Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Celebrity Scout Goes Over to the Dark Side

From Toro March 2005

The Dominican Hustle

By Gare Joyce

Epy Guerrero sits in a shaded dugout and watches forty-five players working out on the diamond in the noonday sun. Whenever they pass by him, they nod, wave, wink. They call him jefe, boss, and when they make a good play in the field or drive the ball to the wall, they look to him for approval. None comes. He wears oversize black shades but even if he were to take them off you couldn’t tell what he’s thinking. His expression is impassive, a poker face that’s the product of thirty years of practice. After tens of thousands of workouts and tryouts on hundreds of fields all through the Caribbean, he wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if the second coming of Ted Williams were taking batting practice. He’d never tip anyone off.

Guerrero’s stony visage is a matter of habit, not necessity. There’s no one looking over his shoulder, no spies out there. He’s a half hour from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, but the diamond sits at the end of a hilly, washed-out road that would thwart any 4x4 and all but the heartiest goat. The diamond belongs to the baseball complex that he leases to the Seattle Mariners, and forty-one of the forty-five players are under contract to the ballclub. A few have played in the minors in the States; most played in the Dominican Republic’s rookie league. They’re known quantities.

Guerrero speaks in something just above a whisper, as though he fears being overheard. He gives me the rundown of the pitcher on the mound: “Lefty. Eighteen. Bad body. Fastball 92. Got a hook, too. Good mechanics. Gonna play in the States. Got a shot.”

But even if rival scouts were lurking in the palm out behind the left-field wall, it wouldn’t matter if they knew what Epy Guerrero is thinking about this lefty or any other player here. He’s working, sure, but he’s not working for anybody. He’s nobody’s jefe. “I come out here,” Guerrero says. “Most days, I no have job. Thirty years in the game, no job.”


Epy Guerrero breaks for lunch while the infielders are taking ground balls. He walks me over to the residence he keeps out at the complex, where he stays some nights when he doesn’t feel like driving back to Santo Domingo. So too does his youngest son, Joel, the Mariners’ trainer at the complex. Usually, another of Epy’s sons, Patrick, would be along, but he’s off on business. He’s Seattle’s scouting director in the Dominican and he’s closing the deal on a top prospect this afternoon.

While a cook in the kitchen prepares him chicken, rice, and beans, Guerrero takes me into his trophy room. It used to double as a rec room for entertaining baseball executives. “Nobody comes long time,” he says.

When he flips on the light, all the memories warm up. The walls are lined with Scout of the Month awards from the Topps baseball-card company, with photographs of the Jays’ World Series teams and with framed newspaper clippings.

Guerrero’s former prominence is captured by one of those yellowing clips: a list of the twenty-five most powerful men in major-league baseball circa 1990. It ranks Guerrero as sixteenth, several slots ahead of future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens. It was a fair assessment of the Toronto Blue Jays scout based in the Dominican Republic. The Jays were perennial contenders and the Caribbean had as much claim on the team as Toronto. At one time, eighteen players on Toronto’s forty-man roster were from Latin America.

Guerrero was a rarity in baseball: a celebrity scout. Behind every player he signed, he had a story to tell.

Those stories are on the walls of this room. One clipping recounts the inspirational rise of Tony Fernandez, how Fernandez arrived at Guerrero’s complex as a scrawny sixteen-year-old from the shanties in San Pedro de Macoris, and how he made himself into an All-Star by dint of years of work under Guerrero’s direction. In another frame, a Sports Illustrated feature details a tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, how Guerrero went under cover into war-torn Nicaragua to smuggle out Grant Alyea Jr., an outfielder and son of a former major leaguer.

Guerrero smiles when he looks at the SI story and a picture of himself, twenty years younger, in military fatigues. “Whatever it takes to get the player, I’d do,” Guerrero says.

Pat Gillick knew that. More than anyone else, Guerrero had the Jays’ general manager’s ear. Gillick, in turn, thought nothing of calling Guerrero at 3 a.m. to bounce personnel ideas off him, stuff having nothing at all to do with the Dominican Republic.

“My best friend,” Guerrero says, pointing to Gillick in a photo of the staff at the SkyDome. “I gotta take his call, even if it wakes up my wife.”

Gillick, who graduated from university at age twenty, and Guerrero, who did his schooling on the streets, had been in the minors together in the Houston Astros’ system. Gillick blew out his arm before he had a shot at the majors, but the Astros offered him a job in the front office. In turn, he helped Guerrero land work as a bird dog, a part-time scout for Houston in the Dominican. When Gillick jumped to the Yankees, so did Guerrero. Same with the expansion Toronto franchise.

Their vision came together with the Jays in the early 80s. They knew that only the Los Angeles Dodgers had any interest in scouting the Dominican. Epy had bought a sprawling parcel of remote bush for $750; the seller was being cleaned out by his ex’s divorce lawyer. Guerrero came up with the idea to build a baseball complex there, a diamond, and a dormitory for the players. He had to clear out palms, not corn, but otherwise el Complejo de Epy was his Field of Dreams. He built it. They came.

In the beginning, Guerrero raided major-league teams’ rosters: from Cleveland, Alfredo Griffin; from the Yankees, Damaso Garcia; from Philadelphia, George Bell. The development of homegrown talent came later. Some exploded on the scene and flamed out quickly (the fast but flaky Junior Felix); others made the most of limited talent and hung around the majors forever (journeyman infielder Luis Sojo); and a few flirted with greatness (Bell and Fernandez).

During the ’80s and early ’90s Guerrero was the game’s most productive scout. According to Guerrero, Gillick always supported his judgment. The best illustration was the signing of Carlos Delgado.
“I see him,” Guerrero says, looking at a photo of Delgado in the minors. “I phone Pat. ‘We gotta sign him.’ Pat tells me he got no money. I say, ‘Find it.’ It gonna take $100,000 bonus or Atlanta gonna sign him. Pat comes down. He gotta ask owners for money outta next year’s budget. We sign him. We go to the airport, Atlanta guys are coming. We say, “Don’t bother. We signed him.’ They don’t believe us – till they go to Carlos’s house.”

Guerrero will still have a rooting interest this season. He’ll pull for players he signed up for the Jays. For Delgado, wherever the free-agent winds blow him. For Cesar Izturis, a Gold Glove shortstop with Los Angeles. For Kelvim Escobar, an often overpowering righthander with Anaheim. There are others, but with Delgado’s departure, not a one remains on the Toronto roster.


Lunch is served. Guerro’s son Joel sits in. A bundle of muscle, he puts away a whole chicken in one sitting. Epy has one breast, salad, and a beer. He opens up. He will hide what he thinks about a player but won’t hide resentment.

“It was a great organization under Pat. I thought I was there forever.”

When Gillick resigned before the 1994 season, Gord Ash moved into the general manager’s office. At that point, Guerrero says, everything changed. He maintains that his status as most favoured scout made him a target. And he doesn’t equivocate about who targeted him.
“I left Jays because of Gord Ash,” he says, piling beans on top of the rice. “Ash wanted me out.”

Sport’s great divide runs between those who played and those who never did. Those who played have more respect for their peers than for those who only watched.

That’s the way Guerrero frames it: Ash couldn’t understand the game he didn’t play and Ash envied the player-to-player respect Gillick accorded Guerrero. Guerrero says that his problems with Ash and Ash’s allies started well before Gillick’s resignation.

“I see this pitcher, sixteen, maybe five-nine, right-hander, skinny, fastball 88,” he says. “I wanna sign. Mel Queen comes. He says, ‘He’s already as good as he gonna be.” I’m saying, he good right now and we get him cheap. Mel Queen, he kill it. The Dodgers sign him: Pedro Martinez. ’Cuz of Mel Queen Toronto don’t get a Hall of Famer.”

“Queen was Ash’s guy. Others too. Pat retires, they want me out too. They don’t let me do my job. No money. Players I sign getting traded.”

Retelling the story makes Guerrero’s blood rise. His face reddens. He’d require a doctor’s attention if he could hear a conversation I had with Ash, who was let go by the Jays in 2002. Ash claimed Guerrero made things “difficult for himself.”

“Epy’s friendship with Pat transcended his business relationship with the organization,” Ash said. “During my first years as GM, we actually expanded our Dominican operation with Epy. But it became unworkable. All we were asking for was a degree of accountability. Epy was the Lone Ranger. That was his persona as a scout.”

That “Lone Ranger” shot is aimed at Epy’s self-promotion, his readiness to fill reporters’ notebooks, which rubbed many Jays staffers the wrong way.

In September 1995, Guerrero tendered his resignation. No Epy Guerrero Day. No send-off party. It was undignified, but easy to understand: New general managers sweep out offices with big brooms. What’s harder to explain are the reasons why Guerrero isn’t working today or why his phone hasn’t rang in two years. One of the sons can explain. Not Joel, though. He runs back to the diamond. He has pitchers’ arms to ice after the workout.


My father used to take us on his scouting trips,” says Mike Guerrero, sitting behind the dugout of Los Leones de Escogido. “We all wanted to play, but all of that time we spent with him prepared us better for other types of careers in the game.”

All five of Epy’s sons work in baseball, but Mike, at thirty-six the second oldest, is the most ambitious. He spends his winters as the assistant general manager of Escogido, one of two Dominican league teams in Santo Domingo. During the summer he manages a minor-league team in the Milwaukee Brewers system.

His Leones are running up the score on San Pedro de Macoris – 8-0 – but he’s working the cellphone, trying to land a major-leaguer for a pennant drive. He hasn’t done an MBA like a lot of thirty-something baseball execs, but he’s new school enough to talk about “networking” for players.

Ten years have passed since his father’s break with the Jays, but it’s hard for Mike to talk about it, not just because of his father’s pain. No, it’s sensitive stuff because Gord Ash is Milwaukee’s assistant general manager. He’s Mike Guerrero’s boss, and also the boss of Mike’s older brother Sandy, manager of Milwaukee’s Double A farm team.

“If Gord had problems with my father, he never let them affect how he treated us,” Mike says.

Mike picks up the story where his father left off.

“When my father left the Jays, he took a job with Milwaukee. Things were different. Milwaukee couldn’t give him the same support that Toronto did. The business was changing. Every major-league team had a complex in the Dominican like his and the Dodgers’. They spend a lot more money on players. My father used to sign a kid for $2,000, maybe $3,000. All of a sudden it was $100,000, $500,000, even a million. And Milwaukee wasn’t going to compete for those.”

Epy felt as outmatched as San Pedro is in the game against Escogido. There was no Tony Fernandez this time. He couldn’t dine out on his old success stories forever.

After the 2002 season, the Brewers announced that they were dropping Epy Guerrero. They complained that they saw negligible returns on their annual half-million-dollar investment in their Dominican operation. And, if you’re looking for more dots to connect, the Brewers dropped Guerrero not long after Gord Ash was hired.

Not one of Guerrero’s signees has a place on the forty-man roster this spring and the Brewers don’t maintain a complex in the Dominican any more. The team has signed Dominican kids to bonuses worth as much as $100,000 but they immediately bring them to the States.

Mike Guerrero takes the company line, says he can see the merits in this approach. I don’t tell him about my conversation with Ash. I don’t mention a twist of the knife – Ash complimenting Sandy and Mike for being “good organization men [who] learned what to do and what not to do from their father’s experiences.”

Whatever Mike might have learned, he still defends his father.

“If you gave all the scouts twenty-four hours, my father would come back with the best player. The best prospect down here is a shortstop in the Boston system, Hensley Ramirez. My father saw him in Punta, the town near the complex. My father sponsored Ramirez on a Little League team. He’d have signed him if he had a chance. But just seeing someone first doesn’t count if you’re a scout Maybe other places, but not as a scout.”


Hilario Soriano, the Jays’ man in the Dominican these days, is driving along the dusty main drag in San Pedro de Macoris. He has to catch a game between the Jays’ prospects and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rookies.

Like Epy Guerrero, he didn’t make it beyond the minors but has seen what it takes. “I was a catcher, older than most players when I came to the States,” he says. “I was there to help players like Fred McGriff get ready for the majors.” And when he came home, he saw a little nephew picking up the game. Years later, Alfonso Soriano is a slugging second baseman with the Texas Rangers.

When I ask Hilario Soriano if he’s a celebrity, he laughs ruefully. “Here, if you’re the uncle of a major leaguer making $8-million a year, you’re a celebrity,” he says.

General manager J. P. Ricciardi is still in charge in Toronto after three years, still looking to squeeze more wins out of fewer of Ted Rogers’s dollars. The Jays’ corporate philosophy of economy extends to the Dominican, much to Soriano’s frustration.

“The Yankees, Los Angeles, and Boston are spending huge money down here,” he says. “Toronto’s not in that group. We’re in the next group. We get prospects that those clubs pass on.

Soriano is driving out to a rundown ballpark, the Alfredo Reynolds field, next to a cluster of corrugated metal shanties and lean-tos. It’s the Dominican home of the Pirates, a franchise that has a glorious history in Latin America. These days the Pirates don’t have a complex, just this shabby field and a modest home in San Pedro where they put up their prospects. They’re looking for another Roberto Clemente the same way the Jays are looking for the next Tony Fernandez: on the cheap.

“It’s not like the old days, when I signed,” Soriano says. “Nobody signs for the first offer. There’s no finding players who haven’t been seen by anybody else.”

He points to a rock-strewn diamond beside the Pirates ballpark. A dozen kids in dirty and mismatched uniforms are working out under the direction of a well-fed, sweatsuit-clad fellow in his forties.

“To understand the game in the Dominican now, you have to understand this,” he says, shaking his head, screwing his face into a look of disgust. “That’s a buscon there. Those players there have deals with him. He’s a little like a coach, a little like an agent. The players have to give him part of their bonuses – maybe all of their bonuses – and part of their salaries if they make the majors. The buscon’s job is to get them tryouts. They call us with kids. They bring them to tryouts. You want to sign a kid, you gotta deal with the buscon.”

Baseball men like Soriano regard buscones as a blight on the game. Stories that will never hang in any trophy room now routinely show up in Santo Domingo’s newspapers.

These days Mario Guerrero, Epy’s younger brother, stands at the centre of the most sensational baseball story in the Dominican. A former major-league infielder, Mario Guerrero is one of the best-known buscones. Last summer a court in Santo Domingo sided with him in a civil suit against outfielder Raul Mondesi. A judge awarded Mario Guerrero US$1-million in buscon fees and interest. (Mondesi has filed an appeal.)

But the Mario Guerrero story gets messier. It’s not that he’s suing other players and former players for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or that Mondesi claims that the dispute has him fearing for his family’s safety. No, several players have paid Mario Guerrero his buscon fees over the years, including Tony Fernandez and others originally signed to the Blue Jays by, yes, Mario’s big brother, Epy. Even on a small island, that’s getting a little close to home.

At Dominican ballparks you hear about buscones exploiting unsophisticated kids, walking off with their signing bonuses – in one case a half-million dollars. One young prospect died after he treated an injury with drugs procured by his buscon; it turned out that the drugs were intended for use on racehorses. But when major-league millions such as Alfonso Soriano’s are at stake, nothing scares off a kid from a shantytown who’s looking at a lifetime of cutting sugar cane.

“Some baseball men work as buscones – guys who were players or coaches or managers. But lots aren’t baseball men. They just hope that they find one kid, one big bonus player. Get him first. Get the money. Too many [buscones] will do anything for money.”


The next day at the complex, Epy Guerrero is in a better mood. Pat Gillick has called him. Gillick, who works as a consultant for Seattle, wants Epy to meet him in San Juan so they can talk to Carlos Delgado. Gillick wants to pitch Delgado on signing with the Mariners. Guerrero is excited. He and Gillick originally signed the teenager who would set the Jays’ records for home runs and all these years later they’ll try to sign him away from Toronto.

“Like old times,” Guerrero says.

Meanwhile the forty-five players out on the diamond break into two teams for a practice game. The chubby left-hander is unhittable. The catcher’s glove snaps with every fastball. Three batters fan at the heat. When the lefty breaks off curve balls, the batters swing themselves into knots. “Control. He can throw it anywhere in the count,” Guerrero says in a low voice.

The game breaks up a couple of hours later. A few players stay behind to take infield grounders. One of them is an unsigned kid in Yankees pinstripe pants that might have fit him two years ago. Guerrero’s paying more attention to him than the others. “Good bat speed. Fast. He fills out. Only fifteen,” Guerrero says.

I ask Guerrero if his son Patrick will sign this kid to a contract with Seattle when he turns sixteen.

“I hope,” Guerrero says. “I represent him.”

Once the sixteenth most powerful man in baseball, Epy Guerrero is now a buscon. Not by choice; he’d much rather work for a major-league club. Not by necessity; he could live comfortably on his savings and the Mariners’ lease on the complex. Spurred only by pride, he entered a racket with shame.

“I want to work,” he says. “It’s not for money. Maybe I show them.”
At the end of the workout, the Seattle prospects head back to their dorm. Lunch is going to be served. The shortstop in the Yankees pants is looking for some pocket money before he heads back to Punta. Guerrero doesn’t want to stick around for that. He hands Joel two 100-peso bills. Six bucks U.S., enough to last the shortstop the weekend. He won’t go hungry. Guerrero feels a little better about the work he’s doing. Cleaner. And if that kid does end up signing, Guerrero will feel much better. He’ll show them. He’ll show them and make them pay until it hurts.


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