For quite a while now--let's say decades and decades and decades--Latin America has been talent-rich in baseball. It's a populous region, and the sport is popular. There doesn't need to be much more than that.
However, it would be naive to discount that a primary element in its appeal was how cheap it was for a long time to secure top-talent from our neighbors to the south. Naturally, that had to change as the region got more respect, players wised up, and competition increased. By 2003 the average signing bonus for players jumped up over $20,000, then topped six-figures by 2008, which is relevant, because it happens to be the year the White Sox fired David Wilder, their hot-shot director of player personnel and two scouts. More on that later.
Whenever millions of dollars start getting thrown around, it attracts
attention. When millions of dollars start getting thrown around in an
industry lacking any real kind of regulation, it sometimes attracts the attention
of somewhat unscrupulous people; or least not scrupulous in any
of the ways most appreciate.
Scouts hitting prospects up for
bribes, or arranging quid-pro-quos for a ticket to the big leagues isn't
a remotely new concept, but with organizations actually throwing
big-time bonuses into the region, it beget the practice of scouts
inflating the number they reported to their teams as the necessary
amount to sign a player, then requesting that extra money back from the
player upon signing as a "gift". It was a new, exciting, and visionary
form of fraud. But for every crime, there needs to be a first offender
caught, and displayed as a miscreant for all the world to see. That
figure was David Wilder, and he worked for the Chicago White Sox.
scheme of having his scouts bump up the price of prospects and collect
the mark-up fell apart in a frustratingly simple way. A player reported
being asked to fork over part of his signing bonus to team officials,
who promptly forwarded the complaint the league, who notified the FBI.
Hypothetical conversation with unrealistic dialogue:
Player: The scout who referred me for a contract requested a percentage of my bonus upon signing, is this typical practice?
Team rep: WHAaaa?!?!!?!?? Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooooooo!!!!!! Somebody, what's the number for the FBI??!?
FBI and MLB investigations turned up a petri dish of financial
improprieties being carried out in the region, but the first fish nabbed
were all White Sox. Wilder was caught with $40K in undeclared cash
coming back from the Dominican Republic, and the MLB submitted a report
to the White Sox detailing the improprieties of Wilder and two other
employees, and the team fired all three of them on May 16th, 2008, the same day
Alexei Ramirez--a spectacular signing by the team from Cuba--hit his first
career HR to key a 2-0 victory over the Giants. A moment that was exciting even via ESPN Gamecast.
This past Friday, two and a half years later, Wilder pleaded guilty in a
federal court to mail fraud, with the agreement that he'd see a 40%
sentence reduction for his co-operation with FBI investigators, and that
he'd pay the team over $400K in restitution.
Wilder's activities frittered away the White Sox Latin American scouting
budget, probably contributed to some shoddy player development, and
without a doubt embarrassed the hell out of Kenny Williams, who had to
dismiss a man he trusted and promoted. But more than anything, it dealt
a horrible blow to the White Sox reputation as an organization. At the
face of the skimming scandal that floated out to several teams, were
the Sox. If Dominican players and coaches have to associate a team with
the practice of demanding "gifts" from players post-signing, there's a good chance it's the Sox, and when team
reps enter into the DR, the scandal must be addressed and dismissed.
It could be worse. By all accounts, the Sox purged the practice of
bonus-skimming from their team on May 16th, 2008, and David Wilder's
conviction can allow them to focus on things like their new facility in
the Dominican Republic, and the success they've had in Cuba recently.
But with the minor league system in as ravished of a state as they've ever
been, as much of a role questionable drafts and using the system as a
resource for trades may have played a role in that, Wilder's
indiscretions cannot be discounted.
That stuff is all awful for the team being competitive, but as a fan
this hurts especially. For all the pride I take in no prominent Sox
players being associated with the steroid era--at least no one I care
about--I take as much shame in my team of choice being associated with
lining their pockets in the cash-strapped Dominican Republic. As much
as any fan wants to believe their team is the greatest group of players
ever assembled, they want to believe they do things the right way.
Wilder's behavior took an axe to that notion, and it's hard to hide how much that hurts.