Age-old problem: how easy is it for athletes to fake their birthdates?

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May 8, 2002
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Baseball players are often accused of presenting themselves as younger than they actually are. But it is becoming harder to slip under teams’ radars Albert Pujols is nearing the end of a huge contract with the Angels. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP No matter how full the stadiums may be, normalcy will still be in short supply when the new Major League Baseball season opens under the shadow of the pandemic. “Face mask enforcement officers” will patrol clubhouses to ensure compliance, players will sport electronic contact tracing devices and the specter of an outbreak will loom over every road trip. All of which made the recent headlines surrounding Albert Pujols feel a bit like a return to the before times. The Los Angeles Angels slugger, entering what could be the final campaign of his illustrious career, found himself staring down questions about his age after a former MLB executive asserted that Pujols isn’t really 41. Officially, Pujols was born in 1980, but according to former Miami Marlins president David Samson, “not one person in baseball” actually believes that. The comments evoked memories of a not-long-ago era in baseball, when age falsification was a recurring storyline in the game. “I believe – we all believe, in baseball – that he was one of scores of players who falsified their age in order to better their ability to join Major League Baseball with the highest signing bonus possible,” Samson told the Guardian last week. Samson first made the claim about Pujols last month during an interview on The Dan Le Batard Show, as he recalled the Marlins’ efforts to sign the player in December of 2011. The Angels ultimately won the sweepstakes, signing Pujols to a 10-year contract worth $254m and trumping the Marlins’ offer by $40m. Samson said his side offered less money, specifically on the backend of the deal, because they anticipated a steep drop in production due to Pujols purportedly being older than he claims. But the subject of Pujols’ age, Samson emphasized, did not come up at the negotiating table. “I want to be very clear: [Pujols] didn’t lie to me one time. The reason he never lied to me is I never asked the question. I never asked his agent the question. I never asked anyone the question because we were very aware of what productivity we were going to get,” Samson said. “The real story is that the Angels knew this just like we did, and the Angels made the decision to sign him just like we wanted to sign him. The Angels just gave him $40m more than we did.” (A spokesperson for the Angels declined to comment. Representatives for Pujols did not respond to The Guardian’s inquiries.) It was around the time Pujols signed his mega deal with the Angels that the league was embarking on a concerted push to eliminate age and identity fraud among its newly signed prospects, a trend that was particularly common among players from the Dominican Republic, the baseball-rich island nation that has produced legends such as Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. For example, the Washington Nationals acquired 16-year-old Dominican phenom Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez in 2006, only to learn down the line that they actually signed Carlos Lugo, who was 20 at the time of the contract. Meanwhile, Fausto Carmona made his debut for the Cleveland Indians the same year and pitched six seasons for the team before it was revealed in 2012 that his real name is Roberto Hernandez and was actually three years older than he originally claimed. He was subsequently arrested in the Dominican Republic for his use of the false identity (the charges were later dropped after he agreed to complete a work program) and was dealt a suspension from MLB, but he went on to play for another five seasons after the ordeal. Samson had his own brush with a player misrepresenting his identity when he was still in the Marlins front office. In 2009, the team signed Dominican pitcher Leo Nunez, who had spent the first four seasons of his career with the Kansas City Royals. But the player known to his teammates as “Nuny” was really Juan Carlos Oviedo, who was born in 1982, not 1983. Oviedo was arrested outside the US consulate in Santo Domingo in 2011, but did not face charges for his use of false documents. “He had taken the name of his friend and pretended he was his friend,” Samson said of Oviedo, who returned to the majors for one final season in 2014 with the Tampa Bay Rays. “We had a major issue trying to get him back into the states. It was a nightmare.” MLB took heat for its use of DNA testing in the Dominican Republic, which was decried as both invasive and possibly illegal, forcing the league to hit pause on the practice before resuming it in 2010 under new guidelines. The policy has been revised further since, with the league stressing that the DNA test is voluntary and only requested when there is significant doubt about a player’s identity. Additionally, MLB now covers the cost of the test, no longer requiring players to pay as it originally did. The DNA testing was initially overseen by Sandy Alderson, a longtime MLB hand who was tapped in 2010 to address the problems that had beset the Dominican talent pipeline. Under Alderson, the league pursued a number of initiatives targeting age falsification, including fingerprint testing on youth prospects and taking back some control over a Dominican player development system that some in MLB had likened to “the wild west.” Alderson, now the general manager for the New York Mets, said at the time that the league’s efforts were “not about someone coming down here and breaking all the china and pointing a finger,” but he was not warmly embraced by the locals. (Alderson, through a Mets spokesperson, declined to comment for this article.) Alderson left his post as the league’s emissary to the Dominican Republic, but MLB continued to expand its footprint on the island, opening a Latin American headquarters in Santo Domingo in 2014. The Alderson-led project drew the immediate ire of the buscones, talent agents in the Dominican Republic who train promising players from an early age in the hopes of shepherding them to the big leagues. Alan Klein, an anthropology professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has written extensively on Dominican baseball, said that the role was born out of MLB’s desire to unearth the country’s deep talent. “Inadvertently, [the league] created the modern buscone,” Klein told the Guardian. “That modern buscone was the guy who could now be all over the island. They would find the kid, sign the kid and be able to govern his training and take care of him and bring him to fruition.” The absence of a draft for international prospects has also opened the door for the buscones to wield their influence, according to Rob Ruck, a sports history professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose research also includes baseball in the Dominican Republic. “They created their own operations,” Ruck said of the buscones. “Some are pretty awful. Some are predatory, where the guys running them are essentially pimps trafficking in kids. And some are pretty good, like a smart, wise uncle who’s helping his nephew get better.” Ruck said that while the buscones felt threatened by MLB’s moves into the Dominican Republic in 2010, even staging a protest outside Alderson’s hotel during a visit to the island, but that old system wasn’t completely supplanted. “My sense is that the buscones are so entrenched with player development that Major League Baseball depends on them,” Ruck told the Guardian. The buscones often played a central role in the age manipulation, enticed by the allure of taking a substantial cut of the prospect’s signing bonus. In that context, the incentives to pose as a younger player are self-evident. There is a premium placed on potential in the early stages of an athlete’s career, and the initial contract is typically commensurate with the team’s expectations. A 17-year-old pitcher who throws 94 miles per hour will almost certainly command a larger deal than an 18 or 19-year-old who does the same. “People used to refer to the Dominican Republic baseball scene as a cesspool of people who were doing corrupt, bad things, breaking laws,” Klein said. “They ignored the fact that there’s a reason you’re claiming to be younger than you are, and the reason is created and fostered by MLB. If MLB is willing to pay much greater signing bonuses for a 17-year-old than they are for an 18-year-old, one year older, than any Dominican would be foolish not to try to be younger.” Prospects must have also been encouraged by the ease with which the deception could be pulled off, especially prior to 11 September 2001. Following the attacks, as it probed various visa documents, the United States government learned that more than 300 baseball players in the major and minor leagues had forged their birthdates. The combinations of those post-9/11 security reforms and the efforts put forth by the league a little more than a decade ago have largely eradicated age falsification in baseball. There was a record 110 Dominican players on Opening Day rosters in MLB’s Covid-abridged season last year, and Samson believes that none – with the possible exception of Pujols – are older than they say they are. “MLB came in and they took over. They put an office in the Dominican. They provided a clearinghouse for all 30 teams. They said they would give us a list of which available players to be signed, and they would give us all the information that was confirmed, and double confirmed, and then triple confirmed,” Samson said. “It totally eliminated any question of age.” But there will be others, as history suggests that some athletes and their handlers will always be willing to stretch the truth for a financial or competitive advantage. The phenomenon of age fraud is not limited to professional baseball: perhaps the most infamous example in American sports involved Danny Almonte, who became a national sensation due to his brilliance on the mound in the 2001 Little League World Series before an investigation revealed that he was actually two years older than the competition’s age limit. Other sporting cultures have grappled with the same issue. Nigerian soccer was, for years, clouded by allegations that its players had falsified their ages. The same goes for China’s gymnastics program, which has been sanctioned and stripped of the team bronze medal it won at the 2000 Olympics for misrepresenting an athlete’s age. For Pujols, however, the age dispute is nothing more than an innocuous footnote on a storied career that will land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There, his plaque will be on display alongside the likes of Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, both of whom were a year older than they claimed they were.

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