Notes From The Dominican Republic
Svrluga here, with some notes from more than a week in the Dominican Republic. Hopefully some of it's pertinent.
I've now been to Jose Rijo's complex in the hills outside the southern city of San Cristobal several times, including on my first trip down here in December 2006. Then, I watched a tryout for kids. Manny Acta was there. Scouting director Dana Brown was there. Rijo was there.
That day, I remember thinking how nice the place was, even if it was quite isolated. And the pessimist in me got to thinking: Maybe this was all kind of staged. They knew we would be there because we were coming down to cover Acta returning to his home town of Consuelo, and perhaps they cleaned the place up and made it look better for us to give a better impression.
But when I went this week - completely unannounced - it was the same. Very neat and tidy, with well-kept fields. I think it was probably the cleanest place I've been in the Dominican Republic, without exaggeration.
Which brings me to this portion of the transcript of Stan Kasten's remarks from yesterday:
"They're going to a place [that is] very much nicer," Kasten said of the Nationals' Dominican prospects. "The lodging will be nicer, and the facilities will be nicer. So there's a lot of optimism, a lot of enthusiasm, and the new staff, new facilities, we're optimistic about it."
Well, what I saw was a bit different.
For one, there was fear in a lot of the faces of the players. That makes sense. "It's all happening so fast," one of them said, and there was, during much of a long day at Rijo's complex, much angst - particularly before the players heard about what would definitely happen.
After Rijo addressed the players before he departed, he received a round of applause. "He means so much to us," said one player, though it's clear that none of these kids knows the whole story. Nor, of course, do any of us.
Indeed, Mike Rizzo, new Dominican director Fernando Ravelo and assistant director of player development Mark Scialabba received two rounds of applause from the players during their 20-minute meeting. But to pass this off as an obvious improvement just doesn't seem fair.
Boca Chica: The beach-side town to the east of the capitol of Santo Domingo is a hub of baseball activity. We visited the six-team complex that makes up the heart of it, a place where the Cubs, White Sox, Reds, Twins, Orioles and Diamondbacks all have facilities. The Mets and Yankees are "three minutes away," one club official said, and I believe the Pirates' new complex is going to be quite nearby.
In San Cristobal, the Nationals were a bit isolated. They shared their complex with the Tigers, and used to do so with the Padres (who have now built a new place). But they played the same teams over and over, while the teams on the east side of Santo Domingo are better situated to mix things up.
But to say that the complex in Boca Chica is "very much nicer" simply isn't the case. It's simpler, and is totally fine - there's nothing wrong with it.
"Rijo's place is nicer," said Jose Serra, who runs the Cubs' Dominican program. "But this is better for what we're trying to accomplish."
That all makes sense. We hung out at the Cubs' complex for quite some time one afternoon this week, and I'll fold that into a story that will likely run next weekend.
Also, on Fernando Ravelo, the Nationals' new Dominican chief. Ravelo is well-known in baseball circles in the Dominican. (And, really, it's amazing how small the Dominican baseball community is. Everybody seems to know everybody, from major leaguers to buscones to coaches, etc.)
Ravelo has been the general manager of Tigres del Licey, the powerful Dominican team in the winter league, described to me by almost anyone who wants to provide an analogy as the Yankees of the Dominican. (Aguillas, also based in Santo Domingo, would be the Red Sox.)
But Ravelo has had other roles. He was the assistant GM of the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, and he is serving in that position again this year. (Former major leaguer Stan Javier is the GM.)
Now, who was the manager of the Dominican team last time around? Oh, right. It was Manny Acta. I've been told - though I haven't had a chance to ask Acta about it yet - that Ravelo and Acta are quite close.
When Acta was hired, Kasten noted what his presence in Washington could mean to the Nationals' profile in the Dominican Republic. That's not, Kasten made clear, why Acta got the job, but merely an ancillary benefit.
Rijo, though, was the face of the Nationals down here - for better or worse. It is hard to exaggerate his standing here. People wave and honk when he drives by, and his personality - outgoing, always smiling, amazingly personable - causes lots of people to overlook any warts. Those warts, it seems, are coming out now.
Maybe Acta and Ravelo can change that. But make no mistake: The Nationals are now behind in an area in which they desperately wanted to get ahead.
One more thing: Esmailyn Gonzalez/Carlos Alvarez.
When I met with the kid the other day in his home town of Santana, the shame on his face was apparent. He showed up with the man he said was his cousin, Wilton Martinez, and told some of his story. He is clearly being pulled in lots of directions. His American agent, Stanley King, doesn't want him talking about any of it lest it interfere with his visa situation (and we'll get to that in coming days). People in the Dominican, many of them who might be caught up in the scandal, want him to step up and take the blame. It's hard for him to figure out where his loyalties should be.
And there is still the matter of the money. Where did it go? When I asked him, he said he gave it to his family. But I have heard all the stories down here: That Rijo and/or Jose Baez, the former manager of the Nationals' Dominican program, were involved in skimming. Basilio Vizcaino, the buscon who got him signed, has been implicated as well by people in the baseball community. Those who believe the kid got his money say that it was in an uncle's account, and that they can prove it. Why was it there? Who knows? But it's clear the kid didn't want anyone looking into skimming allegations, because that could lead to uncovering the truth about his age.
Alvarez is still part of the Washington organization. This situation must be resolved going forward, and soon. There is talk of a news conference when and if Alvarez arrives for spring training in Viera, Fla., when the Nationals' minor leaguers report March 13. Whatever takes place there, it won't be as wild as what I've seen this week.
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