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.
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