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Busy hyping Tejada lie, ESPN misses bigger story

On Baseball

April 24, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

As much fun as it would be to pick at ESPN for its "expose" of Miguel Tejada, promoted so aggressively before airing in full this week, it is more instructive to dig into what could have -- and should have -- been exposed.

Long ago, as the Worldwide Leader informed us, as a young ballplayer trying to leverage baseball as his escape from the unfathomable poverty of his Dominican upbringing, Tejada lied about his age. This supposedly was a path to insight about the former Oriole and current Houston Astro.

Had the network and its crack investigative team suppressed its "gotcha" desire, uncovered similar information about a number of Latino major leaguers (off-camera), then tied them in to the bigger picture, it would have led to far more insight.

We might have found out why Tejada and others have done it for so long, what about baseball allowed them to do it, how baseball profited from it, what could be done -- indeed, if anything should be done -- about it.

Granted, that's a lot to squeeze into one segment of an hour-long show, and you can only dramatically whip out so many birth certificates between commercials. As it was, the only thing distinguishing this from your average episode of Maury was a screaming studio audience.

Still, it would have been educational, rather than sensational. For one thing, we'd be reminded that this is not a new phenomenon. Teams have known all along that obtaining 100-percent factual information about Latino players' names, birth dates and other vitals was an adventure, that the incentive for hoodwinking some scout or executive was as powerful as life and death itself.

Yet they keep heading to Central and South America and the Caribbean for players. Building more academies. Parceling out scandalously small bonuses to desperate young men and their families. Shipping them all over North America, herding the best of them into the majors, cashing in on their skills.

If a couple of 19-year-olds look young enough to pass for 17, so be it. The same if a couple of 15-year-olds manage to pass for 16. They're not being vetted for Cabinet posts, they're playing baseball. And, in baseball's eyes, better a $2,000 investment in a player like Tejada (that's what he signed for originally with the Oakland Athletics) than possibly millions in bonuses to an American star taken in the draft.

It's cheap labor. Baseball essentially runs a talent sweatshop in these countries. The game exploits the hell out of those players, the ones who make it and, worse, the ones who don't. The players exploit them right back. It's an arrangement -- and, even with the age shenanigans, still a lopsided one in the teams' favor. College basketball players might find this familiar.

Even if you pay only halfhearted attention to the game, you know that this is going on.

ESPN paid only halfhearted attention to that part of the Tejada story, though.

There are ways to at least give the appearance of legitimacy to the situation, to regulate scouting, signing and identity confirmation. Put every amateur prospect in the world into the draft. Make teams pay as much of a signing bonus for the next Tejada as they do for the next Alex Rodriguez.

In return, give them a chance to decide, in the light of day, whether they want to sink that investment into a 19-year-old raw phenom or a 17-year-old. No more separate sets of rules for different pools of players.

Of course, those are two things baseball isn't interested in doing: paying more money and surrendering the upper hand. It doesn't have to agonize, like the NFL's Miami Dolphins, over paying someone $30 million guaranteed before he has even lined up as a pro. Now, that would be must-see TV, Bill Parcells being shown a birth certificate stating that Jake Long is 28.

But if, under the circumstances, a Latino player or two, or 20, gets away with the ol' birth date switcheroo -- especially if he's hitting .370 -- baseball can live with it. The Astros apparently can. So can the Orioles. Nobody seems to believe Tejada truly defrauded anybody.

The lone target of any real anger -- and it's coming from several quarters -- is ESPN.

This can happen when a real, human story is sitting right in front of you, and you don't recognize it because you're too busy waving a birth certificate in his face.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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