Wednesday, July 9, 2008


The FBI is now looking into allegations that former White Sox employees were skimming bonus money given to them by the team to sign Dominican players:
Federal agents, following up on baseball's own two-month investigation, have been interviewing representatives of all 30 major league teams after the White Sox fired senior personnel director David Wilder and two international scouts in May.

According to the Chicago Tribune, investigators are looking into whether Wilder may have pocketed portions of the bonuses the White Sox gave him to sign Dominican prospects. Ross Rice, a spokesman for the FBI office in Chicago, said no criminal charges have been filed. Wilder has said nothing publicly since his firing.

"The FBI's going to all the organizations . . . asking players if they received or gave money," said Clay Daniel, international scouting supervisor for the Angels, whose Dominican-based scouts have already been interviewed. "I'm sure they're looking into scouts, personnel, people like that that may have had a hand in it."
But the article doesn't end there. It goes on to cite other problems with Dominican scouting and signings, and tries to make the case that other bad stuff is happening that "
has the potential to shake the game there to its core." What else is going on? Bad things come in threes, so in addition to the skimming, the article cites (1) the existence of buscones -- Dominican scouts or "searchers" are serving as defacto double agents, both finding players and then driving their prices up to competing clubs; and (2) escalating signing bonuses going to Dominican players which no one on the team's side likes.

The story's author as well as his many team-based anonymous sources go to great lengths to conflate all three of these problems in an effort to paint the Dominican market as some lawless, chaotic environment, but in reality, these are three separate phenomena, and not all of them are actually problems. At least not problems for anyone other than Major League teams who don't want to pay a lot of money for free agents.

The alleged bonus skimming is a legal problem, but it seems to be one of simple embezzlement by employees due in part, I would guess, to poor accounting controls on the part of teams. Sure the FBI is involved, but unless there's some grand conspiracy, as opposed to simple opportunism, isn't this mostly a tax/theft problem for a few people as opposed to a crisis that could "shake the league to its very core?"

The issue with the buscones -- which seems in no way to be linked to the skimming -- is troubling only insofar as these guys are taking advantage of Dominican teenagers, which they may very well be. This is a problem, but not one for the league. Indeed, as far as MLB is concerned, the most pressing problem the buscones pose is that they are representing players in a way that drives up their market price. Baseball may not like that, but they don't like American agents either, so we have to take its complaints about these guys with a grain of salt. I definitely worry about buscones exploiting kids. I don't worry about them brow beating MLB.

The final problem -- the escalation of signing bonuses to Dominican players -- rings pretty hollow as a potential threat to the game. Baseball has never liked paying players a lot of money, and hearing teams complain about it now sounds an awful lot like the squawking some teams do when a Major League free agent signs for big dollars. This is problem of fiscal discipline, not one of systemic failure unique to the DR.

So why are all of these issues mentioned in an article that, in the normal course, would simply be about an investigation into an alleged fraud? If I had my skeptical hat on, I'd suggest that baseball is trying to bootstrap a story of isolated malfeasance into one in which the whole DR system is a major mess, when in reality it's really a system of hyper-capitalism that (maybe) leads to some players being taken advantage of by buscones.

Why would MLB want to make this seem like a big global problem when it may not actually be one? My guess is to create an environment of panic and uncertainty about the DR which makes it easier to force the island into a draft of some kind, thereby (hopefully) driving down exploding bonus costs.

Of course given how much success MLB has had recently reigning in draft-related costs (i.e. none), I'm not sure they should be trying to push things in that direction.

(thanks to Pete Toms -- the Dean of ShysterBall commenters -- for the link)


Anonymous said...

Obvious solution to many of these problems: All male human beings, regardless of national origin, are draft eligible.


Grammar Police said...

I think you mean "phenomena":

"...these are three separate phenomenon..."

sean b said...

Buscones, are a problem for MLB, but generally aren't a problem for the players themselves. Sure, there are crooked ones, and those are the ones MLB wants everyone to hear about.

But I have an anthropologist buddy that has done extensive fieldwork in the DR, and he is generally buscone friendly because they represent a counter to the imperialistic relationship between MLB and its Dominican labor force. Essentially, they are an instance of at least Dominicans exploiting Dominican labor before MLB does. I suppose where globalized labor is concerned, this is considered progress.

At any rate, ask any of the players, even the ones we never see, whether they'd trade that experience. They live better at the academies than at home, and often (this will become "usually" if the Mets system is widely replicated) come home the most educated person in their family.

To re-cap: exploitation? Yes. Bad for Dominicans? Moderate to strong no.

Craig Calcaterra said...

grammar police: thanks. I changed it. I make a lot of mistakes like that, but I'm never touchy about them, so please continue to write me tickets when necessary.

Sean B: that's my sense of it too. The Buscones seem to be good for the players vis-a-vis MLB, even if they aren't necessarily working in the best interests of the players for their own sake. In other words, it's better than nothing.

Pete Toms said...

I'm not as buscone friendly. I've read that steroid use is rampant in the DR and the buscones are largely responsible. Ok, given the desparate poverty these kids probably don't care. But I think a lot of boys' are being harmed taking god knows what to chase the dream and most never make it off the island.

As I told Craig earlier, I don't understand what MLB wants vis a vis the draft. They don't like the Rule IV draft - witness Selig's ineffective attempts at "slotting". Jimmie Lee Solomon is on the record stating that it is inflationary. Yet, MLB isn't happy with the free market that exists for amateur players in the DR, witness the skyrocketing bonuses and in particular the record amount that Inoa just received. What do they want? I'm not being rhetorical, I don't know.

This same article mentions the argument that the draft had a negative impact on baseball in Puerto Rico. Fewer players coming from there since the draft was introduced and their winter league is either dead or on life support. Anybody wanna take a run at that one?

sean b said...

Re: steroid use. Not sure where to go on this one... first of all cause i'm not sure what the argument is... that they're taking steroids or that they're taking "god knows what" which i assume means steroids of questionable quality, efficacy, etc.

Just to play devil's advocate i guess because it's fun, but it seems a little culturally imperialistic to apply the british "fair play" ethos (originating within the victorian era and an explicitly classist ameteurism) to the DR. i get it, they have to play by the rules same as everyone else, but let's be clear: it's doubtful that buscones are slipping guys steroids as they sleep. nor are they necessarily wrong that such tactics have some amount of efficacy (which is actually a debate for another day).

point to be made? buscones pushing steroids are a symptom of a larger steroid problem, rather than the cause of some steroid scourge that would be non-existant otherwise.

btw, can i have a link to the article you're talking about when referencing the buscone steroid issue? i'd like to read it...

Pete Toms said...

sean b, I'm in a hurry ( on my way to a CanAm League game tonite! ) but Mike Fish wrote some pieces for ESPN last year on the steroid problem in the DR.

Here is one, you can find the rest on your own.

I get your point and I don't think it's without merit. Yes, the buscones flourish because of the desparate poverty. Yes they push a lot of really inferior steroids on boys ( Fish talks about steroids manufactured for cattle & horses i.e. ). I gotta go but it is a really scummy business there is my point. Could MLB make improvements? I don't think it could get a whole lot worse.

Read the Fish pieces, the one I linked and the one about Presinal ( the most famous Buscone who is banned in MLB clubhouses ), also by Fish.

Lastly, are there not a disproportionate (sic?) number of positive steroid tests amongst players from the DR?

sean b said...

yes... it's a shady business in many ways, but it isn't nearly as bad as MLB would have everyone believe.

for a more academic take (and please don't read that as "superior"... although i am biased) read Klein's book Growing the Game for the anthropologist's view.

Klein is an old-school lefty normally, but comes across as somewhat sympathetic to globalization in this book (in the same way as Friedman in the Lexus and the Olive tree) so his view on the buscones is informed by the view that indigenous (sp?) resistance to american economic and cultural imperialism is a sort of inherent good.

at any rate, he's done more work on baseball in the DR than probably anyone in the world, so his work is always worth taking a look at.

either way, it's a fun discussion

Pete Toms said...

Hey sean b. Never heard of that book, sounds interesting.

Do you read Dianne M. Grassi? She has written some very left wing pieces criticizing MLB for turning their back on African Americans because they can more cheaply exploit labor abroad. Principally the DR. She argues that MLB has received assistance from the federal govt on this front, vis a vis changing immigration laws or rules, whatever. ( MLB is the only ball and stick league with it's own PAC but I digress )

I think you're more informed in this area than me. Wanna take a stab at few things?

Has baseball suffered in Puerto Rico since their amateurs have been subject to the Rule IV draft? That is a popular opinion.

Do you think MLB clubs will decrease their investments in Venezuela? There have been reports that is already the case.

BTW, Ottawa Rapidz 3 Atlantic City Surf 2 tonite! Cecil Fielder managed the losing squad. He looks good!

sean b said...

i am not actually all that well-informed in the other areas of which you speak... the DR is an exception because it was the field site for my anthropologist advisor, so it's an exception really.

as far as exploiting cheap labor in Latin America, at the time it was written, i think it's spot on. that's part of why people tolerate the buscones though, is they are being credited (blamed?) for some of the increase in DR bonuses... and i think that's valid as well.