The strange case of Fausto Carmona morphing into a man named Roberto Hernandez Heredia isn’t really strange at all.
Baseball players from Caribbean nations often change their ages and sometimes their names. At least they used to.
After 9/11, the U.S. government began insisting that foreigners entering the country to accept jobs validate their identities with something more than sworn statements.
Indians fans will recall that former starter Bartolo Colon, like Carmona, a native of the Dominican Republic, suddenly aged two years (after he left the Indians). There have been dozens of players whose ages inched upward after the feds began cracking down on the decades-old scam.
The practice was particularly prevalent in the Dominican, where documentation was often lacking and buscones — pseudo agents who steer the careers of anxious teenagers — provided the expertise and the resources to create the magic that turned 18-year-olds into 16-year-olds.
Youth is highly prized in Dominican baseball circles, because major-league franchises operate on the theory that it takes an extra year or two to assimilate disadvantaged, uneducated kids into American culture and teach them the necessary skills to play as professionals.
And so the buscones pointed scouts in the right direction (and still do). They also fed the players, gave money to their families and made certain that their “clients” became the desired age. They also took a piece of the kids’ signing bonuses — sometimes 40 to 50 percent — even though teams typically give most Dominican aspirants only a few thousand dollars. The buscones hoped they would hit the jackpot by representing that rare player whose bonus reached six or seven figures.
This is probably the path that was taken by 31-year-old Heredia, nee 28-year-old Carmona, the Tribe starter who was arrested last week as he tried to renew his work visa at the American consulate in Santo Domingo.
No doubt, he had been Fausto Carmona for so long that he thought he would never get caught. It is curious that he came to the attention of Dominican police at this particular time and was charged with using a false name.
A few months ago, another pitcher, Leo Nunez, a reliever for the Miami Marlins, left the team, returned to the Dominican and was busted because his real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo.
The change in attitude by the American government seemed to end the deception of transforming children with baseball skills into even younger teens. But for Heredia/Carmona and Nunez/Oviedo, the heightened security measures were not in place when they signed their initial contracts, which probably is why they slipped through the cracks.
Carmona was signed Dec. 28, 2000, three weeks after he had presumably turned 17 (he was 20 if the Dominican authorities are correct). He played at the Indians facility in the Dominican in 2001 and traveled to the United States for his first minor-league season in 2002, before the enhanced identity measures were in place.
Nunez/Oviedo was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000 and came to the U.S. to play in the minors for the 2001 season, well before the post-9/11 changes.
All of this explains how Heredia became Carmona, but it doesn’t tell us what happens next. Will Heredia be stuck in a Dominican prison for months or even years? Should the Indians void his contract and move on? Can they void his contract? Will Dominican authorities soon adjudicate the case and send Heredia on his way? Will the U.S. government give Heredia another work visa? They haven’t given one to Oviedo, at least not yet.
It’s doubtful that Heredia will have to rot in jail for long. His biggest problem probably will be trying to convince the immigration and naturalization people that he should be given another green card. That, too, probably will happen, but who knows how long it will take?
Heredia could miss all or part of spring training, maybe even a chunk of the season. If that happens, it’s likely the Tribe would dock his pay for time missed. Players are paid only for the regular season, and Heredia is due to receive $1.7 million per month beginning in April.
Can the club void his $7 million contract? I’m not sure, but there are punitive clauses in the standard contract for various kinds of misbehavior, and being convicted of a crime counts. However, it would serve little purpose for the Indians to cancel the contract and wave goodbye.
It’s not like Heredia is the first player in franchise history to lie about his age. More important, the Tribe needs him. It’s not like this team is overflowing with starting pitchers.
For the long term, a suddenly dog-eared birth certificate makes his future a little more problematic.
The Indians can end their ties to Heredia when his contract expires at the end of the season. That might have happened anyway. Even when the club thought he was 28, performance issues had turned this into a make-or-break season. Now that he is three years older, Heredia is even more likely to be jettisoned.
Eventually, the age discrepancy will cost him, but if Heredia wins 15 or more games and posts an ERA below 4.00 this year, he will be a sought-after free agent. General managers won’t care how old he is or what name he uses to sign his next contract.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/tribematters. Follow the Indians on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Indians. Follow Beacon Journal sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.