One of the oldest maxims in baseball is “what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.”
Well, the U.S. Justice Department seems to have other ideas, as the ongoing scandal involving MLB teams and their practices in the recruitment and development of players from Latin America and the Caribbean has drawn the attention of a federal grand jury.
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the grand jury is looking into potential prosecutable violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a law usually used to rein in the behavior of Americans who bribe foreign officials in an extrajudicial manner.
The list of alleged evils perpetrated in countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where baseball is a potential escape from crushing Third World poverty, includes treatment that would be a literal war crime if done to POWs.
Illegal payoffs and bribes and the ever-present wage theft of bonus money violate Article 64 of the Geneva Convention if you do them to prisoners. And forcing teenagers onto performance-enhancing drugs? You just ran afoul of Article 13.
And while a baseball league is not a belligerent in an armed conflict, that’s still enough to violate federal law.
All 30 teams have youth academies in the Dominican Republic, and even in today’s political climate, baseball still has a presence scouting players from the imploding socialist nation of Venezuela. International development and player signings account for $100 million every year.
There have been prosecutions and convictions on these sorts of charges before.
MLB front office personnel have been arrested and jailed for bonus money skimming.
Former Atlanta Braves John Coppolella got himself a lifetime ban from the sport for his flagrant violations of international scouting rules.
Agents have been convicted of outright human trafficking, smuggling Cuban players to the United States for purposes of getting them onto baseball teams and sorting out the players’ immigration status almost as a fait accompli.
MLB also stepped in and penalized the Boston Red Sox for less-severe but still illicit violations of the rules in 2016.
The Texas Rangers ran into the long arm of the law in 2010; A.J. Preller, now the Padres’ general manager, got suspended as a result of an illicit contact he committed while the Rangers’ director of Latin American operations.
Last year, the league even hired a forensic accountant to do a little spreadsheet CSI on teams’ books in hopes of uncovering the dark-money world of financial derring-do that goes hand-in-glove with “legitimate businessmen” of the scare-quotes kind everywhere.
MLB has been trying to crack down on the worst abuses. It has tried to rein in the “buscones” — trainers who sign up promising ballplayers when they’re young enough that they’d be playing Little League in the States and groom them for the first July 2 international signing day after they turn 16.
All the same, you have to wonder, and the FBI now is wondering, just how much the people who should have the power to stop this knew about the abuses as they were going on.
Where was Commissioner Rob Manfred in all this? Or players’ union chief Tony Clark? Were they conveniently looking the other way as long as they had their player talent pipeline bringing the money in?
If so, we could be seeing flashbacks to 2005, when Congress intervened in the big leagues’ “steroid era” and hauled the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro in front of lawmakers to answer for their sins.
And this time, given the laws at play here, we could be seeing criminal prosecutions as the feds pitch the heat inside and handcuff the league’s heavy hitters.
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