"It Was Time To Cut That Cord"
Here's the story Barry and I double-teamed for Friday's fishwrap edition.
By Barry Svrluga and Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writers
SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic, Feb. 26 - The Washington Nationals on Thursday abandoned the training facility they once boasted of here and officially fired José Rijo, the former face of their efforts in the Dominican Republic, all part of the fallout that two sources said results from the signing of a player the team later learned had forged both his age and his name.
Though Nationals President Stan Kasten said at the team's spring training complex in Viera, Fla., that the club's Dominican prospects will move into a different facility on Monday, Thursday's events left significant questions about the direction of the franchise's efforts in this talent-rich country. There are almost as many questions about General Manager Jim Bowden, whose future Kasten did not address directly and whose relationship with Rijo goes back nearly two decades, when the pair forged an unlikely bond, a young general manager from New England pairing with a flamboyant former World Series MVP.
Now, that relationship could end two careers in Washington. Rijo was one of Bowden's first hires when he took the job of general manager in November 2004, when the Nationals were still owned by Major League Baseball. Nearly two years later, it was Bowden who took Rijo's recommendation to sign a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn González for a bonus of $1.4 million, more than the franchise had ever doled out. That player, it turned out, was actually a 20-year-old named Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo who had lied about both his name and his age; it is still unclear who pulled off the scam and who received the bulk of the bonus money. MLB is investigating the matter; Bowden and Rijo were also questioned by the FBI last year.
"I'm disappointed," Rijo said after emerging from a meeting at his complex with Washington assistant general manager Mike Rizzo. "Not for me, but for the people who are losing their jobs. They shouldn't be in this position. They have nothing to do with this."
Kasten, who in 2006 joined Bowden in trumpeting the signing of Alvarez as a strong pronouncement of the team's intentions in the Dominican, said Thursday only that he supported "everyone who works for the Nationals." He would not say whether the dismissal of Rijo - as well as all but two members of the coaching and training staff at Rijo's complex here - would be the last in the wake of this scandal.
Asked whether he had become convinced that Rijo was guilty of wrongdoing in the signing of Alvarez, Kasten said, "That's not a subject I'm going to touch," before adding, "I did become convinced with what I had learned that it was time for us to finally go ahead and cut that cord."
Whether Bowden will be next remains unclear. Two sources said Rijo's dismissal was directly related to the signing of Alvarez. "It had everything to do with that kid," one said.
The strength of Bowden's personal and professional relationship with Rijo is indisputable. Though Rizzo traveled here to scout out the team's temporary home in the beach town of Boca Chico and to officially assemble a new staff - one which will be headed by Fernando Ravelo, who is currently the general manager of the powerful Tigres del Licey franchise in the Dominican Winter League - it was Bowden who called Rijo and delivered the news of his termination Thursday morning.
"That had to be excruciating for Jim," said one baseball source who knows both men well. "They're just making [Bowden] endure as much pain as possible."
The bond between Rijo and Bowden took root in Cincinnati in the early 1990s. Bowden, as baseball's youngest general manager, shaped the Reds' roster. Rijo, a World Series MVP in 1990, determined the team's mood. They shared a relationship that Doc Rodgers, later Cincinnati's assistant general manager, called "maybe the closest general manager-player relationship I've ever seen."
Rijo mentored the team's young pitchers at Bowden's suggestion, called the team meetings and hosted the spring training barbecues. As Bowden developed a reputation as the industry's most manic worker, Rijo developed a reputation for his desire.
"I think they're very much the same type of personality," said Barry Larkin, a shortstop in Cincinnati who later joined the Washington front office. "They're very driven, very determined. Both have a lot of charisma, a lot of personality. They're very much two of the same. As much as Jim was a workaholic, José was a workaholic, too. He was always the pitcher the best in shape. He was always the benchmark for the others on the staff. He was a leader in the clubhouse. I believe the attraction between the two was very much because of their similarities."
In the late 1990s, while out of baseball because of his arm injuries, Rijo settled on his next dream: starting up a baseball academy in the Dominican. Bowden supported the idea.
"I met him down in the Dominican Republic, and he showed us where it's gonna be," said Rodgers, whom the Reds assigned to the Dominican. "We get into his Range Rover, we drive into this sugar cane field and José said, 'Doc, this is it.' "
Bowden had no reservations about tying Cincinnati's fate in the Dominican to Rijo's facility, several sources said. Starting in 1997, Rodgers said, the team's Latin American presence had consisted of one person - a scout named Johnny Almaraz. Thereafter, Cincinnati started a Dominican team, giving its players a house for lodging, but Rijo's facility represented the chance for something bigger. An arrangement was struck: The Reds would lease half of the academy, housing their Dominican prospects there. In the other half, Rijo would run a separate academy for his own players, those too young to be signed. If any of those youngsters showed potential, Rijo would give the Reds first negotiating rights.
Bowden delegated almost all responsibilities to Rodgers, several sources said, but as Rijo's facility grew, problems emerged. Cincinnati executive John Allen negotiated the rent, and the organization came away paying between $20,000 and $25,000 per month, Rodgers said - double the going rate. Rijo struck several in Cincinnati's front office as being prone to oversight, turned in expense reports without receipts and claiming bills that weren't covered in the paperwork.
"Jose is not a detail guy," said Brad Kullman, who eventually rose to an assistant GM position with Bowden. "I don't think he is a scam artist, because he will give you the shirt off his back. But then, once he does, he will be like, 'Hey, I don't have a shirt.' "
From 1999 to 2003, when Bowden was fired, Cincinnati used the Rijo facility, but with little benefit to its minor league talent pool. Much of that, several sources said, was attributable to Cincinnati's unwillingness to spend money. Most of the prospects signed contracts for between $5,000 and $15,000, low-profile deals that netted no controversy and no gain.
"We were paying for a couple things," said Kasey McKeon, the Reds' scouting director in Bowden's final years. "One is [Rijo's] name, and you're hoping the buscones bring their best kids to him. And that might have happened, but we didn't have the money to sign those players. So it was kind of like we were wasting our money."
When Bowden was fired in the middle of the 2003 season, he had time to plot his next move. The opportunity in Washington allowed him the chance to resume the relationship with Rijo, this time aware of the pitfalls, and hoping for a better financial backing.
After Bowden was hired by MLB to run the Nationals on an interim basis, he hired Rijo. At the time, Washington's presence in the Dominican Republic was non-existent, cut during MLB's ownership of the Montreal Expos, the Nationals' predecessors. When the club was sold to the Lerner family in 2006, Kasten became the team's president, and he retained Bowden, who retained Rijo, who promised to use his connections in his native country to lure talent.
In an interview in late 2006 - after the club signed the player they knew as González - Rijo said of Kasten: "Stan told me to get aggressive. Don't do anything illegal; do everything by the book. But get aggressive - and get us players."
Rijo said he rented his facility - five immaculate regulation diamonds as well as batting cages, dorms, a dining hall and a trainer's room - to the Nationals for nearly $40,000 a month for 10 months of the year. Baseball sources say other facilities can rent for that much.
Thus, Rijo was drawing income from the Nationals in two ways - as a landlord, and as an employee. Rijo said Thursday he did not think the relationship was at all odd.
"That's the whole idea of why do I invest my money back into the academy?" Rijo said. "That was my way to help. If I would've known that it would end this way, I would've put my money in something else."
On Thursday, after he emerged from a meeting with Rizzo, Ravelo and Mark Scialabba, the Nationals' assistant director of player development, Rijo addressed the assembled players, who were awaiting their fate. He said in Spanish that they were "victims of circumstance, and that none of you guys are responsible for this." The players gave him a round of applause, and he left shortly thereafter for the airport in Santo Domingo, where he caught a flight to Miami.
Eventually, Rizzo, Ravelo and Scialabba gathered the players in center field of one of the diamonds here, to explain the situation. And just as they did came an unexpected development: Alvarez, who hadn't appeared at the facility since Feb. 18, when Sports Illustrated first reported his scam, drove up in his white Cadillac Escalade. He joined his teammates, speaking quietly with only a few. But there wasn't much.
"He was silent," said Santiago Molina, a pitcher. "Nothing."
Then, the group learned the rest of the equation: José Baez, the manager of the facility, had been let go, and only pitching coach Manuel Santana and a trainer would be retained; 14 players would be released; the club would field only one instead of two teams in the Dominican Summer League; they had the weekend off; and they would report to the team's new facility in Boca Chica on Monday. Twice, they broke into rounds of applause.
"I'm very excited," Ravelo said, before driving off. Rizzo declined comment, but Kasten said he would speak about the transition Friday in Viera.
"I'm proud of him," Kasten said of Rizzo only an hour or so after the Nationals' Dominican prospects had driven down the mountain, some three to a moped, from José Rijo's complex for the last time.
Harlan reported from Viera, Fla.
February 26, 2009; 10:47 PM ET
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