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Manhunt
Nationals scouts are scouring the globe looking for talent. They beat the Yankees and the Red Sox to sign Smiley Gonzalez, a 17-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic. And they’re not done yet. By Tim Wendel
Comments () | Published April 1, 2007

Jim Bowden’s office at RFK Stadium has run out of wall space. Magnetic strips stenciled with names of ballplayers line up in neat rows. Across from them hang pieces of butcher paper with handwritten lists of players the Nationals have signed from abroad. The paper stretches across the windows and obscures the view of East Capitol Street.

“Can I help it if I’m a visual guy?” says Bowden, the team’s general manager. “I just need to see what I’m trying to do.”

What Bowden is trying to do is resurrect a baseball team once left for dead. With little fanfare, the Nationals are plotting to become the dominant team in the marketplace for international talent. Bowden and team president Stan Kasten have put together a rapid-strike scout team that’s scouring the globe for players.

Its first big catch: Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, a switch-hitting 17-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic who was hotly pursued by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox—teams with big wallets and lots of prestige.

Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators once built a talent pipeline from Cuba, but this team has bigger ambitions. Its “We Are the World” cast of prospects includes catcher Jesus Flores from Venezuela, pitcher Shairon Martis from Curaçao, and outfielder Chris Snelling from Australia.

While their scouts rack up frequent-flier miles, Bowden and Kasten are slipping into embassy parties and networking with ambassadors from such baseball-rich countries as the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Venezuela.

“That W on our ball cap now stands for world,” Bowden says, “in addition to Washington.”

The Nationals, under new owners led by developer Ted Lerner, are playing catch-up internationally. “The money to sign a Smiley Gonzalez wasn’t in the budget,” Bowden says. “But the Lerner family and Stan Kasten agreed that it was something that needed to be done. We’re flying below the radar. But anybody who looks hard enough at what we’re doing can see the success that’s coming.”

Last summer the Nationals hired Mike Rizzo as head of baseball operations. He had spent the last seven years with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he helped build one of the best farm systems in baseball.

Since coming to the Nationals, Rizzo has made so many trips overseas that his passport ran out of pages; he’s been to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. “I’m on call,” he says, “ready to fly out on a moment’s notice and sign that next prospect. That’s part of our goal of becoming the preeminent international team in baseball.”

The kids, ages 5 to 12, line up in front of the batting tee and await instruction from Manny Acta, the Nationals’ new manager. It is day four of the team’s preseason bus caravan through the Washington area. Today’s stop is the Boys and Girls Club in Dale City in the Virginia exurbs.

“Now let’s keep things simple,” Acta says. “We don’t need you trying to be like Gary Sheffield up here.”

To demonstrate his point, the manager begins to wag the bat back and forth aggressively, a dead-on imitation of the flamboyant outfielder. The kids burst into laughter.

One by one the kids step up to the batting tee. In a low voice, the manager counsels them to keep the head still, eye on the ball—conventional baseball wisdom, but words that may mean more coming from Acta, who was 37 when he was hired by the Nationals last November.

“I’m familiar with the international players, especially the Latin American ones,” Acta says. “I can connect with them. Between managing for five years in winter ball to managing in the World Baseball Classic, I feel I can give Washington a head start there.”

With the retirement of the San Francisco Giants’ Felipe Alou, Acta begins the new season as baseball’s lone manager from the Dominican Republic. Even though the Dominican Republic was upset by Cuba in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic last year, Acta won lots of respect for how he handled his country’s roster, which included Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Vladimir Guerrero.

Acta’s hiring gives the Nationals a one-two punch in the country that’s considered baseball’s mother lode of talent. Bowden had already hired as his assistant ex–Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, who operates a baseball academy on the island. Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Dominican Republic supplies 10 percent of the players to the US major leagues.

A generation ago, the Senators plumbed another Caribbean hotbed, Cuba, for talent. Clark Griffith, who owned the Senators from 1920 to 1955, liked going to Cuba because he could sign good players on the cheap. During Griffith’s tenure, 65 Cuban ballplayers reached the major leagues, 35 of them with Washington.

“We could do the same thing in the Dominican, be a real presence for years to come,” Rijo says. “Now that we have the financial support from Washington, there’s no limit to what we can do.”

The 17-year-old Gonzalez is Rijo’s prized find. Some in the Nationals’ camp predict he will be with the big-league club in two years. With great range in the field and good presence at the plate, he has drawn comparisons with another Dominican shortstop, the Orioles’ Miguel Tejada.

A year or so ago, the best the Nationals could offer a prospect was a contract worth a few thousand dollars. Gonzalez’s signing bonus was $1.4 million.

“It used to be the Yankees, the Giants, the Dodgers were on top in my country,” Rijo says. “Now the Nationals are right there.”

Rijo’s relationship with Bowden goes back to his playing days in Cincinnati, where Bowden was general manager. Bowden recalls his first trip to the Dominican Republic, when Rijo picked him up at the airport. He says it was like traveling with royalty. As they sped away from the airport, Bowden noticed groups of people waving.

“It dawned on me that I was riding with a real celebrity,” Bowden says. “In the DR, Jose’s as big as the president.”

Rijo laughs when told the story. “Jim lies,” he says. “It’s worse than that. In my country, I’m bigger than the president.”

One could argue who’s the bigger luminary in the Dominican Republic—Rijo or Acta. Rijo helps everyone from the homeless to kids in need of baseball equipment. Acta grew up in a cement home and went on to become third-base coach for the New York Mets and finally a big-league manager.

“Any way you look at it, it’s a real good combination for the Washington Nationals,” Rijo says. “Right now, so many of the players we’ve signed, what we’ve done—it’s all on paper. I know that. But give it a year or two. A change is coming. A big change.”

The Atlanta Braves had already been to two World Series before they signed their first prominent free agent, pitcher Greg Maddux in 1992. Their strategy was to build through the farm system. One of the architects was Stan Kasten, now Nationals president.

“People know what they’re getting with me,” Kasten says. “I have signed some notable free agents in my life, but that is not the MO I’m associated with.”

Kasten got his start in pro sports running a basketball team. In 1979, media mogul Ted Turner turned over his Atlanta Hawks to Kasten, who was only three years out of law school. Several years later, with his baseball team a laughingstock, Turner told Kasten to “fix things” with that franchise, too. Methodically Kasten and general manager John Schuerholz rebuilt the team from the ground up, and the Atlanta Braves went on to win 14 consecutive divisional crowns.

To hear Kasten tell it, things were even worse in Washington before the Lerner family enticed him out of retirement. When Kasten asked how many prospects the team had in the Dominican Republic, the answer was zero.

A first-generation American—his family emigrated from Poland in 1948—Kasten made a trip with each of his four children to the nation’s capital when they turned eight years old. It became a rite of passage. Of all the trips he’s taken around the world, Kasten ranks bringing his father, a Holocaust survivor, to DC’s Holocaust Memorial Museum as one of his most memorable.

With the Nationals, Kasten’s goal, the real pie in the sky, is to secure the kind of fan base that the Redskins enjoy. Kasten dismisses teams that try to buy their way to the top. Nobody wins that way over the long haul, he says. “We inherited a last-place club. Now you can’t flick the switch and fix something like that overnight. But in the last six months, we pretty much did just that. By signing Smiley Gonzalez and hiring Manny Acta, we have become a player in the Dominican Republic.”

In the United States, baseball is often perceived as old-fashioned. But outside our border, the grand old game often can be as cutting-edge as the X Games. Roger Jongewaard, the scout who signed stars Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez, routinely travels the world hunting prospects. He recently identified baseball prospects from such nations as Russia, Croatia, and Holland. Alan Klein, author of Growing the Game: The Globalization of Major League Baseball, predicts that baseball could gain a toehold in South Africa or Eastern Europe in the next 15 to 20 years.

Against such a backdrop, Kasten makes his pitch to international leaders in DC. While embassy officials may not know a leadoff hitter from the cutoff man, Kasten maintains that such contacts are crucial. “I tell them, ‘You have a great ballplayer from your country. What good does it do you to have them play in Cleveland or Dallas or Seattle? Why not here? Why not with us?’”

Tim Wendel’s books include the novel Castro’s Curveball and The New Face of Baseball: The 100-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America’s Favorite Sport.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 04/01/2007 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles