What’s in a Name?

November 5, 2011 by CharlesF

Dominican birth certificate [reprinted from DRSEA Newsletter – Volume IV, Issue 8]

I used to chuckle when my mother would sometime look at me quizzically and ask, “When were you born?” My reply was generally, “You were there, weren’t you?”

But as I continue to ponder the ongoing dilemma that Major League Baseball faces in the Dominican Republic concerning age and identity fraud among young prospects, my mother’s occasional memory lapse has become increasingly understandable, particularly in a country where record keeping is often lax.

Major League Baseball recently revealed that of the 500 prospects a year it investigates, more than a third are rejected because of inconsistencies about who they are or when they were born. I am convinced more and more than a substantial amount of the identity questions are not because of deliberate attempts to mislead, but part of a cultural anomaly. But it is virtually impossible to separate the intentional from the unintentional, further exacerbating the dilemma. Baseball has taken to labeling such cases as “inconclusive,” but still locks questionable prospects out of the game.

In a recent case, Juan Carlos Paniagua, who had signed a $1.1 million contract with the New York Yankees, had his contract voided by MLB – and the right-handed pitcher with a 95-mph fastball was suspended for a year – after his identification paperwork was deemed faulty. This came after he was suspended for a year in 2010 for providing false identification to the Arizona Diamondbacks under the name of Juan Collado.

According to The Miami Herald, Paniagua’s problems began when his grandmother registered his birth, declaring herself as his mother. A new birth certificate was issued under his correct name, listing his real mother, but then baseball investigators said his school registry appeared altered and he was ruled ineligible, his coach Dario Moreno Martes said, explaining, “He has never had a different date of birth. If he is not Juan Carlos Paniagua, then tell me who he is?”

Who he is – and dozens of others like him – is an ongoing problem. “We try to be as comprehensive as possible,” Major League Baseball Senior Vice President Dan Mullin told the Herald. “We try to be as fair as possible and try to help the player prove he is who he says he is. But if you can’t prove who you are, you can’t get a visa to come to the United States.”

The proof is often a mystery that resists unraveling, whether there is deliberate intent or not to deceive. Very often in the Dominican Republic, births are not registered until years after, when memories have become sketchy with regards to exact dates, locations and circumstances. A relative could take a child to register the birth and not recall the exact date, or be provided incorrect information by the mother and father who may be juggling the birth dates of several children in their heads. But, it would be a stretch of the imagination to believe that someone would falsify the identification of a 6-year-old in anticipation that 10 or 11 years hence that lie would benefit them in getting their child signed to a professional baseball contract.

Also, people in the Dominican Republic traditionally carry the last name of both the mother and the father, but in general usage prefer one over the other. Over years, if one parent is absent, a name that appears on a birth certificate could be dropped from use, but become questionable when an identity search is made. With that parent unavailable for verification, the matter could end as inconclusive.

I have also seen identification further compromised by the spelling of a name. In the United States, I would generally call someone “Jimmy,” but in the Dominican Republic, it might be written “Gemmy.” Or, in many cases, someone has been called a nickname – Chico – all their lives; in school records, hospital records – and that becomes who they are – not Joaquin. But over the years, people would write “Jimmy” to the point that it would become the accepted spelling – until the question of identity surfaces. And Chico turns out to really be Joaquin when baseball checks his identity. While there was no deliberate attempt to confuse anyone, red flags go up in a system where there are so many covert efforts to conceal identity.

And, further adding to the problem, according to one development academy owner who had three prospects’ contracts voided by identity questions, there is a cultural lack of understanding about the problem. “They figure if the birth date is close, or the name is close, what’s the big deal,” he said. “They know it is their son, so they don’t understand why it is a problem. We really have to get parents – and these kids – to understand that their identities have to be solid, have to be
accurate, or we can’t get them signed.”

But there are certainly those who forge their identities to profit in a baseball world where 16-year olds become instant millionaires while an 18-year-old with the same skills commands far less or could go unsigned. Since I have been in the Dominican Republic, I have gotten to know Edgar Ferreria, one such casualty of growing old. At 19, his value was dropping quickly until he was convinced to forge a new identity, that of a 17-year old, in part by paying off a local school to say he attended. With a new age and identity, he was offered a $75,000 contract with the Anaheim Angels.

When the lie fell apart, Edgar’s contract was voided. At 23, he now works as a trainer at a development academy, his big league dreams shattered. “I am worthless — an old man who nobody wants to sign,” he says, his sad, empty eyes reflecting his pain.

Baseball has embraced numerous investigative techniques – including fingerprinting of prospects as first advocated in the DRSEA INFORMER two years ago – and now uncovers more of the fraudulent cases. And, as the Dominican Republic adapts new measures to register births, the record keeping is becoming more accurate and less subject to tampering. But it will be years before those with the new accurate records reach 16 – the magic age when MLB teams can sign Dominican players. In the interim, baseball is saddled with the task of sorting out who is who, whether the prospect planned a deception or not.

The case of the Florida Marlins Leo Núñez – who is actually Juan Carlos Oviedo – is an example of just how pervasive identity fraud is. Nunez played under his assumed name – and an older age – for 10 years before coming clean, and I am told there are more than two dozen current major and minor league players in the same fix.

Recently, a television feature on Dominican baseball referred to me as a critic of Major League Baseball, an evaluation I have worked hard to avoid because it positions me as an adversary. I have never considered myself as an opponent of Major League Baseball, merely an advocate for education of the talent baseball mines in the Dominican Republic.

I avoid criticism in favor of observation and, based on those observations and my experience here, offer my opinions on problems in Dominican baseball that have become increasingly documented by others as well. These include the use of steroids among prospects, abuses at the hands of greedy flesh merchants, and most recently the errant age and identify fraud that undermines the integrity of the game.

The major problem leading to age and identification fraud has been and will continue to be the devaluation of Dominican players as they age. A 16-year-old with a 90-mph fastball is more valuable than a 19-year-old with the same skills, and with lax record keeping and a culture so rabid for baseball, the temptation to become someone younger, to fit the mold, is often irresistible.

I also try to offer viable solutions to the problems that plague Dominican baseball. I said it before and I will say it again that it seems to me that some of the age fraud could be avoided if these baseball Methuselahs could get a legitimate shot at the stardom all Dominican baseball players crave. Logic dictates that if a 19-year-old believes he still has a chance to reach his dream, he will be less likely to lie about his age. Sure, you would still be getting what many consider an aging diamond in the rough, but the upside is a more mature, more focused 19-year-old man as opposed to a 16-year-old boy.

I suggested more than a year ago that baseball teams in the Dominican Republic offer a combine similar to what the National Football League uses to evaluate talent prior to its annual draft, but only for those players 19 and over. Once, twice a year bring these so-called over-the-hill players to a location for workouts to assess their skills; make those workouts open to all teams who can then select promising players directly or via a special draft.

These players can easily be identified by the baseball’s expanded scouting bureau that now covers all of Latin America, and giving those 19 and over one last shot at a baseball career can only help eliminate their need to lie about who they are and when they were born.

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