“We need to adjust, adapt and improvise”
On Twitter: @Castrovince
As far as ambassadors go, few represent the Dominican baseball community as well as Manny Acta.
The Indians skipper is a board member for the Dominican Prospect League, managed the Dominican team in the first World Baseball Classic and has created a charitable organization to rebuild ballfields in his hometown San Pedro de Macoris.
So the “Fausto Carmona” situation pains Acta. Not just because he’ll be without his No. 3 starter this spring (and perhaps beyond), but because Carmona, who was arrested outside the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo two weeks ago for falsifying his name and birth date, is further proof of the widespread identity fraud issue that has plagued Dominican baseball.
“It’s been brewing for years because of the flawed system,” Acta says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Major League Baseball has stepped up its efforts to address the flaws. Last month, the International Talent Committee was formed to address “issues related to the development and acquisition of international players.” The primary goal of the committee is to come up with a structure for a potential international draft. But draft or no draft, it has become clear that reforms must be made in order for teams to trust that the players they sign are indeed the age they claim to be.
In the wake of the arrests of Carmona, who was revealed to be 31-year-old Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and Marlins closer Leo Nunez, who was revealed to be 29-year-old Juan Carlos Oviedo, it has been speculated that the surface has only been scratched and that several more established Major Leaguers could be outed as having fabricated their age and identity.
“These are like time bombs,” Mark Newman, the Yankees’ senior vice president for baseball operations, told the New York Times.
Baseball is interwoven into the fabric of the Dominican culture and economy, which is why the government there has also increased its vigilance against those who cheat the system.
But the problem is systemic. After all, the culture of Dominican players shaving years off their birth certificates was essentially created by stateside scouts and evaluators showing little to no interest in Latin American players above the ages of 18 or 19. And until teams take a more open-minded approach to those evaluations, one can hardly fault a player for being tempted to cheat the system if it’s the only way to make a better life for himself and his family.
“The younger kids are more attractive,” Acta says, “because signing them young gives you a bigger window of two to three years of adjustment to acclimate them [to the United States]. If you bring an older kid over here and it takes him a couple of years, he is already going to be 22. But at some point, people are going to have to start taking those chances.”
Acta looks at it this way. Here in the States, a kid can be drafted out of college at the age of 21 in the first round and claim a multi-million dollar signing bonus. And as we speak, teams are lining up to potentially bid tens of millions of dollars for 26-year-old Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes.
But to a kid in the Dominican, the age of 19 is viewed as the cutoff — your absolute last chance of attracting interest from a professional team.
“So they have been pushed over the years to commit these types of things,” Acta says. “Nobody is condoning that, but that’s how it is.”
The Dominican has produced 542 Major Leaguers and 68 All-Stars (Carmona included), according to baseball-reference.com. The country’s prospect pool is rich enough to necessitate just about every Major League club operating a Dominican academy where players can become educated and acclimated, but the players must be a minimum of 16 years old and are limited to a stay of 30 days, at which point the club must make a decision on whether or not to sign them.
One aim of the Dominican Prospect League, then, is to provide an environment in which Major League clubs can get an extended look at a player before signing him and the players can become not only exposed but educated. Players are given proper instruction, both from a physical and mental standpoint.
“The kids are being developed under a good atmosphere where they are playing games,” Acta said. “In the past, they all tried out, and you sign a guy. Now it’s a great opportunity for the scouts to see guys actually play games and evaluate them properly. It’s a great tool, and we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Perhaps the Carmona and Nunez cases that have brought the age and identity issue to the forefront will promote further progress. But as long as there are clear incentives to being younger on a professional contract than you are in reality, some players will undoubtedly try to cheat the system.
“We need to adjust, adapt and improvise,” Acta says. “We can’t continue to do things the way we have 100 years ago. Because if a guy can get out college here at 21 and can be a first-round pick or a free agent from a different country can be 24 and attractive to the baseball world, why can’t a kid from [the Dominican] be attractive if he is talented enough to play? I think everyone is working together to fix that. It’s going to take some time.”