Twenty years ago, a young third baseman from Santo Domingo named Adrian Beltre signed a professional contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers that awarded him a $23,000 bonus. The money certainly was life-changing for the Beltre family of modest means, but it was not an amount that would create much news in the United States. In fact, Beltre's signing hardly caused much of a stir at all.
Beltre would quickly develop into one of the best prospects in baseball. By 1998, Beltre made his debut with the Dodgers. He played 77 games that year and compiled a .648 OPS, a fairly eye-opening statistic for such a young player. But everyone was just about to find out how young Beltre had really been.
Prior to the start of the 1999 season, Beltre's agent Scott Boras met with his client during spring training and complimented him on a surprising and impressive ascent to the majors.
"He made a comment that he couldn't believe I had reached the major leagues at 20 years old and playing such a difficult position like third base. I told him I wasn't 20. I told him I was 19," Beltre recently recalled.
"That's when [Boras] communicated with the Dodgers and he told them that there was something incorrect and that he wanted them to fix the discrepancy and to also compensate me for the mistake... He told the Dodgers that he wouldn't pursue the matter if they took care of it. Somebody at Campo Las Palmas [the team's Domincan Republic academy] did not agree with our version of what happened and that's when we went public."
Boras eventually got Major League Baseball to review the case and after a lengthy investigation, they determined that the Dodgers in fact had signed Beltre when he was 15. The signing age for international amateurs is 16.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 1999 that the birth certificate that accompanied the contract Beltre signed on July 7, 1994 had his actual birthdate of April 7, 1979 whited out and replaced with an April 7, 1978 date. But Beltre's birthdate on his passport and on the birth certificate on file with the Dominican government was listed as April 7, 1979.
The paper also said that Beltre's Dodgers personnel file included five work visas from 1996-'99 that included the correct April 7, 1979 birthdate. Additionally, Beltre's Florida identification card and his driver's license also had the 1979 date. The only document that had listed a 1978 birthdate was the original contract, which the Dodgers had used to submit Beltre's signing with Major League Baseball.
The reasons why the Dodgers would want to sign Beltre a year prior to his eligible date were simple: They wanted to have him in their system before anyone other team seriously pursued him, and they wanted him to sign at a reasonable bonus amount. The more teams were involved, the higher the bonus was likely to get.
Normally, age alterations with international prospects go the other way. Players have years taken off their actual age. For example, a 19 year-old prospect may want to appear to be 16 years old so that he could be considered more of a prodigy and would therefore warrant a higher bonus amount. But Beltre was such a star prospect that the Dodgers wanted to add a year to his actual age to take him off the market immediately.
As a result of the investigation, the Dodgers were banned from signing any Dominican-born amateur free agents for a year, and additionally, the team's Dominican academy was also shut down for a year. The Dodgers were fined $50,000 and the scout who signed Beltre, Pablo Peguero, and the Dodgers' head of Dominican operations, the famed Ralph Avila, served one-year suspensions.
In 2000, a year after the Beltre case had been resolved, Major League Baseball opened up an office in Santo Domingo, the first of its kind outside of the United States, and it's hardly a stretch to say that one event had helped cause the other. Ever since then, MLB has used the office to help try legitimize the signing process in Latin America. Age investigations begin out of this office. The constantly evolving process begins with documents submitted to this office. It all stems from trying to avoid the embarrassment that baseball suffered after the Beltre case.
It also would begin a mainstream characterization of the Dominican market as the "Wild West" where rules were often shunned, fudged or simply ignored. Rule breaking in the Latin American market, specifically in the Dominican, was a poorly kept secret. Age altering had existed in the Dominican for years. But the Beltre case brought the practice to a widespread audience. No longer would people see the signing of teenage Dominican prospects as a means of providing impoverished youth with an opportunity for life advancement. Beltre's signing would also reveal an exploitative element to player procurement throughout Latin America.
The announcement of the penalties shocked many throughout baseball. The Dodgers, along with the Toronto Blue Jays, were one of the first teams to have scoured the Dominican for talent. They were considered groundbreakers at the time. Los Angeles' Campo Las Palmas was a benchmark for all future Dominican academies. Las Palmas was built with the intent to erase the thoughts that baseball teams were subjecting players to deplorable playing and housing conditions. In its day, the facilities at Las Palmas were revolutionary.
One of the most shocked at the findings was Fred Claire, the general manager of the Dodgers at the time of Beltre's signing, who said he had not been aware of any discrepancies regarding Beltre's signing. Claire said he was even not contacted at any point by Major League Baseball during its investigation.
"It was totally in conflict with all that we had established. 'Let's do the best we can for these kids,'" he said. "We set the tone and this move was more than embarrassing. It was a blemish on the operations."
The case was groundbreaking in other ways. It erased any notion that most of the illegal activities involving the signing of amateur players in Latin America was driven by agents or trainers, commonly known as buscones. Here was solid proof that teams were complicit in wrongdoing and in some cases, they were the driving force.
As one prominent trainer once told me, "Who do you think taught us about changing ages? It was the teams."
For baseball, it began a cat and mouse game of trying to catch age manipulation that continues to this day.
Ultimately, neither Peguero nor Avila suffered much as a result of their suspensions. This season, Peguero began his 11th season as the head of the Dominican operations for the San Francisco Giants. Avila is still regarded as a respected figure in player development in Latin America. In fact, Avila was a featured guest a few years ago when the baseball hall of fame premiered an exhibit honoring the development of the game in Latin America.
Meanwhile, Beltre himself was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case and therefore was not fined or suspended. To this day, Beltre said he holds no hard feelings. He doesn't like to believe that the Dodgers exploited him or his situation.
"I had no understanding whatsoever of all the rules involved with signing a major league contract," Beltre said. "I was just happy that they had offered me a contract and wanted to sign with them. I didn't even realize what had happened until many years later. But I wouldn't have done anything differently. For me it was an opportunity the Dodgers had given me. Obviously I can't complain about the career I've had afterward."
But Beltre might have had a complaint if he had flopped as a professional had he lacked the maturity at such a young age to handle the rigors of the minor leagues. Ultimately, he benefitted because he thrived and was able to hit free agency at the tender age of 24.
Now, the landscape as a whole has changed.
"The rules have certainly been tightened since then," Beltre said. "I think during our time, as Dominicans, we were a little too naive... In 1994, we as players we didn't focus on the rules. We weren't looking to see which were there to protect us. As a 15-year-old kid, you only really want to sign a contract and have a chance to show your talents."