Tuesday, April 29, 2008
MLB has investigative unit that explores range of issues
NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball's new investigative unit is at work on several probes that could lead to discipline while also dealing with the burgeoning business of player identity theft.
The department of investigations, established in January at the recommendation of former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, already uncovered evidence that Jordan Schafer, the top prospect in the Atlanta Braves' farm system, used human growth hormone. Schafer was suspended April 8 for 50 games.
"There are several other investigations in the pipeline," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer. "You'll be reading about them."
Dan Mullin, MLB's new vice president of investigations, confirmed there were several ongoing probes but wouldn't go into details.
Among the unit's goals is for DuPuy and commissioner Bud Selig to know about government investigations before they are made public. Mullin and George Hanna, MLB's senior director of investigations, hope to uncover the next Kirk Radomski, the drug distributor whose allegations formed the centerpiece of Mitchell's allegations.
"We want to go outside of baseball and want to find out who's supplying to these kids," Hanna said. "That's what we'll do through a lot of our law-enforcement contacts, just to check who they're looking at that is supplying to professional athletes."
Mullin, 49, and Hanna, 53, had worked in the security department of the commissioner's office for several years before the new department was created one month after the release of the Mitchell report on drugs in baseball. Mullin spent 23 years in the New York City Police Department, retiring as a deputy chief. Hanna supervised investigations in the FBI. Their unit has three investigators, all of whom speak Spanish, and two or three more investigators may be added this year.
Mullin and Hanna said they have repaired MLB's relationships with law enforcement, some of which had been strained before the unit was formed.
Still, they said their unit was spending more time on player protection issues, such as identity theft, than it was on drug probes.
In an interview Monday at MLB's offices, Mullin said there were about 500 instances in 2007 relating to investigations in which players were victims, which included instances ranging from fraud to stalking to phony pages on MySpace and Facebook. There is an ongoing probe of two people falsely claiming to be scouts.
"Some of them were full-blown identity thefts, where people are opening lines of credit in someone's name, and some of them are just impostor cases," Mullin said. "We had a case last year where a guy was posing as a player. He actually was dating a girl. She believed she was dating this major league player, shopping for real estate, shopping for cars."
"The girl wasn't a sports fan, so she was going along with it, right to the point where they were just about to get engaged," Hanna said. "He was using his entree to various real estates and setting up burglaries of these homes that he was going in, looking at."
They declined to identify the player's name that was being used.
Nearly all of baseball's drug-related suspensions in recent years have been as a result of positive drug tests. Mitchell said MLB should have the capability of detecting violations not related to testing, so-called "non-analytical positives."
"I thought the biggest surprise and disappointment to me in the Mitchell report is that players who wanted to cheat moved fairly seamlessly from detectable performance-enhancing substances to those that are not as readily detectable," DuPuy said.
Schafer's case was a prototype for MLB's probes. The investigation did not begin with a tip from a player, they said, although they declined to say whether a non-player had reported Schafer to the sport's new tip hot line, 888-RPT-2MLB.
"Without getting into specifics, we just used traditional investigative methods and gathered evidence," Mullin said. "It's certainly not as easy as having the ability to subpoena records but an investigation is an investigation."
They say hanging outside players' residences was not part of their operations.
"We're monitoring Web sites and blogs and Internet pharmacies. There are a lot of proactive things we're doing but going through garbage is not one of them," Mullin said. "The vast majority of players are clean and honest and decent, and they work hard, and they want a clean game, too."
Hanna, who prefers not to attract attention to himself, said their techniques were fairly standard.
"It's just getting out there and talking to people," he said. "Follow every logical lead."
With more than 25 percent of major leaguers born outside the continental United States, the unit also is examining the conduct of "buscones," the middlemen who often train players in Latin America with the hope of signing the athletes with major league organizations, often for a share of the money.
In some instances, players have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs they obtained in their homeland.
Mullin and Hanna said it would be helpful to baseball if the drug laws in nations such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela matched those in the United States.
DuPuy said MLB had "run into resistance in each place when we have tried to do anything that might appear to be a restriction on employment" but that baseball will continue to press to "make laws more uniform."
As part of their education efforts, Mullin and Hanna spoke with teams during spring training and said they don't want to be viewed as something akin to an internal affairs department among police. They warned the athletes to be careful about choosing their associates.
"It's not just baseball players, but anyone that's famous and wealthy, people want to get close to them and have access to them. We tell the players that you have a lot of good opportunities, a lot of business opportunities that are legitimate, but just be aware, do due diligence and be aware of who you are dealing with," Mullin said.
"Another thing we talked about is all these Web sites out there. There's things like drunkathlete.com that with the advent of the cell-phone camera, seemingly innocent behavior can be pictures put on the Internet the next day."
And they also remind players of what baseball has considered its No. 1 problem for most of the past century.
"The drug stuff is front and center now, but gambling always has been around sports and always will be around sports. That's something we're certainly cognizant of," Mullin said. "The Tim Donaghy case in the NBA brought that to the forefront, so it's something we're always thinking about."