Players' age-old problem not a big deal

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

March 03, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The revelations continue to roll in from Latin America, where tougher U.S. immigration scrutiny has forced dozens of players to reveal they are older than they had previously been willing to admit.

Birth certificate fraud - particularly in Caribbean countries - is nothing new, but no one knew the true scope of the problem until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put American immigration officials around the world on a heightened state of vigilance.

So why are so many major-league organizations treating the situation like it's no big deal?

The Cleveland Indians saw Bartolo Colon age two years in one day, but played down the significance of the difference, insisting they were more interested in his velocity than his chronology.

The Orioles reacted to the news that prospect Ed Rogers might be 23 instead of 20 with relative indifference, even though his status as one of the club's most highly regarded young players was based in part on his ability relative to his age.

"Basically, he goes from being like a guy you drafted out of junior college to a guy you drafted out of a four-year college," said Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "The guy still has an outstanding arm; he can run and he's got power. It wasn't his fault he failed at Double-A. It was our fault."

The club also is awaiting word on prospect Eddie Garabito. Thrift said he does not believe Garabito's visa problems are related to age, but the club should know for sure in a few days.

There are several reasons why the age scandal hasn't resonated in major-league front offices, most importantly the widespread knowledge that this kind of thing has been going on for a long time.

There was intense speculation in 1981 that Mexican pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela was much older than the 20 years listed in the Los Angeles Dodgers' media guide, but no one ever proved it.

The current economic framework of the sport also makes the age of a prospect less important, since many teams assume that they will only be able to keep their best players until they become eligible for free agency.

Case in point: If Rogers is as good as the Orioles believe and reaches the major leagues in two years (at 25), the club will only be guaranteed to have him until he is 31. In a sense, that could actually work to the club's advantage, since most players reach the peak of their performance in that age range.

In the case of Colon, the age difference probably explains why he blossomed so quickly at the major-league level. He really was 25 when he broke through with a 14-win season in 1998 and 27 when he won 18 in 2000. The Indians still will want to re-sign him when he becomes eligible for free agency after next season, because he figures to have several more good years, and the extra two years of age may keep other clubs from pricing him out of Cleveland.

If this were 1972, and clubs held players in reserve for their entire careers, it would be a much bigger issue, but the long-term impact of each of these revelations - in all likelihood - won't be felt by the club that currently holds title to the player in question.

Nevertheless, look for Major League Baseball to tighten its rules regarding age verification and increase penalties on scouts and players for willful birth certificate fraud.

Pedro pitches in

The Boston Red Sox's front-office shuffle made national headlines last week, but the most important development in camp over the past week might have been the brief but impressive workout Tuesday by Pedro Martinez.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner ended his 2001 season prematurely when a sore shoulder forced him out of the rotation in early September. He chose therapy over surgery to bounce back from a frayed labrum, so Red Sox officials had their fingers crossed when he pitched to hitters for the first time.

It wasn't a major test. He threw just 30 pitches against three minor-leaguers, but his velocity was good and his command was surprising.

"This is how I'd like to feel the whole season," Martinez said. "I feel really pleased. I had everything under control. I was surprised to see that my breaking ball was so sharp at this stage, the changeup was there and I had good pop and just let it go."

Only time will tell whether he made the right decision by avoiding surgery, but he has a chance to be in the rotation all year, which likely would have been out of the question if he had gone under the knife last fall.

Sosa more `unselfish'

Former Oriole Delino DeShields ranks Cubs teammate Sammy Sosa as the most unselfish superstar he has played with, and he has played with a few --- including Cal Ripken and Mark McGwire.

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