believed to be 16 or 17 years old but actually were older. More than 500 Dominican players, including nearly two dozen Sox minor leaguers, were found to have lied about their ages when the United States beefed up scrutiny of visa applications after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Investigators also learned that many Dominican players signed under false identities.
Worse, perhaps, many Dominican boys have succumbed to the scourge of steroids, some on the advice of their buscones. Two teenage Dominican players died in 2001 after injecting steroids made for animal use, and 33 youths in the Dominican Summer League, including Boston's 19-year-old righthander, Victor de la Cruz, make up the vast majority of players who have been suspended 50 games this year by Major League Baseball after testing positive for steroids.
This is the world in which Lantigua made a living. And while baseball officials have curbed bogus birth records and tried to better educate Dominican children about steroid abuse, they have been powerless to reform a system in which nearly every boy who signs a professional contract pays part of his bonus as the price of success.
In rapidly increasing numbers, Dominican children with promise are required by their buscones or coaches to sign contracts in which they agree to pay their handlers as much as 50 percent of their bonuses. The practice is legal in the Dominican Republic, despite concerns that many children and their parents, especially the illiterate, are ill-prepared to negotiate such high-stakes agreements. Some children sign before they complete puberty.
With bonus money escalating - the average nearly doubled to about $67,000 last year from $35,000 in 2005 - several buscones and coaches said they began to demand that the boys sign contracts to prevent rivals from luring away players and parents from reneging on verbal agreements to hand over a share of the bonuses.
Arias defended the practice during an interview at Los Trinitarios. He said he charges players a 25 percent commission on their signing bonuses in exchange for the time and money he spends coaching, equipping, feeding, and sometimes housing them.
Arias said he insists that parents be present when boys sign with him.
"What's better, to charge a kid 25 percent and help him come out of poverty or take nothing from him and let him stay poor?" said Arias, a former minor leaguer with the Oakland A's.
Explosion of cash
The Dominican Republic has long provided cheap labor for American baseball as teams have doled out notoriously meager signing bonuses. In 1993, for example, when the Sox signed Trot Nixon out of a North Carolina high school for nearly $900,000, the Seattle Mariners signed Ortiz for $7,500 and the A's picked up Miguel Tejada, the American League's 2002 MVP, for $2,000.
In 1988, Martínez signed with the Dodgers for $5,000, and as recently as 2000, the Sox gave Dominican shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the National League's 2006 Rookie of the Year, a bonus of only $20,000.
But the cash tide has shifted. Even though most Dominican Summer League clubs remain stocked with low-budget talent, payouts the size of lottery jackpots to 16-year-olds are no longer uncommon.
In the last year alone, major league teams awarded more than 10 Dominican teenagers signing bonuses greater than $1 million, including the A's, who gave $4.25 million to 16-year-old righthander Michael Inoa, and the San Francisco Giants, who awarded outfielder Rafael Rodriguez $2.55 million on his 16th birthday.
The mega-signings have enriched not only the teenagers but their handlers. Beltre's $600,000 bonus netted Arias a 25 percent commission of $150,000. Arias also collected $500,000 this year when the Reds signed his 16-year-old outfielder, Juan Duran, for $2 million.
Amid the bonanza, major league scouts in the Dominican subsist on relatively little. Full-time scouts here earn about $15,000 a year, though Lantigua made an estimated $30,000 while he helped to sign nearly every player on Boston's Dominican Summer League roster as well as some of the club's top prospects.
In addition to Beltre, Lantigua signed 16-year-old Michael Almanzar, a third baseman who last year received a $1.5 million bonus from the Sox, a club record for a Dominican prospect. Almanzar's father, Carlos, pitched for a number of major league organizations, including the Sox.
"Major league scouts see all these young players getting big bonuses and nice houses and big boats, and they see the money the buscones are making," Raynoso said. "I don't know about Pablo, but I know some of the scouts wanted some of that money, too."
Louie Eljaua, Lantigua's former supervisor with the Marlins and Sox, said he never would have tolerated a scout betraying Sox owner John W. Henry's trust.
"As far as I know, there were never any irregularities when Pablo worked for me," said Eljaua, a special assistant to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. "He did a very good job for me."
Business goes on
Alou, who worked with Lantigua since 1994, said he has not been briefed on Lantigua's situation and would not pass judgment. But he said major league scouts in the Dominican Republic have little choice but to work closely with buscones.
"They almost need to become part of the buscone system," Alou said. "Every kid in this country has a buscone."
Alou said Major League Baseball could ease the financial pressure on Dominican scouts by granting them the same pension and retirement benefits that scouts in the United States receive.
"There is such a gap right now between the buscones, who get rich signing one or two guys, and the scouts who work here for the major league teams and don't even have a future to look forward to," Alou said, adding that if Dominican scouts were covered by the US pension plan, "I believe it would create a lot more loyalty and honesty to the game in this country."
Shipley said Dominican scouts receive severance packages similar in value to the retirement benefits American scouts receive.
"That argument doesn't hold water," he said.
Major League Baseball has tried to protect teams and Dominican players from improprieties by establishing new payment methods aimed at denying third parties access to signing bonuses. As a foreign company, though, MLB can do little to reform the buscone system and the problems it breeds.
So the business of baseball goes on. At the dirt field in a destitute swath of Santo Domingo, Betemit ordered a group of players to stand at attention, hands over their hearts, as he led them in a series of recitations praising Jesus Christ. Betemit, the father of major leaguer Wilson Betemit, said he tries to instill spiritual values in the children because only a few will make it out of the barrio.
"The rest end up back on the street," he said, "and the crime rate goes up."
At Los Trinitarios, 9-year-old Jose Andres competed for attention with scores of children his age. He wore a tattered Sox cap and a fading "34" on his ragged sweat pants. He said he would rather play baseball than eat or go to school if he could become the next David Ortiz.
By the grace of the baseball gods, Andres may one day reach the Sox academy, where planes roar overhead from Santo Domingo en route to America. Alou may be there waiting for him, looking for another Dominican diamond. But the game will go on without Pablo Lantigua.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.