For Dominican hopefuls, baseball is a game of ages
SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
On a field of brown dirt and sharp rocks here in a land that is crazy about baseball, former major league pitcher Joaquin Andujar is searching for talent.
His eyes look sleepy, and his hands are fidgety - until one player picks up a bat and catches his attention. The player, an outfielder, is named Randal Carrion, and his arms are rail-thin.
But he can hit.
Carrion swings at one batting practice pitch after another and drills balls into the outfield gaps. He hits another high and deep, and does not even pause to watch. For sure, there are some kinks in his swing, but to a seasoned eye like Andujar's, the potential is apparent.
"You see that guy?" he says, motioning with the pitching arm that won him 127 games over 12 seasons in the big leagues. "He has power. I saw him hit one over the fence the other day. And he's only 14 years old!"
Actually, Carrion says he is 16. But who really knows?
It's not without reason that his age is a subject of interest here. In what is arguably the world's deepest baseball talent pool, the younger the player, the greater his worth. The fudging of ages - and the altering of documents - has been commonplace as long as scouts have scoured this Caribbean island.
Danny Almonte, the Dominican pitcher who last year played in the Little League World Series, representing the Bronx, drew world attention when it was revealed that he was 14 and not 12. The team eventually had to forfeit its third-place finish, and Almonte's spectacular no-hitter was erased from the record books.
And this year, as baseball's spring training is under way in Florida and Arizona, roughly 100 pros from the Dominican Republic have been found to be older than previously thought, according to a Major League Baseball official.
Among the big names are Bartolo Colon (Cleveland Indians), Rafael Furcal (Atlanta Braves), Rey Ordonez (New York Mets), Neifi Perez (Kansas City Royals), and Ramon Ortiz (Anaheim Angels). The majority, however, are minor-league players still hoping to make it to "The Show."
The revelations came from the United States Consulate in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, as the players were applying for visas before the season. According to US officials, they looked at each application - which now requires a birth certificate - with greater scrutiny than in the past.
"We've increasingly become aware of invalid dates of birth being presented in applications for athletes seeking visas to go to the US and play there, whether professionally or otherwise," said a statement from the US consular office. "As with all visa applications, we have a responsibility to verify the basic biographic information presented to us."
There are two reasons for the more careful examination of papers, officials say. First, the checks are part of the backlash to the Sept. 11 attacks - and are global. Second, US officials want to avert a repeat of what happened with Almonte at the Little League World Series.
While the age-fixing has been the subject of jokes among major league players - the teammates of New York Yankees infielder Enrique Wilson have been calling him "Enrique Almonte" - there is also a serious downside. For a young player with potential like Carrion, the difference of two years could mean the difference between signing with a club and toiling in obscurity.
For the big leaguers, big money is at stake, because clubs often give contracts to a player based on how many productive playing years they think he has ahead. That is one reason, perhaps, why there was a strong backlash among Dominican big leaguers when the US consular office started checking documents more closely.
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jose Mesa even accused Major League Baseball of having a hand in the process, and called for the resignation of the MLB representative in Santo Domingo, Rafael Perez.
Perez says MLB had nothing to do with it - although it was informed of any discrepancies because the MLB clubs are the ones who sponsor the players' visas.
"The major leaguers won't be affected because they're already millionaires," Perez says. "The biggest problems are for the prospects."
For them, the age game can often be cruel. At 16, players are old enough to sign with an "academy" run by a MLB organization - of which there are 31 on the island. Then they have a maximum of three years that they can play before either being sent to the US or dropped from the club.
So, for a player like Carrion, it is a double-edged sword. If he is really 14, he may want to pretend that he is older so he can get a contract immediately. If he is 16, he may want to take another two years to try to develop his talent before going on the auction block. Even official documents, which are hard to come by here, can give conflicting ages.
According to Andujar, who signed with the Cincinnati Reds when he was 15 years old, teams today are making too big a deal of age. Some players develop late, he says, and with better conditioning, more are playing into their late 30s. "I think teams can do better if they take players who are 18 or 19 - not just 16 and 17," he says.