Commentary

Blame the game for Leo Nunez's name

MLB and the Marlins share some responsibility for the closer's successful deception

Originally Published: September 27, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

This isn't a case of mistaken identity, but rather a matter of willfully choosing to conceal an identity.

For 10 years, Major League Baseball knew him as Leo Nunez. His Florida Marlins teammates even nicknamed him "Nuny."

Now, they'll have to think of something else to call him ... if he's able to rejoin them and play baseball again anytime soon. The relief pitcher admitted to authorities earlier this month that his real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo. And that he wasn't born in 1983, as it says in his team bio, but in 1982.

[+] EnlargeLeo Nunez
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJuan Carlos Oviedo, also known as Leo Nunez, would've made nearly $6 million next season. Would you fake your name and age for that kind of money?

The story is just as unbelievable as it sounds, but not nearly as clearcut as it seems. Some people believe Oviedo, who returned to his native Dominican Republic last week and is currently on Major League Baseball's restricted list, deserves to be deported and face jail time. Others think Oviedo is entitled to some sympathy.

Me, I blame Major League Baseball and the Florida Marlins.

I'm not absolving Oviedo. He definitely bears the bulk of the responsibility for the deception. But if he's able to resolve his legal issues in the Dominican Republic, I'm not convinced he should face a harsh punishment from MLB.

Look at things from his perspective. If someone told you that changing your name and lying about your age could possibly lead to millions of dollars, would you do it? Wouldn't you at least think about it?

Oviedo, understandably, saw baseball as a huge opportunity, as scores of Latin prospects do and have done for years. Dominican consul Manuel Felipe Almanzar told the Miami Herald that a coach instructed a young Oviedo some 11 or 12 years ago to alter his identity and age because he'd have a better chance of receiving a bigger contract from an American team that way. And in fact, Oviedo/Nunez got a contract from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000.

This isn't exactly a new problem for baseball, which makes it all the more perplexing that Oviedo was able to dupe MLB for a decade. In the wake of 9/11, you would think that baseball and even individual teams would be far more diligent in examining paperwork from players not born in this country; and MLB did at least make an effort along those lines. According to the Herald, baseball began scrutinizing the documents of foreign-born players immediately following the terrorist attacks of 10 years ago, and a sweep yielded more than 500 players using fake names and ages.

[+] EnlargeNunez
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesHe signed with the Pirates in 2000 and made it to the majors with the Royals in 2005. This is a spring training portrait from that year.

In 2008, the league offered amnesty to foreign-born players who admitted falsifying documents, an offer Oviedo didn't take.

Now, his case makes it clear that the scope of the problem demands that a more reliable system be in place.

Whatever the safeguards baseball has tried to institute, the Marlins didn't appear eager to heed them. It's unclear how long the team knew about Oviedo, but the club reportedly had been aware that he was living under a false identity for some time before he admitted it to authorities on Sept. 7. Nunez -- or, Oviedo -- was still pitching for Florida as recently as last Wednesday.

If Oviedo hadn't come forward with his admission, would the Marlins just have remained silent?

It's no secret that MLB has a heavy presence in the Dominican Republic and other Latin countries. It also isn't a secret that teams covet young, promising Latin prospects who might be willing to sign on the cheap.

The younger the players are, the more desirable they are. Marlins reliever Edward Mujica, a close friend of Oviedo's, told the Herald that, "At 17 years old, you maybe lose $100,000 or $150,000 when you sign [compared to a 16-year-old with the same skills]. And if you're like 18, you might sign for $5,000 and maybe they give you an opportunity."

According to baseball's numbers, the Dominican Republic is the largest source of major leaguers outside of the United States. How much is it in the teams' interests, then, to be diligent about documents from foreign-born players? Who's going to pass on the next Dominican star just because all the i's aren't dotted on his paperwork?

[+] EnlargeLeo Nunez
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesThe Marlins apparently knew about the deception but continued to let him pitch through mid-September.

When Gary Sheffield suggested in a GQ interview in 2007 that teams use money and opportunity to control Latin players, he was characterized as insensitive and an outright racist. Sheffield certainly could have chosen his words more carefully in describing how he felt African-American baseball players weren't being targeted by MLB franchises because Latinos were considered to be less problematic options, but his larger point was that the promise of riches makes Latin players susceptible to being influenced.

It isn't a condition unique to Latin players, but the promise of a better life apparently was enough to compel Oviedo to lie, as it has others. Falsifying his age to sell himself as a younger phenom eventually caught up with current major leaguer Miguel Tejada, among others, including even former Little League sensation Danny Almonte, who was born in the D.R.

Having broken the rules, Oviedo not only jeopardized the $5.8 million he is scheduled to make next season, but his freedom as well. According to reports, the Dominican government was considering filing criminal charges, pending his cooperation in the investigation; and his MLB future is in serious doubt. Foreign-born minor leaguers are subject to a year's suspension for lying about their identities; those in the majors are subject to discipline at the commissioner's discretion.

But by failing to address the situation sooner, the Marlins -- and MLB -- turned this into a case of willful ineffectiveness.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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