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DOJ investigating MLB practices of signing Latin American amateurs

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It’s never good news for MLB when the words “federal grand jury” is mentioned in the same article as baseball.

St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Over the past few days, a story has been leaking out about a federal grand jury that is looking into the practices of Major League Baseball teams signing amateur players from Latin America.

The original report from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports focuses on the signing of Cuban ballplayer Hector Olivera, who had a short, misbegotten major league career (that included a domestic violence suspension) with the Braves after being traded to Atlanta by the Dodgers. Passan emphasizes that the exact target of grand jury is not known, but that people connected to Olivera are being brought in to testify. However, the actual scope of the investigation could be larger than just Olivera.

Sports Illustrated’s Carl Prine and John Wertheim went further with the story, receiving the stack of documents that someone had provided the US Department of Justice that kicked off the investigation. The team that figures most prominently in the documents, according to SI, is the Los Angeles Dodgers. This makes sense as the Dodgers were the team that originally signed Olivera.

SI uncovered a particularly disturbing document from 2015 in which the Dodgers ranked all 15 of their Latin American employees based on how involved they were with illegal activities. Five of their 15 employees were described as “Criminal: oversees the operation—people and money.”

The law that is most likely being broken is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This law essentially bans representatives of US-based companies from giving anything of value to foreign representatives in exchange for anything, such as the signing of an amatuer ballplayer. In short, you can’t bribe anyone. It also puts such cases under the jurisdiction of the United States. That means the Department of Justice can prosecute the case even if it took place in a foreign country where such a bribe might not be considered illegal. Or if it is, if it is rarely or never enforced there. (If you want to read more about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and how it might play out in this case, Sheryl Ring has an article for you.)

The Braves are also being investigated in this matter and there has been much speculation that former Braves general manager John Coppolella is cooperating with the investigation. Coppolella was permanently banned from baseball by MLB last November for his role in international signings. Coppolella undoubtedly knows a lot about what goes on in Latin America and has motive to cooperate with any investigation of MLB.

The process of signing talent out of Latin America has been corrupt for quite some time. If you’ve seen the documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero about the signing of Miguel Sano, you get a sense of how dirty the whole process can be. (And if you do see that film, remember that it was only the honest people who were willing to talk with the filmmakers.)

But the situation becomes even worse when you’re dealing with a Cuban player like Olivera. Cuban players are still banned from signing directly with MLB teams The story of Yasiel Puig and his entanglements with the human traffickers that helped him get out of Cuba are a prime example of this.

It should be noted that there is no evidence that the DOJ is investigating Olivera, who is more likely a victim than a perpetrator, if he is indeed involved in this mess.

MLB has been aware of the problems in Latin America and has made some efforts to clean things up, such as the investigations of the Red Sox and the Braves. Latin American corruption has been used as an argument for an international draft, albeit a self-serving one for MLB.

But no one should think that this problem is limited to the Dodgers and Braves. Pretty much every team in Latin America has dirty hands in signing players. Some are no doubt worse than others and maybe the Dodgers and the Braves are the worst. But I wouldn’t say that based on just this investigation. There could be far worse abuses that come out by the time this investigation is finished.