SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - "Why doesn't anybody do anything about the buscones? I get that steroids are a big problem, but the buscones are a much bigger problem here."
That was the query of a Major League Baseball official in the Dominican Republic last week.
Steroids, the ease with which they can be purchased and their prevalence in the Dominican Republic, snatch up all the headlines in the United States. But for many involved in baseball here, "buscones" (pronounced boos-CONE-ays) are a much bigger concern. The word has taken on a negative connotation, given that many buscones are considered hustlers.
The Dominican Republic is not subject to MLB's amateur draft, and the only real rule is that players cannot sign until July 2 the year they turn 16. A buscon is an unofficial scout/agent who finds players before they are old enough to sign with major-league teams, then works out an agreement with the player's family to prepare him to sign in return for a portion of his signing bonus. He'll get the teenager tryouts, watch his development, and perhaps even buy him food and equipment.
In theory, it's just exchanging services for money. In reality, though, many buscones take a huge cut of the player's bonus, perhaps 50 percent or more. Often, the player doesn't even know just how much money he should be receiving.
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"The buscones are brutal," said one major-league scout who has worked in the Dominican for decades. "There are only about two or three I know that are clean, and there are a thousand there. That's become a real problem. There are a lot of them that are slimy and under the table."
The problem of skimming bonuses is finally attracting international attention, though not because of the buscones' actions. Instead, it is getting headlines because major-league executives and scouts are being investigated for stealing kids' bonuses.
Sports Illustrated's Melissa Segura reported last week that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the actions of Jim Bowden, who resigned yesterday as the Nationals' general manager, and Jose Rijo, who was fired as Bowden's special assistant Thursday.
SI had reported that the player the Nationals gave a club-record, $1.4-million signing bonus in 2006, Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, who was 20, posed as a 16-year-old named Esmailyn Gonzalez. The Nationals closed their academy (owned by Rijo) in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic, and will begin training today in Boca Chica, near the Santo Domingo airport. Major League Baseball is also investigating Bowden and Rijo.
Bowden denied any wrongdoing yesterday at a quickly called news conference, but he resigned to avoid causing further distractions. In a release, he said: "I am disappointed by the media reports regarding investigations into any of my professional activities. There have been no charges made, and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part."
Bowden and Rijo are not the only team officials to have come under fire. The White Sox fired senior director of player personnel David Wilder and two Dominican-based scouts last year after allegations they had skimmed signing bonuses. The Yankees also fired two scouts.
A longtime scout in the Dominican estimated that half the teams have similar problems. "There's a lot of shady doings - sign a player for $100,000 and $40,000 is going back to the scout who signed him," he said. "Stuff like that. All of that's been going on for years."
The scout described scenarios in which a buscon might tell a player to sign with one team in exchange for a kickback from that club. He might never tell the player that another club had offered more money.
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano said most players fork over a huge portion of their bonus to their buscon. Cano lucked out in that he never used one. His father, who played briefly for the Astros, helped him get noticed.
Buscones are plentiful at games, professional and amateur, in the Dominican. One such buscon, while wincing at the term, defended his work.
Ezequiel Villabuena, who works with 14- to 17-year-olds in Santo Domingo, said: "I spend a year and a half, or more in some cases, investing in these kids. You reap what you sow. I put a lot of time and money into it. A lot of times the good players come from very bad conditions. Some buscones collect too much of the bonuses. I think 10 to 15, even 20 percent, is OK, but there are people who take in excess of that."
The Dominican government says it does not have the resources to impose or enforce any law regarding the percentage of a signing bonus a buscon should receive. But the money on the line is growing. Baseball America lists the 10 largest international signing bonuses, and all are $2 million or above, with the Athletics giving 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michel Inoa a $4.25-million contract last year.
With the stakes rising, perhaps baseball will finally try to step in.
Baseball in the Dominican Republic has come under the microscope since Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said his cousin obtained over-the-counter steroids for him there and that he had engaged in steroid use from 2001-03. He tested positive in 2003.
Kat O'Brien, Newsday's Yankees beat writer, visited the Dominican Republic this week, and this is her report from the scene.