How Gonzalez Became Alvarez
In the spring of 2006, when Stan Kasten took a job as Washington Nationals president, he inherited a problem. His new team, after years of anemic scouting resources, had exactly zero Dominican prospects in the organization. General Manager Jim Bowden had a good idea about how to change that, and how to make a splash all the while. The Nationals, Bowden told Kasten, should sign a 16-year-old named Esmailyn Gonzalez.
On July 2, 2006, Gonzalez became the team's most touted teenager. The Nationals issued a press release announcing Gonzalez's signing bonus -- $1.4 million. They hosted a press conference. The shortstop had a nickname, "Smiley," and his future was rich with promise.
The career of Smiley Gonzalez, as it turned out, created a problem far greater than the one his signing attempted to solve. As Kasten acknowledged yesterday, following a report from SI.com, Gonzalez falsified both his identity and his age, all part of what Kasten called a "deliberate, premeditated fraud." The player's true identity: Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. His true, current age: 23, or four years older than the Nationals believed. The conspiracy not only registers as Washington's latest baseball embarrassment, but also raises internal concern about who was duped, and who knew all along.
"No teenager executed this fraud," Kasten said. "There were a number of people involved in it... I can assure you, this is going to have serious repercussions."
The revelation about Gonzalez's true identity diminishes the prospect's value, even threatening his career. It also intensifies the scrutiny on how, exactly, baseball teams -- especially the Nationals -- obtain their international players. Since last year, the FBI has investigated scouting practices in Latin America. An unregulated network of middle men, or street agents, create the potential for false IDs, money-skimming and kickbacks. Kasten acknowledged today a link between the Gonzalez signing and the current probe, though he was unwilling to say whether Nationals employees would be held culpable. Already, several big league teams, including the White Sox, have fired employees involved in the scheming. To date, FBI investigators have interviewed Washington employees, including Bowden, who has denied any wrongdoing.
To sign Gonzalez, the Nationals depended on another employee, Jose Rijo, the link between their scouting department and the Dominican streets. Since January 2005, Rijo has served as a special assistant in the Washington front office, operating the team's player development facility in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.
Rijo fostered a relationship with Gonzalez for at least two years before the signing. To get close with Gonzalez, though, he dealt with Gonzalez's buscone, a street agent named Basilio Vizcaino, who just so happened to be Rijo's childhood friend. During periods before he turned pro, Gonzalez even stayed with Vizcaino, hoping to improve his living conditions and his profile as a prospect. There was never a question about how Gonzalez should repay his debt: Once he earned a signing bonus, Vizcaino would keep 20 percent.
The operations between club employee, street agent and player existed then, as they do now, with almost no supervision. And Washington entered this market -- the "wild, Wild West," Kasten called it -- hoping to be both cautious but aggressive.
The team decided to make Smiley its first target.
"Jim came to me and said his staff had seen this kid, they thought he was special, they thought he would command a premier bonus, and what was our appetite for that," Kasten said today. "And, obviously none of us had ever seen the kid or heard of the kid. But he described him, the staff described him, and we said, 'Yeah, we want to be aggressive. We'd back you on something like that if that's what everyone feels like.'"
At the time of the signing, Rijo sought no documentation, he said today. He knew the shady world of Latin baseball scouting well enough to know that documents were often falsified anyway. Even several high-profile players, including Miguel Tejada and Rafael Furcal, signed with paperwork that misrepresented their ages.
"You see a document, but you're going to see a, you know, a real or fake one either way," Rijo said.
The Nationals submitted Gonzalez's paperwork to the one place that mattered: the Major League Baseball office that verifies all player names and ages. No red flags came up.
When negotiating with Gonzalez about contract terms, though, Washington followed an unconventional path. Other teams interested in the shortstop dealt with the player's then-agent, Rob Plummer. Only Washington insisted on dealing with Vizcaino.
"I talked to all the other teams," said Plummer, who had met his client just twice. "But because of [Vizcaino's] relationship with Rijo, they wanted to go through him."
Gonzalez was signed on July 2, 2006, awarded with a bonus that doubled the offer of the next highest bidder, the Texas Rangers. By the start of next season, he was playing for the Washington's affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, a rookie ball level comprised largely of teenagers. Indeed, several of Gonzalez's teammates, interviewed today, spoke of a quiet suspicion many shared about the player's age. His face looked young, but he had a developed body.
"You can tell a teenager from an adult," said one teammate, who asked that his name not be used, because he is still in the organization. "The way that he carried himself and stuff like that -- teenagers didn't do that. At 19, he was kind of bald in the front. I was suspicious. And I would ask him, too. He'd tell me he was 19, and I would say, "C'mon, bro, stop lying."
Kasten, even months after the signing, had his own suspicions -- though he did not specify today about why they arose. "I heard rumors that circulate around baseball that were some irregularities related to this Esmailyn Gonzalez signing, whether it was the amount of money [he received] or where the money wound up going or whatnot; I kept hearing this," he said.
So Kasten went back to the MLB offices and asked, again, for investigators to examine the Gonzalez case. For the second time, they found nothing.
Meantime, Gonzalez flourished. In 2008, his second professional season, he played 51 games and hit .343, winning the GCL batting title. Success only fueled the rumors, though, and Kasten's concern about the player's age and identity lingered. Somewhere within the last six months, Kasten said today, he approached baseball with another request: "At least verify for me that he is who he is," Kasten recalled saying.
Only did on Tuesday did Major League Baseball give the official confirmation. The player's real birthday is sometime in November 1985 -- not on Sept. 21, 1989, as Washington previously believed. The four-year scheme to protect Gonzalez's identity included, according to Kasten, falsified hospital documents, falsified school documents, and family members that changed their identities.
Rijo, speaking today, denied any involvement in the scheme, and said the player he initially fell in love with always had the name Esmailyn Gonzalez.
Provided he is able to return to the US -- and Kasten indicated that the shortstop already has a new passport -- Washington will receive a prospect with the experience of two professional seasons and one alias. He is due to be in Viera, Fla., by March 13, the reporting date for Washington's minor league spring training. The Nationals might still try to recoup some of the initial signing bonus, but doing so will be an improbable mission. Alvarez could face suspension. At minimum, he'll return to the US as a dimmer prospect than he left.
His accomplishments last year, in retrospect, reflect a man competing among boys. Though Baseball America, a respected industry publication, ranked Gonzalez last month as the 10th-best prospect in the Washington organization, the player's standing now drops considerably. A 23-year-old in such competition produces numbers that are "meaningless," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America.
If the shortstop does arrive in camp next month, he will likely go by the name of Carlos Alvarez, Kasten said.
"I think those are the four names on his passport," Kasten said, looking at a copy of it. "I think those are the two he goes by. In fact, hold on, hold on -- he's got it right here on his passport." Kasten paused to look at a copy of the documentation. "You gotta believe the passport, right?"
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