When Baseball America's Ben Badler teased his "big baseball scandal" this afternoon, Twitter quickly took it and ran with it, clearly expecting some sort of huge and ground-breaking news. The story that Badler reported -- that former Mariner non-prospect George Soto is actually four years older than the age Seattle thought when he signed -- was greated with a dismissive eyeroll and everyone quickly moved on with their lives. Who cares about another 21-turned-25 player that only played 14 games above rookie ball?
As it turns out, what's important to this story isn't who George Soto is or that he faked his age, but instead that George Soto is the son of legendary Dominican buscon Enrique Soto. The elder Soto refused to comment to Baseball America on their story about his son, but given that a large part of the deception involved George Soto's stepmother claiming him as her natural son, it's hard to believe that Enrique Soto was uninvolved in the scandal.
To understand the scandal, it's important to understand how baseball works in the Dominican Republic before players become international free agents when they turn 16. There's no real structure in the Dominican akin to our Little League and high school systems; buscones like Enrique Soto travel the country looking and then training talented young players. In turn, the teams turn to the buscones to help them identify the best young available talent. A simple Google search for "buscon baseball Dominican" returns tons of results, but I found this Time article and this New York Daily News article to both be good summaries of the situation.
If you read those stories, you can see that it's no secret that the buscon system is very shady and everyone knows the dangers of what amounts to youth baseball farming in the Dominican; there are huge problems with steroids and age falsification among young Dominican players and the buscones are often ruthless, as it seems that they often get a cut of the bonuses their players sign for (the Daily News article goes in depth about this murkier aspect of the whole situation).
Still, it's hard to figure out where to pin the blame for the various problems that plague youth baseball in the Dominican; the buscones are trying to get as many of their clients signed as possible, but at the same time the players (and the players' families) know very well themselves that baseball is a ticket out of poverty and that taking steroids or lying about their age could help their chances of earning that ticket. What this George and Enrique Soto story does is tie a prominent buscon directly to an age-fixing scandal.
This has potentially big ramifications down the road because the buscones are one of the lines along which the debate over an international draft have been drawn. As things currently stand, young baseball players in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico are all subject to June's Rule 4 draft, while young players in every other country across the globe become free agents on the first July 2nd after their 16th birthday. Bud Selig has been trying to create an international draft, either separate from the Rule 4 draft or an extension of it, that makes signing these young players much more structured.
The buscones are opposed to this, saying that it would remove the leverage their players have to demand big signing bonuses and generally hurt baseball in their countries (they point to Puerto Rico, which has seen a serious decline in baseball talent since becoming part of the draft in the 1990s, as proof of this). The teams themselves have been ambivalent; having the players become free agents benefits the most aggressive teams in the international market and some clubs are loathe to give up that advantage, while others would undoubtedly like to see the playing field leveled a bit.
Being in favor of the current system requires looking the other way when ugly allegations are hurled at the buscones, though, and now with Enrique Soto tied directly to an age scandal, that's a little tougher to do. This story doesn't quite have the same headline cache as a high-profile player failing a drug test or a sex scandal or a clubhouse feud, but what it does is help tip the balance in an already-precarious situation. What seems like a minor headline today could have some real ramifications down the road.
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