By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number??
With the pride of a father, Coronado lifts the framed picture showing his former pupil, Wandy Rodriguez, celebrating a victory over the New York Mets.
Rodriguez’s road to the majors — and the deception that helped get him signed by the Astros — originated in Bonao, in the interior of this Caribbean island.
Rodriguez is viewed as a local hero, a man who gives impoverished children haircuts not unlike the ones he offers Astros manager Cecil Cooper and teammates.
Rodriguez spent the first 14 years of his life with his parents in Santiago Rodriguez, a small farming town not far from Haiti on the northern edge of the Dominican Republic, but Bonao is home.
It is where Rodriguez’s hopes of reaching the majors as an outfielder died and were reincarnated when he changed his position, identity and age to sign as a non-drafted free agent with the Astros on Jan. 13, 1999.
He was only 15 when he quit school and moved to Bonao, where Faustino Rodriguez, his uncle, lived and knew of a neighbor who ran the “Escuela de Beisbol Luis Coronado.“
With a strong arm, great defensive instincts and a bat worthy of hitting second or third in youth baseball, Rodriguez was good enough for his father to lobby Wandy’s mother, Alejandrina, to let the 15-year-old move away from home and focus on trying to earn a contract as an outfielder.
Reality sets in
After Wandy played three years as an outfielder, reality set in, setting the course for “Eny Cabreja,” the lefthanded pitcher, to materialize. Already 18, Rodriguez was a year older than baseball teams prefer to sign their players out of the Dominican Republic.
“I think this boy doesn’t have a chance,” Coronado, who played second base on the Oakland Athletics’ Dominican Summer League team in 1989 and 1990, remembers telling Faustino Rodriguez. “I still cannot get him to run or hit for power.”
Rodriguez and his family were desperate, as hundreds of other Dominicans, Venezuelans and Cubans have been when they fudged their age or changed their identities to sign with a major league club.
“Inventa algo y hazlo pelotero,” Faustino Rodriguez told Coronado. “Invent something and make him a ballplayer.”
It didn’t take long to figure out where they would turn.
“I said, ‘Well, the only option I have, because he has a good arm, is to try him as a pitcher,’ ” Coronado said. “I invented something, and I’ll make him a pitcher. And he said, ‘Bueno.’ Wandy understood, but it was difficult because he liked to bat a lot.
Even though in the big leagues he hasn’t shown what he could do here, he was a second hitter or third hitter.
“I told him the only option is to get on the mound and work. I installed his follow-through, tried to work on his mechanics and use his arm to have speed. I told him, ‘If you learn this, you will throw 88 or 89 mph.’ “
After a few months of work, Rodriguez was throwing his fastball about 82 mph, prompting Coronado to take him for a tryout with the New York Mets. That scout suggested that with a few more months of work, he might throw 86 mph.
After four months and nearing the four-year anniversary of his arrival in Bonao, the 19-year-old Rodriguez was throwing better than 86 mph consistently.
There was a problem, though. His age wasn’t appealing.
“I told Wandy’s uncle, ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with Wandy because it’s difficult to have that age,’ ” Coronado said. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to find him a name or try to sign him at 19.’
“I told Wandy, ‘Consult with your uncles and parents.’ They consulted and found their decision. I didn’t have a part in that because I didn’t want to have that responsibility. When the boy has a younger age, he has a better chance, and you’ll figure out what you do from there. Then his uncle told me they found him a name.”
Born Jan. 18, 1979, Wandy Rodriguez persuaded a friend to let him borrow his identity. Cabreja was born Aug. 18, 1981, making him 17 when current Washington Nationals bullpen coach and former Astros minor league pitching coach Ricardo Aponte scouted Rodriguez.
Rodriguez pitched well enough for the Astros to receive a $5,000 signing bonus from scout Julio Linares. By comparison, that year the Astros gave a $725,000 bonus to outfielder Mike Rosamond, their first pick in the supplemental round.
“I gave $500 of that to my uncle and $500 to Coronado,” Rodriguez said.
He took about $300 for himself to buy some clothes and gave his father the rest to buy cattle.
Rodriguez’s bonus wasn’t large enough to push his family out of poverty, but it was enough to get him in the door he wanted, just as it had been in 1993 when Miguel Tejada shaved two years off his age to sign with the A’s for a $2,000 bonus.
“At that time, I was already 19 and they told me it would look better if I was 17,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to be a baseball player. Eny Cabreja was a boy who had practiced baseball with me in Santiago Rodriguez, not as much as me, but he played baseball, too.”
MLB cracks down
Major League Baseball opened an office in the Dominican Republic on Dec. 7, 2000, in large part to deal with the growing use of forged documents or false identities by would-be ballplayers.
MLB quickly moved to establish a working relationship with the Dominican Republic’s Junta Central Electoral, which oversees that country’s elections and keeps identity and birth records.
“We were concerned about the quality of the work that was being done to verify birth certificates,” said Lou Melendez, MLB’s vice president of international operations. “We brought in our own group of investigators to basically do that work.”
It didn’t take long to realize how rampant the problem was and, in some instances, still is.
“Through that process, we’ve been able to reduce dramatically the players who tried to use somebody else’s identity or a wrong age,” Melendez said. “When we began this process, more than 50 percent did it.
“The buscones (free-lance scouts) unfortunately encourage them (prospective players) to engage in this practice today. That’s not to say one or two don’t get through. These kids are very desperate to sign professionally.”
Rodriguez approached Cabreja before applying for his work visa before spring training in 2002. Rodriguez realized he needed to admit his identity after he learned Cabreja had taken out a Dominican cÃ©dula, or government identification.
Rodriguez called Aponte and then Linares and informed them about his deception.
From there, Linares called Tim Purpura, who was Astros assistant general manager in charge of player development at the time.
Fortunately for Rodriguez, he had shown some promise in 2001, finishing 4-3 with a 1.58 ERA at short-season Rookie League Martinsville.
Even though he had entered the United States in 2001 after lying on a work visa application, it’s not rare for the country to forgive such offenses, especially if the issue is merely a case of misrepresentation of age.
“I am aware of some instances where the player’s age was misrepresented by their parents and the player really had no control over that,” said Houston immigration lawyer Jacob Monty, who represents the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. “A lot of these players are very young and unsophisticated when they seek visas. They often rely on family members or agents to complete the paperwork.”
Telling truth helped
Leniency at times is based on when the fraud occurred and whether the fraud was disclosed by the player or uncovered by the authorities.
In Rodriguez’s case, he stepped forward.
“I just told them the truth, that Eny Cabreja had taken out a cÃ©dula,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who is on the disabled list, wishes his talent would have been appreciated if he had told the truth about his age in 1999.
He never will know if it would have been, but he’s sure it has altered his family’s lot in life for the better. He is pitching this season on a one-year deal worth $451,000.
“We just want to be a ballplayer to help our families,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody.
“I’ve been able to help my family because of my decision, and that’s why I did it.”