Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pirates Entering Goldmine...Or Minefield?

Much ado has been made about the new suits building a Dominican Baseball Academy and mining the talent-laden Latino countries for ballplayers. And it's only natural; after all, the Pirates is the team of Roberto Clemente, and he may still be the the ultimate trump card in signing a Spanish-speaking ballplayer.

The upside is tremendous. The kids play ball as soon as they're old enough to run, much like kids from the minefields played football in Western PA, and for the same reason - it's a ticket to the good life, maybe the only one available.

In 2005, Chevrolet picked its "Latino Legends" team:

• Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez
• First base: Albert Pujols
• Second base: Rod Carew
• Third base: Edgar Martinez
• Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez
• Outfield: Roberto Clemente, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero
• Starting pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal, Fernando Valenzuela
• Relief pitcher: Mariano Rivera

Not a bad bunch, hey? And you could add Big Papi Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Zambrano, Johan Santana, Aramis Ramirez, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Rafael Furcal, Jorge Posada, Bengie Molina, Francisco Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Adrian Beltre...well, you get the picture.

And it's a pure buyers market. Unless you're from Puerto Rico, whose players are eligible for the entry draft because the island is an American Territory, it all comes down to scouting and signing. Everyone's a free agent.

The Pirates used to be a big player in mining Latino prospects back in the days of Howie Haak, bringing home guys like Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett, Omar Moreno, and Tony Pena. But under the Dave Littlefield era, the Bucs refused to compete.

GW looked over the 40-man roster, and there's nary a Latin soul on it that was originally signed by the Pirates; even 22-year old Venezuelan Ron Uviedo was first inked by Seattle. The last Latino the Bucs signed that made it to the show was Yoslin Herrera, a Cuban free agent. Before that, you have to go back to Jose Castillo, discovered in 1997.

Now that's changing. The Pirates upped the pot of bonus bucks available to scout Rene Gayo to $2M, nearly tripling his previous budget. The Dominican Academy is coming on-line. Talented Latino players wearing Pittsburgh colors are beginning to pop up in the Latin Summer Leagues and the GCL.

It's a good time to get into the market. Oddly enough, Littlefield's reluctance to enter the Latino star wars may be a saving grace, because now MLB has several people under federal investigation for a money scam involving Latino contracts.

The key player in finding Latino talent is the "buscon," a native middleman who scours the countryside for raw prospects, often setting up makeshift baseball camps for them, and then shopping his players to the major league scouts.

Though some big bonuses are given out, generally, by US standards, it's small change exchanging hands. But to poverty stricken 16 year-olds (the age Latinos can sign), a low-six figure cash payment is like hitting the lottery.

This leads, of course, to some pretty shady dealing. Notoriously, one can never depend on a kid's age being what he says it is; they know that the younger they are, the more desirable they are to baseball.

But this scam is a little different. The scouts, management, and players agree on a contract, and then the MLB club jacks up the bonus on paper, splitting the difference between the scout and the suit. How widespread is the practice?

As of last week, at least eight employees of MLB teams have been axed, including a high-ranking White Sox executive and three of his scouts. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox also fired Latin American scouts.

In the last four months, MLB's Office of Investigations has set up shop in the Dominican Republic, hired five Spanish-speaking investigators and pledged cooperation with the Dominican Sports Ministry to improve the overall system.

The probe, first looking at the Dominican Republic, recently expanded into Venezuela, where MLB has uncovered similar problems. The FBI launched its own investigation last year, but no one has been charged criminally - yet.

Now the hot potato has dropped in Washington's lap. One scout was canned, and GM Jim' Bowden's head rolled today when he resigned. As ESPN reports:

Jim Bowden resigned Sunday after four seasons as the Washington Nationals' general manager, leaving under the cloud of a federal investigation into the skimming of signing bonuses given to Latin American prospects.

"My resignation is based upon my realization that my ability to properly represent the Washington Nationals has been compromised because of false allegations contained in the press," Bowden said in a statement. "There have been no charges made, and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part."

Sports Illustrated, citing an unidentified baseball executive familiar with the investigation, reported on its Web site last week that the FBI is looking at Bowden's actions as far back as 1994, when he was GM of the Cincinnati Reds.
Pittsburgh hasn't been involved publicly in any of the hanky-panky, probably because Rene Gayo is by all accounts a straight dude, and in truth, there was no real Pittsburgh money being tossed around for anyone to skim.

We think this scandal is more criminal than the doping tabloid fodder, but hey. It's easier to hate on fat cat gadzillionaires than on scrawny Latino kids. As a nation, we seem quicker to anger over drugs than white-collar crime (although that may change soon enough, when everyone's retirement money suddenly comes up missing, along with the investment managers.)

And it does give Pittsburgh a tremendous window of opportunity. They're apparently free of dirty dealings with the players and their families, and can tap in on the goodwill of the Great One and the other Latino Bucs that followed him to Pittsburgh. They have no baggage to discard and a deeply imbedded, if dated, tradition. And now they're in finally in the "show me the pesos" mode.

It could prove a goldmine in the making for the talent-starved Pirate organization. But they have to watch where they step; there's still plenty of minefields to cross.

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