At approximately 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2012, in Fort Myers, Fla., 17-year-old Mexican left-handed pitching prospect Daniel Pesqueira received a phone call that would change his life, and potentially alter the lives of many young Mexican players. After having spent almost two weeks training with the Boston Red Sox at their minor league facility in an attempt to sign a professional contract, Pesqueira, just moments before going to bed, was told on the phone in his hotel room that night that he had to return to Mexico immediately.
"But why?" he asked. Only two days prior, Pesqueira said he had been told by Red Sox coaches that he was scheduled to pitch in an intrasquad game against several Boston prospects. It appeared that he was nearing a contract offer.
"We've been told by Major League Baseball that you are property of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos," Pesqueira was told.
Stunned, Pesqueira, who believed he was a free agent, had no choice but to pack. He had been booked on a 6 a.m. flight back to Tijuana. He returned early the next day, somber and discouraged. He stopped training for several weeks.
"The smile that I had for so long, thinking that I was going to sign with the Red Sox, went away very quickly," he said. "My world fell apart."
But Pesqueira, with the help of David Gonzalez, a former heralded Mexican amateur player, and the father of All-Star Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, may yet get to play professionally in the United States.
Pesqueira and David Gonzalez, who also acts as the player's agent, are now involved in a potentially historic lawsuit against Major League Baseball that could change the signing system for Mexican players and complicate efforts for a worldwide draft. At the crux of the fight is whether Pesqueira was willfully aware that he finalized a contract with the Diablos Rojos, or if he and his father were tricked into signing away his free-agent rights -- or if the young player had ever even signed a contract in the first place.
When MLB ruled in favor of the Diablos Rojos, thereby denying Pesqueira his right to free agency, it became embroiled in the controversy.
Currently, Mexican players are usually signed through negotiations with teams from the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB), which own the rights of the majority of signing-eligible players. If an MLB team wants a player, it buys him from the Mexican team, which then pockets a majority of the bonus. It's a profitable business for those teams. But Pesqueira believes that he never signed a legitimate contract with Mexico City.
Should Gonzalez win the lawsuit, or settle with MLB, it may create a precedent through which many other youth professional contracts from Mexico -- signed or fabricated, depending on who you believe, under the same circumstances that Pesqueira claims -- are also invalidated, creating a slew of free agents and leading to a situation similar to those in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. If there is any question as to who owns the rights of hundreds of Mexican players, or if Pesqueira's lawsuit drags on for several months, or even a year, then it could be tricky for any kind of worldwide draft to be implemented anytime soon.
With a report this week by the Sports Business Journal that MLB and the Major League Players Association are in active negotiations to soon implement a worldwide draft, MLB faces added complications from Gonzalez's lawsuit. Players, as a result of the suit, may also choose to bypass signing with an LMB team altogether and to negotiate directly with major league teams, costing Mexican teams millions of dollars in revenue. The lawsuit threatens to affect baseball on both sides of the border.
Inconsistencies in Mexican player contracts have existed for years, but for the first time one of the players, backed by a powerful and financially stable name, has decided to fight back with a costly lawsuit. MLB and LMB may have no choice but to streamline a signing process that at times has been criticized for being abusive toward players.
"I want all Mexican players to be given the opportunity to sign properly," David Gonzalez said. "I didn't want to sue. But you get to the point where you think the situation is unfair and you have no other choice."
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At approximately 6-foot-3, and with the ability to throw 87-91 mph as a lefty, the soon-to-be-19-year-old Pesqueira is an intriguing prospect. Mexico City immediately recognized his potential when one of its scouts, the San Diego-born Daniel Cañedo, spotted Pesqueira while he pitched for a youth all-star team in 2008. At that point, Pesqueira was shorter and heavier, but he was a lefty with a live arm, anybody could see it, and those are difficult to find.
Cañedo invited Pesqueira to train at the Mexican League-sponsored academy in Oaxaca in August of 2009. At that time, Pesqueira considered it a blessing. He had captured the attention of perhaps the biggest team in Mexico.
To prepare for the trip, Tijuana native Pesqueira said he was told that he needed to fill out some paperwork that would arrive by fax across the border in San Diego.
Pesqueira said he, his father and the scout made the trip and arrived at an office building where several papers awaited. Pesqueira said he was told to fill out one sheet that asked him for his name, uniform size and cap size. Pesqueira then signed the sheet. Secondly, Pesqueira said he and his father were asked to sign a document that they were led to believe was a permission slip for Pesqueira to travel to Oaxaca.
"Donald told me that I had to sign that document, but he never told me that it was a contract," Pesqueira said. "The page was blank. [Cañedo] hadn't filled out anything."
Pesqueira's father signed the sheet.
After spending two weeks in Oaxaca, Pesqueira was sent back home. The team was not going to assign him to train in Mexico City. Pesqueira was not surprised; young players are rarely asked to train with the adult team. He considered his stay in Oaxaca a good experience and returned home undeterred. Mexico City suggested he train harder and lose a bit of weight.
Pesqueira continued to excel in Tijuana and several times represented the area in all-star tournaments. In December 2009, Pesqueira, through several friends, found out that Adrian Gonzalez's father David was opening up a training academy in San Diego. Pesqueira believed this would be his best opportunity to get in shape and to prepare for signing a professional contract. By April 2010, Pesqueira had signed a representation contract with Gonzalez.
Pesqueira, soft-bodied and undisciplined, entered a strict training regimen. At one point, Pesqueira was training with Adrian Gonzalez, and soon the pitcher slimmed into pristine shape. He was ready to sign. When several Boston officials, including international scouting director Eddie Romero, visited Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego during the early part of 2012, the first baseman suggested they check out one of his father's best prospects.
"They saw him and they thought he had some good talent," David Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he and Romero informally spoke about what it would cost to sign Pesqueira, and both concluded that it would be best for Pesqueira to travel to Fort Myers so that scouts could have a better look. Romero did not return a request for comment, although David Gonzalez provided Sports on Earth with several emails between himself and Romero, as well as a copy of the flight itinerary purchased by the Red Sox that at least verifies that Pesqueira was Boston's guest in Fort Myers.
After Pesqueira spent several days in Fort Myers, Gonzalez received an email from Romero that read as follows:
"We have encountered a situation with MLB and we're going to have to send Pesqueira back to San Diego. It appears that he belongs to Mexico City, and we can't have him here without their permission. In these cases it's best not to cause problems with the Mexican teams. We'll coordinate a future date to see Daniel again."
Shortly afterward, Pesqueira received the call in his hotel room.
Gonzalez's immediate reaction was to petition a court in Mexico to have the Diablos Rojos and the LMB provide him with a copy of the contract between Pesqueira and the team. Once he received the one-page sheet from the court, Gonzalez noticed what he believed were several inconsistencies. First, the section of the page the league needed to fill out in order for the player to be properly registered was blank. It shows no date of receipt, and no date of registration for Pesqueira. There is no official league seal on the document.
Second, Pesqueira's father's signature was not properly aligned with the signature line. Gonzalez believed that the signature had been taken from the one document the father did sign in San Diego and photocopied onto a contract. (Gonzalez provided Sports on Earth with copies of the contract.)
Gonzalez could hardly believe that Major League Baseball would deny a player his free agency based on such a shoddy document. When he called MLB officials to complain, Gonzalez was told that it was not an MLB issue, but an LMB issue. Gonzalez asked MLB to provide a copy of whatever contract the Diablos Rojos and LMB had used in order to prove the player belonged to Mexico City.
Theoretically, the contract that Gonzalez was to receive from MLB should have been exactly the same as the contract he had gotten from the court in Mexico. It wasn't. (Gonzalez also provided Sports on Earth with a copy of the contract provided by MLB.)
The contract date from the copy Gonzalez had received from the court in Mexico listed the starting date for the contract as March 22, 2010. The copy of the contract that MLB provided listed the starting date as March 21, 2011. The signing date of the contract provided by the Mexican court was Jan. 1, 2010. The signing date of the contract provided by MLB was March 16, 2011.
Also, Pesqueira's father's signature now was properly aligned with the signature line. The league registration section was still blank.
Gonzalez was certain that the documents had been falsified.
Both MLB and LMB officials declined to comment for this story. Diablos Rojos executive president Roberto Mansur did not return several calls requesting comment.
Not inconsequential is that both contracts say that Pesqueira was to be paid 2,000 pesos. Pesqueira says he has never received any compensation from Mexico City.
"MLB is protecting its friend the Mexican League," Gonzalez said. "I don't even think they carefully look at the documents they receive to see if a player had signed willingly. There is no investigation."
At that point, Gonzalez hired a lawyer and requested a meeting with MLB officials in New York. He was granted that meeting in May of last year. Gonzalez, Pesqueira and his father spent several hours discussing the case with MLB senior counsel Stephen Gonzalez, then international coordinator Lou Melendez (now retired), MLB senior vice president and general counsel Dan Halem and MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Kim Ng. Gonzalez said he was told by MLB officials that he needed to take the issue up with LMB. Gonzalez argued that MLB was the one denying the player his free-agent rights. Gonzalez said he was told that MLB would look into the matter and try to find a solution. Meanwhile, Gonzalez was asked to keep the matter private from the press.
Gonzalez said he never heard back. In December, Gonzalez filed suit in California.
"I think MLB realized they were stuck in a tricky situation," Gonzalez said. "If I was wrong, then why did they agree to meet with me? If I was wrong, then why did they ask me not to speak to the press? We met with them for three and a half hours. Why? Because they are worried. Maybe they thought I'd never sue them. They were wrong."
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Mexican teams have always seemingly had a stranglehold on talent in the country. Several years ago, an MLB player who had signed from Mexico told me anonymously -- because he feared repercussions -- that the system was corrupt and abusive toward players. While professional players in other countries (Japan, for example) eventually attain free agency, Mexican players never do.
In fact, the grip that Mexican teams have on players is so strong that even if a Mexican player is sold to a major league team, if he ever returns to Mexico he has to play for the same team that sold him.
"It's slavery for the players," Gonzalez said.
The anonymous player said that Mexican players often have privately talked about forming a union, but they fear being blackballed out of the league. Also, they know that many Mexican major leaguers return home to LMB to end their careers. That option may be taken away if they fight LMB for free agency.
The signing system isn't altogether negative for MLB. If a team wants to sign a young player, it knows exactly who it has to deal with. There is none of the haggling with independent trainers that happens in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Instead, teams deal with legitimate corporate entities from LMB.
"Obviously, we're so used to negotiating with families in other countries, this system cuts out the middle man," said Rangers international scout Gil Kim. "Sometimes it's easier to have a relationship with teams and with people you trust."
If Gonzalez wins the lawsuit, it could bring unintended and unwanted changes to the system. If LMB teams aren't receiving money from MLB teams in exchange for young players, then they may choose to abandon investing money in youth academies. Player development in the entire country could suffer, since only a small percentage of amateurs would be signed by MLB teams anyway. Independent trainers might arrive in Mexico in bunches, which may or may not be a good thing.
Gonzalez said his main motivation is equal treatment for Mexican players. While Gonzalez has a financial stake in Pesqueira's signing, he said he will not make a profit if and when the player signs, because he has already spent hundreds of thousands on the lawsuit. In addition to seeking Pesqueira's free-agent rights, Gonzalez is also seeking $1 million in damages.
Gonzalez said he also realizes that the lawsuit may bring unwanted attention to his sons, Adrian and older brother Edgar, who has previously played in the majors with the Padres and has spent the past two seasons in Japan, and who also regularly plays winter ball in Mexico. Gonzalez is adamant that Adrian and Edgar are not involved. Adrian Gonzalez declined to comment for this story.
But Gonzalez fears that Mexican baseball is nearing a tipping point. He claims that he knows countless young players who have signed with LMB teams at age 13-14, then were left to founder when the teams deemed them not good enough to play for the senior club. Those players' rights continue to be held by LMB teams even if they aren't actively practicing with the team.
Also, Gonzalez believes that players are held captive by a system in which they have to forfeit the majority of their signing bonus. As an example, he points to the case of Pirates pitching prospect Luis Heredia, who had to give away 70 percent of the $2.6 million bonus he received in 2010 to the Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz, despite the fact that he had spent less than a year with the team.
While Gonzalez acknowledges that it is primarily LMB teams that are at fault, he believes that MLB has the power to force those teams to follow uniform guidelines in regard to player signings. Gonzalez believes it is inconceivable for MLB officials to claim that they are powerless.
"It has not been an easy decision for me," Gonzalez said. "My kids play in Mexico. I thought about all of that. But in the end I know it's not right what's happening with these kids."
Pesqueira has recovered from his depression and has started working out again, although it wasn't easy.
"I hardly had any desire to train," he said. "Why train when I knew I couldn't sign? I just couldn't put the same amount of effort under those circumstances. I felt defeated. I even got myself a girlfriend to distract myself. To have to sacrifice my career for something like this, I don't even know how to explain it. I can't sleep well. I thought about quitting baseball."
But Pesqueira said he spoke with Gonzalez, who explained the importance of the case. Pesqueira now has proudly accepted the fact that he may one day be recognized as the player who helped change all the rules.
"I feel happy that I could be the one to help future players gain their freedom," he said.
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Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.