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Smiley: What I Saw

Greetings. Svrluga here. A guest appearance at the old joint, but both Chico and I thought I might be able to add some perspective to this whole Frowny Gonzalez situation.

In December 2006, five months after the Nationals signed the player they thought of as Esmailyn Gonzalez, Post photographer Jonathan Newton and I headed to the Dominican Republic. The main reason for our trip was to chronicle Manny Acta's return to his home town of Consuelo for the first time since being named the manager of the Nationals. While we were there, we pursued a couple of other stories.

Let me say this right away: I regret not entering the reporting of the story on Gonzalez, linked here, with a more skeptical eye. There have been problems with the system by which players are procured in the Dominican for years, and though MLB now has an office in Santo Domingo, Ronaldo Peralta, the director of the Latin American office of MLB, told me at the time, "There is only so much we can do." It is their way of saying, "We're here, we know what's going on, but damned if we can put a halt to it."

That said, I had seen Gonzalez - or we'll call him Alvarez, I suppose - at the news conference when the Nationals trumpeted his signing in July. I then saw him working out at the Nationals' complex in San Cristobal, a workout I attended with Jose Rijo and Dana Brown, the Nationals scouting director. Gonzalez/Alvarez did not look 20 or 21, to me. He looked roughly to be 17. There were some things that Rijo and I talked about, that his power would come with age, that his arm was good for his age but would only get better. Again, I wasn't looking at it particularly suspiciously - a lesson learned - but it seemed completely plausible to me that he was 17.

The list of people who lied to us - and, presumably, to the Nationals - is unknown in size, scope and specifics, but I have to believe it includes the man who was introduced to me as Daniel Gonzalez. He was, supposedly, the father of Esmailyn Gonzalez, and we met him at the family home, where folks were sitting around in plastic chairs in the dirt as some sort of chicken stewed on an overturned trash can that was being used as a stove. Was it his father? Who knows? Was his name Daniel Gonzalez? I have to think not.

I used Rijo as a translator at the Alvarez/Gonzalez home, and one reason I was more than willing to believe Rijo's tale was because Rijo spoke of the Dominican system of player procurement - in which street agents known as "buscones" identify and develop talent, usually for a 15-20 percent cut of the signing bonus - with a high degree of skepticism. He described the shadiness of the process, but ultimately said: "I hate to say it, I hate to admit it: It really do work in [the players'] favor."

Keep in mind a couple of things: It is quite possible the Nationals overpaid for Alvarez/Gonzalez, even if he had been 16 at the time, and the original Sports Illustrated report said the next-highest bid was $700,000. (The Nats paid $1.4 million.) But even the point at the time - one pushed by the Nationals, and one that makes sense - is that they had to overpay to make a statement about their intention to be players in Latin America. Think of it as analogous to the Detroit Tigers, a few years ago, overpaying for Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez as free agents. In order to develop a legitimacy - one they didn't have in the minds of free agents after losing 119 games - they had to say, "We're willing to play, and we're serious."

"This lets other teams know we are a player," Stan Kasten told me on July 2, 2006 - the day they signed Alvarez/Gonzalez. "We will take a back seat to no one - repeat: no one - when it comes to pursuing talent."

What are we to conclude from this? First, that there are a ton of unanswered questions, starting with, in my mind, Who lied, and about what? In yesterday's conference call with reporters, Kasten did not answer the question of internal culpability with the Nationals. It is certainly possible, though - given the FBI investigation from last summer, and given what we know now about Gonzalez - that there is/was some sort of wrongdoing among Nationals officials. Whether that's true, and who they might be, will be reported out in coming days and weeks.

The Lerners were, presumably, lied to. But in turn, so was the whole fan base - and the reporters who went to a place called Pizarrete, Dominican Republic, to tell the tale of the prospect who grew up in the dirt and became a millionaire. Who knows? Maybe he already was one.

By Barry Svrluga  |  February 19, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
 
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Comments

St. Barry -

Let me be the first to welcome you back to "The House that Svrluga Built." It's good to see the prodigal son can come home (temporarily).

Your piece here is interesting. Particularly since I know you covered college hoops for a time and eyeballed many a 17 - 22 year old. If he looked 17 to you and you bought what Rijo was selling, then I am inclined to thik Rijo was duped too.

I still want Cap'n Leatherpants out, but unless someone can prove he knew or was negligent, I think he skates by on this one.

Posted by: WebberDC | February 19, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised that this an other incidents about age falsification haven't drawn more outrage among American-grown amateurs. I guess the drafts remain separate, but in terms of spots in the minor league system, American and Dominican talent aren't and won't be judged evenly until the scouting/signing system is fixed in Latin America.

Posted by: dclifer | February 19, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

If Jim Bowden deserves to be ousted as some here suggest, then Braves GM John Schuerholz most certainly should have been fired in 2002.

It was Shuerholz who signed shortstop Rafael Furcal as an 18-year-old, only to find out 5 years later that he was more than 2 years older.

Unless Bowden overlooked the age transgression in return for payola, the whole thing was nothing more than a mistake on the part of the team.

It should be noted that Furcal was a 20-year old when he played in the GCL (The Braves thought he was 18) and didn't do very well, hitting just .258 with a .329 OBP.

The Nationals should keep him and push him quickly through their minor league system. He has to end the year at 'AA' Harrisburg to be at the proper level for his age.

If he keeps hitting, then keep him.

Posted by: rushfari | February 19, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Once again Farid, you are assuming folks are calling for Bowden's ouster solely on the Lugo story.

That is just not the case.

There are many more mistakes, mis-steps and foul-ups that seem to revolve around Bowden. His reputation and therefore the reputation of the Nationals has been been damaged. Whether it is at the point to cost him his job is open to debate. At what point is he culpable for what happens under his watch?

Posted by: Brian_ | February 19, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Please dear god help Kasten fire Bowden. Any news on negotiations with Zimm? It's coming down to the wire, literally.

Posted by: NatsandSkinsareclassclassclass | February 19, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Brian -

I agree with your sentiment.

Bodes needs to move on to the MLB Network for a litany of reasons beyond Gonzales/Alvarez/Lugo. His monitoring of the recruitment process and allowing Rijo to operate without supervision and without going through the agent at all in this case is a strike against Jimbo.

That said, I don't believe in firing people for the wrong reason. Firing him in Spring Training would require Stan to point to the Smiley incident as the tip of the iceberg, at the very least. The problem is that unless there is evidence that Bodes knew or should have known about this situation, it would not legitimately be the straw that broke the camels back.

A sub 70 win season (or sub 35 win first half) would rectify that problem.

Posted by: WebberDC | February 19, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

The House that Svrluga Built. I like it. I also like Frowny Gonzalez (probably too late to turn that frown upside down).

I'll second the "welcome back" and add a "thank" to you for sharing your background perspective, and to Chico for sharing the blog keys today.

It will be very interesting to see how this story all plays out. Methinks.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 19, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Wishing for a poor showing by the team just to justify the firing of a certain GM? Uh, I can't go there.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 19, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Who is Barry Svrluga? Anyone we used to know?

(Welcome back, Barry)

Posted by: AshburnVA | February 19, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

@Webber - The thing is that the Lerners/Kasten need to make their decision soon and stick with it. If they feel he has not done enough to warrant his termination, come out and openly support him and let him operate without the Sword of Smiley hanging over his head.

Otherwise, they need to get someone in place as soon as possible. This is an enormous year for the Nationals rebuilding efforts. They need someone in charge of two top ten draft picks and just as important, someone to spearhead the re-rebuilding of their international presence. This cannot be delayed for another season, they already lost 2008 and they cannot afford to lose 2009 as well.

The ultimate question the Lerners have to answer is whether Bowden is the person they want at this critical juncture.

Posted by: Brian_ | February 19, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Someone on the Bos chat wanted Frowny dismissed from the Nats organization, with as much money returned as possible. I feel for anyone who has grown up in poverty, but I don't see how the Nats could keep this guy in any capacity. How can you keep anyone who lied to you to this extent at the recruitment stage? How is that fair to other potential players?
As for the story playing out, I wd be surprised if guilt will be assigned to anyone beyond Frowny anytime soon. It isn't something that should be done lightly.

Posted by: Section109 | February 19, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

@ WebberDC
"The problem is that unless there is evidence that Bodes knew or should have known about this situation, it would not legitimately be the straw that broke the camels back."

Honestly, what else more does Bowden need to do? While coaches are more often held accountable for wins and losses, GMs are held accountable for direction and execution of philosophy. To be perfectly honest, Bowden could be fired for a number of reasons: DUI, this scandal, continual failure to deal players are their max value, and obsession with Reds. Or simply because the team stunk last year and they want to go in a different direction. Nothing catastrophic needs to happen, it's firing a GM.

Posted by: dclifer | February 19, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

@ Brian--IMHO that might be the post of the day.

Posted by: Section109 | February 19, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

@Brian -

In a perfect world, you are right. The problem is that both MLB and the FBI are supposedly involved and firing these guys right now is simply not prudent from an investigative sense.

While this is an important year for the Nats development, the pieces (such as they are) are already in place at the major league level. The draft is critical, particularly the 9A pick and down, since Strasburg should go #1. I'd much rather have Jed Hoyer or Peter Woodfork making that pick, but Rizz and Dana should do fine.

Credibility is a two way street. If Stanley fires Bodes over this incident -- which arguably could and has happened to other GMs -- who would want to take over for Bodes? If they have the goods on Jimbo, he'll be gone long before the draft. If not, wait for him to fail to sign Strasburg and 9A and then fire him. (No, I am not one who blames Bodes for failing to sign Crow, though I think he needs to explain why he drafted him if signability was going to be that big an issue.)

Posted by: WebberDC | February 19, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

As I mentioned before, I don't think Kasten or the Lerner's will act on JB until the facts come out.

His track record has been terrible since he's been here and only the "Lerner Love" has kept him here when everyone else in a similar position would have been gone.

Diz

Posted by: Dizzy_Dean | February 19, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Barry - I wonder if you went to track down the Gonzalez (Lugo?) family today if that stove on the trashcan is now a Viking 6 burner stove in a luxury home with a built-in swimming pool.

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | February 19, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

@ Webber - Very true about the FBI involvement. But assuming the Lerners/Kasten decide a change is necessary, they can put Bowden on administrative leave and allow Rizzo and/or Brown to take over day-to-day operations.

Posted by: Brian_ | February 19, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

If the player and his associates swindled any other American employer out of 1.4 million dollars (and violated Federal employment and VISA laws), criminal sanctions would be applied without a second thought.

Just because this guy plays baseball shouldn't exempt him from the criminal statutes of the United States.

I would not make an example out of him, I would make a policy out of him. A policy that would be applied to all players that commit grand larceny.

Posted by: rb-freedom-for-all | February 19, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

"The ultimate question the Lerners have to answer is whether Bowden is the person they want at this critical juncture."

Well, if that's the ultimate question then the penultimate question has to be do they have someone ready to step in and take over the job when they dismiss Bowden? Because if they don't, then the answer to the ultimate question is not to fire Bowden. The facile answer that many people give to the question of who should replace Bowden is Rizzo, but I'm not at all sure that he would be the right choice - for several reasons, actually. First, does Rizzo actually want that job? Having observed his demeanor the one time I saw him in person (at the recent FanFest), it's not apparent that he has the makeup for the public-facing aspects of the GM job. He has to know that is a big part of the job, and if he knows he's not good at it or doesn't like doing it, he could well decide that's a big enough reason to not seek out such a position. Second, one thing that's never been in dispute about Bowden is that despite whatever his limitations may be, he works at that job 24/7/365. Not all of what he does is misguided, indeed most of it probably isn't. Would it be a good idea to remove that level of output and expect Rizzo and the remainder of the FO to simply assume that workload in addition to what they're already shouldering? Not if you're looking to make advancements in your organization or even stem its decline, it wouldn't be. Really, in order to fire Bowden for anything other than cause it seems to me they absolutely have to have a replacement for him from ouside the current organization lined up and ready to step in IMMEDIATELY. Or, if they do promote Rizzo they need to have a replacement ready to fill his current role IMMEDIATELY. Otherwise, they're not taking a step forward, they're taking a step back.

You know, the reason that old saying about the devil you have vs the devil you don't has survived all these years is because it's pretty much spot on. Okay, Bowden is bad. But if the alternative is a giant gaping hole in the GM job, he's still better than nothing.

Posted by: nunof1 | February 19, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

For those who claim Bowden is so bad, what are your facts??
This was a team, coming into DC that was totally gutted from top to bottom!! Thank you Selig!!
Their first season was as exciting as you could get even with Seligs handcuffs applied to Bowden. After that, it has been ownerships desire to follow Atlanta's template and build through the minor league's and via trades.
Where has ANYONE done better than Bowden in building the minors as fast as he has?
Please tell me the deals that Bowden should have made and missed on!!
What moves were available and he let get away??

Posted by: dkidwell61 | February 19, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

dkidwell61 - I will go a step further. MLB stood on the podium like an auction house standing there with the gavel driving up the price on the prized steer. Lerner pays $450 million for a team that was probably worth $300 million. This is old news, but the team is still paying the price for over paying for a team with a 15 to 20,000 hometown fan base and limited TV revenue couple with a depleted farm system and a last place Major League roster.

So, I agree with you that Selig aka MLB has a lot to be blamed for!!!

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | February 19, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

You want a JimBo replacement? Gerry Hunsicker. Former Mets GM, former Astros GM. Currently senior vice president, baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. Who went to the WS last year. Hunsiker also built the Astros team that went to the WS in 2005.

That's just off the top of my head, there have to be others.

Posted by: gbooksdc | February 19, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Such blissful memories. Come home, Barry!

Posted by: lowcountry | February 19, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

I hate to say it, but...no way the Nats' personnel in the Dominican Republic were "duped". The "buscones"(finders) are well known and, in a small town, more so in Latin America than in a small town in the US, everybody knows everybody, and it's very easy to find out who a particular kid is, who his parents are, where he lives, where he played ball, who his friends are, etc. Stories can be verified. Besides, believe me, you don't "dupe" a Latino in his own country.
The FBI wouldn't have gotten involved in these matters unless they had solid evidence.
I would tend to think that the "buscone" (ie, 'the finder') was not the only person to get a piece of the pie here.
Just saying...

Posted by: al852 | February 19, 2009 9:55 PM | Report abuse

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