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Sports

Scheme costs players big-league baseball dreams

Michael O'Keeffe, Bill Madden, T.J. Quinn and Christian Red New York Daily News

SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic – First there were the phone calls, but after a while the man promising money figured out where Juan De Leon lived.

De Leon says he never got the man’s name, but over and over the thin man would walk the dirt path to the hut where De Leon and his pregnant wife lived, and tell them how easy and profitable it was all going to be.

“My wife didn’t like the guy and she kept telling me, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t talk with him,’ ” De Leon says softly in Spanish. As she listens to him tell his story, Atawalpa De Leon glowers and walks back into their floorless hut where rays of sunlight cut through cracks in the wooden walls.

“My wife is still mad about everything,” De Leon says.

For more than a year, the man, a kind of street agent known as a “buscone,” or “finder,” kept coming, offering what he said was a foolproof scam: Because De Leon was a minor league pitcher for the New York Yankees, he was a lock to get approval for a temporary work visa in the United States – and one for a wife.

All De Leon had to do was marry a woman he had never met and he would get 100,000 pesos (about $3,600 U.S.) and he would never have to see her again.

“He kept calling and when he came to my house he was always pushing, pushing,” says De Leon. “He said, ‘Marry this girl and I’m going to give you a lot of money. … You won’t have a problem with the visa, with anything.’ “

So De Leon ignored his 18-year-old wife, married a stranger in a civil ceremony, and got about 70,000 (about $2,500) of the pesos he was promised.

“I think she’s in the United States, but I don’t know. The buscone disappeared,” he says. “They’re gone and I’m stuck here.”

De Leon was a piece in what government officials believe is an international human trafficking ring intent on bringing Dominican women into the United States. He and as many as 29 other players married women they had never met so the women could get temporary visas to enter the United States. The visas would have expired at the end of the season, but the women presumably would have joined the estimated 40 percent of all illegal immigrants who overstay their U.S. visas.

It might have worked, but the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo saw red flags – an inordinate number of recently married minor league players applying for the annual visas allocated to Major League Baseball for minor league prospects.

Ten players – including well-regarded Yankee right-hander Maximo Nelson and since-released pitcher Miguel Aguero – have been permanently banned by the Embassy from entering the United States. Another 20 are still being investigated, government officials told the New York Daily News.

“It’s sad, but it means essentially that their chances for a career in baseball in the United States are lost,” says a U.S. Embassy official in Santo Domingo on the condition of anonymity. “Unfortunately, that’s the consequence.”

The players are living with the hope that they may reapply for visas next year, and Yankee officials say the players’ cooperation may help them with their cases. The team will probably provide legal help for the players when the time comes, senior V.P. for baseball operations Mark Newman says, but there is little else to be done.

“We have the hopes, but this is way out of our hands,” Newman says. “All that they can do is reapply. They’re at the mercy of the federal government and the embassy down there.”

The scheme appears to be new, according to officials from U.S. Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic, the New York State Attorney General’s office, Major League Baseball, the Yankees and several local advocates for immigrant groups. It also appears to be the work of organized human traffickers.

Had the women made it to U.S. soil, officials say that based on what they know of the scheme, they believe they would have endured the fate of other immigrants in their position – becoming indentured servants or possibly prostitutes to work off an exorbitant debt.

“There’s no way to comment (specifically), but it definitely sounds like an organized smuggling ring,” says Avaloy Lanning, project director of the New Jersey Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “If they are having to pay these really astronomical fees (for visas), then how realistic is it that they’re able to pay all of that once they’re in the United States? Once they’re here they get into a trafficking situation.”

Neither the players nor baseball executives and scouts in the U.S. and the Dominican say they know who is behind the scheme: De Leon and Nelson say all they knew was that men came to them with money and a promise that nothing would go wrong.

Standing in the doorway of a faded green wood-frame home not much bigger than a gardening shed, De Leon explains why he agreed to the scheme, why he risked the potential of millions of dollars in the major leagues for quick cash.

“I needed the money,” he says.

From the time a Dominican boy shows promise as a baseball player, he learns about the buscones. Like the street agents common in U.S. basketball, buscones are sometimes enterprising advocates for players, providing a steady hand for those with potential. Sometimes they are outright hustlers using the young players to enrich themselves. When the nation’s annual per capita income is $2,000, a $20,000 signing bonus is a gold mine for the players, their families, and the buscones who corral them.

“They’re always around,” says Nelson, in a break from practice at the baseball training complex in San Cristobal called Loma del Sueno (‘Hill of Dreams’). “Everyone knows about them.”

Before he steps onto a pitching mound, Maximo Nelson stands 6-foot-8. Once he ascends, creating a fearsome image for batters, he can throw a fastball in the high 90s. It is a blessed gift for anyone, but in Nelson’s small town of El Seibo, it has already given the right-hander mythic status.

Shortly after Nelson, who speaks almost no English, helped the Rookie League Gulf Coast Yankees win a championship last summer, the visits from the buscone began.

“He was this really fat man who was at first calling 20 times a day. Then he showed up at my house,” says Nelson, who lives in virtual destitution with his pregnant girlfriend and their young daughter. “I didn’t want to do it at first, but he kept pushing, pushing, pushing. The guy said, ‘It’s no problem,’ and I don’t have any money.”

The buscone offered 150,000 pesos (about $5,400), of which Nelson received only half, he says.

It is a pittance compared to what Nelson might have made had he progressed within the Yankee organization.

Like De Leon, Nelson says he never heard from his buscone again: “After I was caught, he changed his cell phone number and just disappeared.”

De Leon and Nelson have no other skills to support themselves and their families. During the upcoming Dominican summer league season both will make $850 a month and will live with their families at a league complex, free of charge and with expenses paid. After August, though, they will once again be looking for a way to earn a paycheck.

Nelson fiddles with the ring he won after the Gulf Coast League championship, the one with the unmistakable “NY” that adorns his right ring finger.

“The whole world turned crazy for me,” he says, avoiding eye contact. “I was crying a lot. This is the only thing I know how to do.”

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