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Sports Pulse: Kids in Latin America are being scouted by MLB as young as 12, sometimes with no follow through from the league. Investigative reporter Christian Red highlights one scout who tried to shed light on this issue for years.


Time was running out for Rudy Santin. 

The Cuban-born baseball lifer, renowned in his adopted home of the Dominican Republic for his scouting career and innate ability to find premier talent, was only six days removed from a heart procedure to treat coronary disease on March 15. Santin was concerned about recuperating at his Santo Domingo home during the coronavirus pandemic, which had already forced a lockdown across the island and around the globe. 

But there was another fear weighing upon Santin. Over the last 12 months, he had preached to the public, the news media, baseball officials — and even U.S. federal agents — that Major League Baseball and the players’ union had a massive problem in Latin America: the exploitation of hundreds of underage prospects who make verbal agreements with big league clubs in exchange for the promise of a lucrative signing bonus once they turn 16. These handshake deals, many for hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions, are in violation of baseball’s rules, and possibly U.S. law, depending upon what federal investigators uncover as they probe these transactions. 

According to Santin, in addition to others with knowledge of the deals, some of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from Major League Baseball, teams enter into verbal agreements with players so they can keep them away from competitors and then slash the value of those deals or even abandon them altogether, leaving players without options and their families in debt to shady lenders who have charged exorbitant interest rates on loans based on the future earnings.   

“I’m 60 years old, and I just had a stroke and I don’t know how much more I’ll live,” Santin, who started a successful baseball academy in Santo Domingo after a scouting career of over 25 years with three big league clubs, told USA TODAY Sports in March. “But at least I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Santin’s ominous words about his fate proved eerily prescient. On Sunday, May 3, while one of his top prospects took cuts in a batting tunnel nearby, Santin collapsed at his home and died, felled by a heart attack, according to his attorney in the Dominican Republic, Jose Alexander Suero, who later confirmed the cause of death from an autopsy report.

Santin leaves behind two children, the baseball training academy that produced the likes of Boston Red Sox star Rafael Devers and Tampa Bay Rays uber-prospect Wander Franco, a stable of top-ranked talent and much unfinished business.

Prior to his death, Santin said he had met twice with FBI agents and had another meeting scheduled. In addition, he said he had been communicating with federal authorities investigating MLB’s Latin American operations. Those agents are overseen by prosecutors at the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters who specialize in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Although the feds had focused primarily on human-trafficking crimes and visa fraud involving ballplayers in what has become a years-long case, Santin said he had been providing evidence related to major league clubs who make verbal agreements with underage prospects. 

MLB’s collective bargaining agreement states that prospects are not eligible to sign or negotiate with a major league club unless they turn 16 before September 1 of that particular signing period, which typically begins July 2 and continues until June 15 of the following year, but has been moved to January 15 through December 15, 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The FBI declined to answer questions for this story. “Unfortunately, regarding your request we cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” FBI Special Agent Michael Leverock wrote in an email.

The wild-west culture that has defined Dominican baseball — steroids and performance-enhancing drugs obtained legally, age and ID fraud, kickback scandals involving team scouts — has plagued MLB for years, but the issue of underage signings has intensified in recent months in part because the commissioner’s office has signaled that it won’t enforce its rules prohibiting these backdoor agreements, according to multiple baseball officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are involved in the transactions.

Santin said that his many complaints to officials at both MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office and the Players Association demanding that the two sides enforce baseball’s rules, were ignored. Santin said he had even recently provided baseball and the union with lists of players who have made such agreements before turning 16. 

“They say, ‘Thank you for the information.’ That’s all they say,” said Santin in reference to the response he said he routinely received from baseball officials. “They don’t say anything else.”

When asked by USA TODAY Sports to respond to claims that MLB has allowed its rules preventing clubs from coming to agreements with underage Latin prospects to be ignored or broken, MLB described these agreements as being “unenforceable,” but did not address whether it enforces its rules prohibiting such agreements.

“We are clear with clubs, players and their agents that any agreements or understandings prior to the date when a player is eligible to sign are completely unenforceable and are not recognized by our office,” MLB said in an email statement to USA TODAY Sports. “This has been our policy for years, and every agent is aware of it. Clubs, agents and players do not report these agreements or understandings to us.”

The statement went on to say that it has “regular contact with all independent trainers to discuss issues related to the development of players in Latin America.  We give them the same guidance on the lack of enforceability of early agreements. … We do not approve unenforceable agreements before a player is eligible to sign.” 

The MLBPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘The business has to change’

Late one evening in mid-April, Santin was jolted out of sleep by a call from San Diego Padres international scouting director Chris Kemp. 

The news Kemp delivered was not easy to swallow: Cristian Garcia and Luis Frias, two of Santin’s top teenage prospects, had made agreements with the Padres but were now being cut loose. Santin had housed and trained the two boys, both 15, and they were slated to sign with the Padres on July 2. 

“I’ve got two young kids crying and thinking the sky is falling on them,” Santin said at the time. “I asked (Kemp): ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ The kid has a (number) on his back, ‘Don’t look, don’t touch, I’m signed.’ Then you pull the rug out from under him?”

When reached by USA TODAY Sports, Kemp declined comment.

The agreements Kemp made with Garcia and Frias are in violation of MLB rules governing the signing of international players. Some agreements are made when the prospects are as young as 12 and reach as far into the future as the 2023 signing period. The rules, in part a stand-in for the inability of MLB to come to an agreement with its players’ union on implementing an international draft, have been abused by teams and their scouts for years, according to Santin and others. 

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez expressed his concerns about the exploitation of Dominican kids in these types of business arrangements, telling El Dia news outlet in May 2019: “This is a delicate issue. I am not in agreement with the signing of children aged 12 and 13 years old because they’re being robbed of their education and from the love of their family.

“Nobody should think that a child should be working hours made for men.” 

Martinez declined comment to USA TODAY Sports through his wife, Carolina, who is the director of the pitcher’s charitable foundation. According to Carolina Martinez, the reason her husband would not comment is because the issue of underage signings is “an item of investigation by local and international authorities.”   

Amaurys Nina, the owner of the International Prospect League (IPL), says the current rules governing the acquisition of international prospects are unworkable.

“The business has to change,” he says. “The way it is right now, I don’t think it is good for the kids. I don’t think it’s good for the business either. And I don’t think it’s good for MLB. MLB has to sit down with the Players Association, (but) never do these sides come together with some program that can work in the Latin countries.”

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The situation worsened as soon as MLB began considering moving this year’s international signing date to January. MLB and the union had already agreed to reduce the U.S. amateur draft in June from 40 rounds to five and the two sides put a moratorium on player transactions. With the July 2 international signing period officially moved, the freeze on teams’ signing bonus budgets has been extended and more cancelled agreements may follow, as was the case with Garcia and Frias. 

In a phone interview from his Dominican home shortly after Santin’s death, Cristian Garcia said he was trying to pick up the pieces of his budding career after two seismic blows. “He was like a father to us,” Garcia said of Santin and the players he trained.

Only weeks before, Santin had delivered the stunning news that the Padres were abandoning Garcia’s deal. “It was so sudden,” Garcia said. “They hadn’t said anything about that.”

Garcia’s father, Miguel, added that the family was blindsided. “It was devastating to say the least,” he said. “Because (we) had made a lot of plans based on this.” 

Kemp’s late-night phone call wasn’t Santin’s first run-in over the scouting director’s attempts to reduce or back out of a verbal agreement with an underage prospect. Throughout his meetings and conversations with federal authorities, Santin said he had been asked to record conversations with team officials. Santin followed through, providing a recording to authorities, and in one conversation with Kemp — recorded in March and reviewed by USA TODAY Sports — things got heated when Kemp discussed another of Santin’s players.

Kemp tells Santin that his club is backing off the signing bonus amount the parties had agreed upon. Kemp attempts to reduce the offer by a half-million dollars, saying the 2021 prospect wasn’t showing the “urgency” necessary to become a good enough player to justify the $2 million deal.

“Be ready for a fight,” Santin responds. “This is what happens when you (expletive) sign these 12- or 13-year-olds. You got four years to second guess yourself. When you (expletive) sign a guy, you sign him. You made a mistake, the mistake is made.”

The conversation is an all-too-familiar refrain in the Dominican. Children as young as 6 years old latch onto “buscones” or street agents, who in turn later bring the young players to trainers such as Santin. Trainers develop the prospects and take care of all their needs. By the time they are 12 or 13, prospects are verbally agreeing to deals. 

There are myriad long-standing problems that arise in such circumstances: 

  • So-called investors and even some buscones and trainers who double as loan sharks fleece prospects and their families by charging onerous interest rates.
  • Trainers and scouts inflate a prospect’s value to their bosses in the big league clubs and then take kickbacks off a kid’s signing bonus.
  • Teams reduce the amount of a signing bonus, or worse, simply renege on a verbal deal altogether, whether it is because a new front-office regime has taken over or club executives think a prospect has regressed from the time a pact was made, or, as what has happened during the pandemic, teams’ budgets are frozen.

The tendency of players and their families to take out loans with usurious lenders only exacerbates the problem, according to a veteran Dominican trainer who asked not to be identified because he is involved in such deals.

“The temptation of, ‘You sure you don’t want $100,000 at 8% (interest) per month? It’s only going to be one year, and you’re probably going to owe me $196,000 — my $100,000 plus $96,000 more. You still got $1 million left (on your signing bonus) …’ People look at it that way and say, ‘You know what? (Expletive) yeah. I’ll do it,’” said the trainer.

The risks become real when teams pull out of their agreements, as the Padres did with Garcia and Frias, or reduce their value, as they did with Santin’s other player. Loans go unpaid. Mortgages and car payments come due. Threats are made.

Teams are allowed by MLB to spend a set amount to sign international players each year. With the July 2 date moved to January, former major-league scout Gordon Blakeley points out that team executives may feel they have a good excuse to back out of verbal agreements. The moratorium MLB placed on player transactions in late March also applies to clubs looking to trade for money with teams who haven’t exceeded the limit on international player spending.

“The major leagues won’t allow me to trade (for extra money),” Santin said Kemp told him. “He said, ‘I’d be embarrassed to tell you what I have.’ ”

The result, Santin said in one interview with USA TODAY Sports, is that young kids, their families and the trainers who develop prospects, are left in perilous financial situations. “Number one, I’m not getting paid on time. The (prospects) are not getting paid on time,” said Santin. “They’re (players and their families) paying percentages (to lenders), which will be extended for seven, eight months. Who knows? (Garcia’s) family owes over $100,000 and some dollars in borrowed money.” 

Have US laws been broken?

Blakeley held front-office positions with the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves before he was suspended by Manfred in 2017 for circumventing international signing rules while working for the Braves. Blakeley, who is now employed by two international player development agencies, also says he has been interviewed multiple times by federal agents and is perplexed by MLB’s failure to enforce its rules on international signings.

In the Braves scandal, Manfred moved quickly to punish the team for violating rules governing bonus pool amounts teams are allowed to spend on international amateurs. An MLB investigation found that the Braves underreported their signings by inflating the bonus of a lesser prospect who was not subject to the bonus-pool caps and funneling part of that money to top prospects who had signed within the rules but for less money than he was worth.

Manfred banned John Coppolella, then the team’s general manager, for life, and suspended Blakeley for a year. In Blakeley’s view, MLB selectively enforces its rules, playing favorites with some teams by ignoring situations like what’s happening in the Dominican. He lays blame for what is happening in the Dominican at Manfred’s door, and says he expects an avalanche of cancelled agreements now that the signing date is moved.

“These (agreements) were pressured on to players and their families by teams on a handshake deal, and now you’re going to renege?” asks Blakeley. 

If teams renege, Blakeley says, it is the prospects who bear the brunt of the hardship — not only are they responsible for repaying loans, they also have basically been removed from the market. Teams often hide them from scouts as soon as an agreement is reached, Blakeley says, keeping them from playing in games and in leagues and showcases.

“The player can say, ‘Hey, I didn’t work out because you didn’t want me to,’ ” says Blakeley. 

The hurdle federal authorities face is whether U.S. laws have been violated by clubs who have made the verbal deals. According to Santin, FBI agents had been in residence in a Santo Domingo hotel for months, at least until the COVID-19 health crisis forced changes everywhere.

Blakeley says the feds have questioned him repeatedly about the issue. “I think they would really like to say, ‘This is a mess. It needs to be redone.’ I know the guy I talked to asked me, ‘How would you change this? Why are they not playing by all the rules? Why are they signing kids at this age?’ He goes … ‘I know you’ve signed a lot of good players, but are you that good that you can figure out 12- and- 13-year-olds?’

“I said, ‘No not really.’ ”

‘They’ll never trust anybody’

Santin, who pitched in the minors in the late 1970s, began his scouting career with the Yankees before stops with Tampa Bay and the San Francisco Giants, with whom he earned a 2010 World Series ring. His career was not without controversy, including allegations that Santin accepted kickbacks when he worked for Tampa Bay. Those claims surfaced in “The Duke of Havana,” a 2001 book describing Cuban pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s defection from Cuba to the U.S. and the major leagues.

And while he may have been an unlikely reformer, there was no mistaking Santin’s talent for scouting. He is in the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame and some of his more recent accomplishments include his discovery of Devers and Franco. Santin told USA TODAY Sports numerous times that Garcia and Frias are on par with some of the best prospects he had scouted, describing the switch-hitting Garcia as “a monster with power and great defense, and Frias as “a Paul Blair-type outfielder.” But those two boys are back on the market. 

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This type of predicament comes after MLB eased its rules in 2018 on when prospects are allowed to enter a team’s facilities to work out. Now, teams can have limited access to players 18 months before they become eligible to sign. The problems begin, Santin said, when teams also forge agreements with those players. “After two years of the player thinking he’s with that team, where they’ve given him a hat, they’ve given him shorts, pants, and they have taken him to the San Diego complex to work out. I would have been devastated if somebody did that at 15 to me,” Santin said. “They’ll never forget this, even if they go on to sign and play in the big leagues. They’ll never trust anybody.” 

A big part of this issue, as Pedro Martinez pointed out, are the kids who are pulled out of school at an early age, with no recourse if their baseball dreams aren’t realized. But while there is little question that Santin and trainers like him have benefited from — and often enabled — a system put in place by MLB and the union, Santin insisted that MLB’s lack of oversight and its refusal to enforce its age restriction rules, along with a cap on how much teams can spend on international players starting in 2017, is what has created a vicious cycle and the current crisis.  

“When MLB changed the rules, and gave everybody the amount of money they had to sign an international player and they couldn’t go over that amount, teams started signing kids younger. They started by signing kids that were 15. From there they went to 14. Soon as they went to 14, I personally called (a MLB) investigator, and MLB here in the D.R. and abroad and explained to them that teams were illegally signing kids,” Santin said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

“I’ve given them several (pieces) of information as to who signed for what amount and who signed them. They’re signing 12- and 13-year-olds. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the kids and the trainers and even the scouts here in the Dominican Republic — when you’re 12 and 13 years old you’re supposed to be playing in the Little League field. You’re not supposed to be trying out for major league clubs.”

According to Blakeley, prospects and their parents rely on the promise of a big payday. “They wait until some kind of offer that they have probably been led to believe will net them $1 million,” Blakeley said. “In reality, they may be lucky if they get half of that. And then, they may be lucky if they get anything.”

‘It will get fixed’

As the news of Santin’s death circulated through the Dominican Republic in early May, a sense of shock and sadness permeated the shuttered academies and training facilities. The pandemic has taken a toll on the island and this was simply one more blow. There wouldn’t be a funeral service for Santin in Santo Domingo and his son was having trouble getting into the country from the U.S. to return his father’s remains to the States. 

Santin worried not only about his prospects who had lost deals and what the business of baseball in the Dominican would resemble once the virus passed, but whether his interactions with U.S. authorities would lead to reform. 

During his interviews with USA TODAY Sports, Santin often suggested ideas about how these different baseball problems in Latin America could be fixed. An international draft was, in Santin’s opinion, a possible remedy to the underage signing morass, as long as it was “done the right way.”

Implementing an international draft has been a source of contention between MLB and the Players Association for years based primarily on the union’s historic opposition to salary restrictions. During the 2016 negotiations, in what was viewed as a concession to MLB, the union agreed to cap international budgets. With the current collective-bargaining agreement scheduled to expire at the end of next season, there is talk that it’s time to implement a draft, no matter how difficult it might be for MLB to impose draft regulations on the various Latin American sports federations.

“I don’t understand why we don’t come out with a program now that can work,” said Nina, the owner of the Dominican’s International Prospect League. “And we can fix everything.” 

Santin said that on one hand, a draft would eliminate the abuses associated with scouts who flaunt the signing rules; on the other, he felt MLB wants a draft to better control the costs of the international market and even the Dominican player development system itself.

“No way they will take the trainers out of the business,” he said. “At 6 years old, a kid is thinking about somebody to pitch to me, give me a glove. This guy would then bring a player to a trainer at age 13. You tell me, you think that guy is going to give that player to MLB? The mother and the player will do exactly what that trainer says. That trainer is God. 

“I am for an international draft, but I am for an international draft done the right way,” Santin continued. “MLB, they’re allowing this to happen so they can say, ‘See we need a draft. It got so bad that you guys couldn’t control yourselves.’ ”

Others say an international draft is necessary and will help bring order to talent-rich countries such as the Dominican and Venezuela.

Although he says he believes MLB could enforce its rules if it chose to, in Blakeley’s view a draft solves the problems that come with early agreements, and the exploitation of young players and their families. “A draft ends it all,” he says. “You can’t tie up young kids.”

“It will get fixed,” he added. “Until then it’s a huge problem.” 

A boy maintains his belief

Cristian Garcia, despite having lost his baseball mentor and the verbal deal with San Diego in a span of several weeks, said he is optimistic he will land with another MLB team. Only a couple months ago, Santin was calling Garcia a “lion,” and a five-tool player who ranked in the top three of all Latin American prospects. High praise.  

“If (Santin) said that and believed it, I believe it, too,” Garcia said.

The boy’s loyalty to Santin remains strong, and Garcia and his father said that Cristian will continue training at Santin’s academy once the island’s coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Santin’s right-hand man, Miguelon, the name by which he is known throughout the island and baseball circles, and the other coaches who worked with Santin, now hold the reins.

“I think the legacy has to stay. Everybody has to put (in) a little piece to help the academy. But I don’t see (anything) changing,” said Nina, the IPL owner who knew Santin well. “To me, Rudy is the father to everybody.”

There was some hope among Santin’s supporters that the Dominican trainers whose players were losing deals would continue the fight for reform. Nina said there are efforts underway in Dominican baseball circles to get a rule in place – the “Rudy Rule” – which would help prevent the exploitation of underage prospects. Blakeley said he is hopeful that federal authorities will continue their quest for information and evidence. But there is little question that Santin’s death leaves a void in any efforts to curtail or end what Santin saw as one layer of the exploitation of children in Latin America.    

“There’s a lot of people upset with Rudy in the Dominican Republic. Buscones are upset and scared,” Blakeley said of his friend’s death. “But he stood by his players. It makes me ill. I went home and looked out my backyard at the beautiful blue sky and thought about Rudy. Dang it. There’s no way to soft shoe this situation.”

Santin surely would agree.

“Well, I can’t be any more unpopular than I already am with everybody. But you know what? I care for this game,” Santin said in one of his last interviews. “I love this game. What they’re doing, it’s not only hurting the game, it’s also hurting the kids.

“This thing needs to get cleaned up.”

Contributing: Bob Nightengale