By Tom Farrey
In the Dominican Republic, Junior Noboa is, as he says, a man with a name. As the official sports advisor to Dominican president Hipolito Mejia, he serves as a liaison to Major League Baseball. On a public-service spot created by the commissionerís office, he encourages prospects not to lie about their age and identity when signing with major-league teams. He supports a crackdown on fees charged by the so-called buscones who prepare teenage players for professional tryouts.
"Junior Noboa is looked upon as an idol," said Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, a non-profit group in New York that has taken up the cause of Dominican baseball players. "Heís one of the few baseball people in that country who really cares about kids."
But even Noboa has traipsed through the ethical muck that surrounds the acquisition of Dominican prospects. Noboa, who also serves as the Arizona Diamondbacksí top scout in Latin America, is linked to a deal that enriched his family and may have broken MLB rules -- at the expense of a 17-year-old player who never heard that he could have received much more from another team.
The questionable deal serves as a reminder that, for all the hand-ringing about the need to regulate the buscones, teams themselves are sometimes part of the problem that baseball officials and the Dominican government are now starting to address.
"Itís the wild, wild Dominican," said Scott Boras, among baseball's most high-profile agents who has represented several players from the Caribbean nation. "It is just an environment where the rules of the game are -- there are no rules."
The player involved in this case is Adriano Rosario, now 18 and pitching for the Diamondbacksí Class AA affiliate in El Paso, Texas. A right-hander with a 99-mph fastball, Adriano Rosario has potential that is, as D-Backs general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. says, "as great as that of anyone in our organization." On the open market, he would surely command millions of dollars, Boras insists.
But Rosario has never really known the open market. After working out for Noboa at the Diamondbacksí Dominican academy in the summer of 2002, Arizona made an offer that his agent couldnít refuse: A $400,000 signing bonus for Rosario, plus a $100,000 side payment to the agent, according to Garagiola and others familiar with the deal.
That agent? Ivan Noboa, Juniorís younger brother.
A fitness guru by training who followed his well-connected sibling into the Dominican baseball business, Ivan Noboa had trained Rosario as his buscone. He claims he had informed Rosario of the additional $100,000 payment when he advised the pitcher to take the Diamondbacks' offer. "Of course," Ivan said. "All these negotiations take place with knowledge of that."
But Rosario said the side payment to Ivan was kept secret from him. "I didnít know the Diamondbacks paid him to take me to them," he said in an interview in March at Arizonaís spring training facility.
Rafael Perez, manager of MLBís Latin American office since it opened in Santo Domingo three years ago, said the $100,000 payment was easily the largest ever provided by a team to a buscone as incentive to seal a deal. "Iíve heard of 30, 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars," he said. "Sixty thousand dollars was the highest." He said the Rosario situation served as a catalyst for Major League Baseball to add a rule that went into effect last June that bans "finderís fees" to buscones, who for years have received small sums, usually a few thousand dollars or so, when their prospects sign professional contracts.
But the Rosario deal may have violated MLB rules that were already on the books. Major League Rule 3-J-4 forbids teams from making payments to anyone negotiating a contract for a player. Rule 3-J-1 bans payments to family members of scouts or other club employees for the acquisition of players; such payments are, according to the language of the rule, considered a "gift to employee for securing employment."
Pressed on whether the Diamondbacks violated the family-member rule, Garagiola said, "Well, I think thatís, I suppose, an interpretation of it." But he contends the club did not break any existing rules, arguing that Ivan was more buscone than anything else. "They didnít apply in this case because of the industry practice, if you will, of payments of commissions to buscones," he said.
Perez agrees with Garagiola. His office has taken no action against the Diamondbacks.
"The true interpretation of the rule lies with the Major League Baseball office," Perez said of the rule that addresses payments to those negotiating contracts for players. "Due to the situation in Latin America in terms of how players get to major-league clubs, we felt it didnít apply."
But Boras, who now represents Rosario, said he is considering administrative and legal options that could void Rosarioís contract with the Diamondbacks.
"Ivan Noboa signed a contract [with Rosario] in which he represented in that contract that he was negotiating contracts on behalf of Adriano," he said. "To suggest he is no agent is absurd."
Regarding the prohibition of payments to family members of scouts, Perez said he did not "focus on that rule" and deferred further comment to Lou Melendez, MLBís vice president of international baseball operations.
Melendez, who is based out of New York, said he was unaware that Ivan Noboa negotiated the contract on behalf of Rosario. Generally, he said, buscones can be treated as agents under MLB rules if they handle contract discussions, even if they are not certified by the Major League Baseball Players Association. The union requires certification of agents who represent players on the 40-man rosters of major-league teams; Ivan has no major league players and is not certified. But Melendez added that he cannot make a determination about possible rules violations unless a formal complaint is filed. "We would have to conduct an investigation," he said.
Junior Noboa said he has acted appropriately and insists his role in the transaction was largely limited to recommending Rosario as a player. Once it became clear both sides were serious about negotiating an offer, Junior summoned Diamondbacks international scouting director Mike Rizzo, who flew in from Seattle to finalize the deal.
"I called the front office and said, ĎThis is the situation right here. I donít want to be part of this [negotiation] so whatever you guys want to do, you do, because I want to be out of this,í " Junior said. Asked if Rosario was treated fairly in the deal, Junior said, "I donít feel comfortable with it but that was the only way we were going to sign the player. If we didnít [make the side payment to Ivan], someone else was going to do it."
Garagiola said the Diamondbacks were led to believe that the Los Angeles Dodgers -- one of the few teams that saw the converted shortstop as a pitcher -- were willing to offer a similar, six-figure payment to Ivan. But Jeff Schugel, then the Dodgers' special assistant for international scouting and the point person charged with negotiating a deal with Rosario, denies that any such offer was made to Ivan. He said Ivan asked for side payments but that the club preferred to include the extra money in Rosarioís signing bonus and let the player and his agent work it out.
The Dodgers were committed to signing Rosario, Schugel said. Of the signing bonus that Los Angeles was offering, he said, "I donít remember if it was for $500,000 or $750,000 but the bottom line was we were not done negotiating," Schugel said. Instead, on the morning Ivan was supposed to show up with Rosario to work out the final details of the contract, the Dodgers received a call from Ivan saying that the pitcher was going with Arizona and that no counter-offers would be considered.
The about-face angered Dodgers officials, who banned Ivan from the team's Dominican academy in Las Palmas, Schugel said.
Ivan Noboa did not return phone calls by ESPN.com seeking comment about his negotiations with the Dodgers.
Garagiola said the Diamondbacks are comfortable with Junior Noboaís role in the transaction. In retrospect, he said, the club should have informed Rosario of the side payment instead of assuming Ivan Noboa had done so.
"If you want a villain, itís Ivan," Garagiola said.
Ivan made out well in the deal. Beyond the side payment from the Diamondbacks, as Rosario's buscone he received a 25 percent cut of the pitcher's $400,000 signing bonus, bringing his total take to $200,000, slightly more than he would have made from Rosario in any deal with the Dodgers. In all, Ivan ended up with 40 percent of the money the D-Backs paid out to sign Rosario. Certified agents typically get no more than 5 percent of a player's deal.
As for Rosario, he was left with just $180,000 after paying Ivan and setting aside U.S. income taxes. Raised poor in an agricultural region of the Dominican, he bought his mother a new home and himself a new sport utility vehicle. But whatís left hardly offers the security that a deal with the Dodgers might have provided.
Rosario blames Ivan, not Junior, for his dubious deal. But he said he also has learned a tough lesson about whom young Dominican prospects can trust when negotiating with teams for that life-changing contract.
"Right now, we must trust only ourselves," he said.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Click here for a Spanish version of this story which appears on ESPNDeportes.com.