One week before pro baseball's regular season ended, Florida Marlins pitcher Leo Nunez made a stunning admission: For the past 10 years, he lied about both his age and his name. As the subterfuge finally came apart, Nunez left for his native Dominican Republic. Details about why he assumed someone else's identity are only now coming out.
"His real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo," Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles tells NPR's Lynn Neary. "And when he was 17, he assumed a friend's identity, who was 16 — because the teams pay so much more money for 16-year-olds."
Robles visited Oviedo's Dominican hometown of Bonao, where she talked to a coach who runs a "baseball school" that nurtures young players, many of them both talented and desperate to help their families. There, Oviedo was reportedly known almost exclusively by his nickname, "C.D."
That nickname seems to have made it particularly easy for Oviedo to take the name of a younger friend named Leo Nunez. In 2000, he signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who believed he was 16.
"They don't pay big bucks for 17; they pay big bucks for 16," Robles says. "The difference can be hundreds of thousands of dollars."
As for the real Leo Nunez, Robles reports that he still lives in Bonao, where he works in a duty-free zone. But he would not speak with Robles for her article.
Instead, he spoke with local journalist Fabian. Robles writes:
"That business that's going around that the real Leo got money isn't true," Fabián said. "He never got any money, nothing, never. In this country, people would just do that for a friend."
In a country where most people are poor and baseball is among the few paths to riches, he said, everyone wanted Oviedo to succeed.
Robles says that Oviedo himself brought down the ruse, by contacting the Dominican consulate in Florida and telling them his real name, saying that he wanted to "straighten out my paperwork." He then signed a statement acknowledging that he had falsified his identity.
As for why Oviedo decided to come clean, Robles says there are two competing stories out there. One version supposes that he's trying to fulfill a final request from his father, who died last spring. In a similar scenario, this one popular in his hometown, he revealed his real identity so that he could become a naturalized U.S. citizen and bring his family to America.
Pitching as Leo Nunez for the Marlins in 2011, Oviedo, whose actual age is 29, recorded 36 saves and compiled a 4.06 ERA, appearing in 68 games.
For now, Oviedo remains in the Dominican Republic; the Marlins have placed him on the "restricted list," used to denote players who are obligated to a team but unavailable to play. That status means that he cannot play for any team but the Marlins — and it can be revised if he resolves his legal issues, allowing him to return to active duty with the team.
Robles says Oviedo would likely have to serve at least a one-year suspension, and forfeit the $6 million salary that would come with it, under his current contract.
In reporting her story for the Herald, Robles was unable to speak with Oviedo. But she spoke with his mother-in-law, Miguelina, who told her, "He'll play baseball again: it's not like he killed anybody... He seems very calm to me. He does not seem worried at all."
As Robles tells Lynn on Morning Edition, the problem of assumed identities doesn't end with Oviedo, noting that 319 players from the Dominican Republic signed new contracts in 2011 — for a combined total of $42 million in signing bonuses.
"As long as there's that many players with that much money, this fraud is going to continue," she says.
Robles says that after U.S. officials tightened identity checks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 540 baseball players, many of them Dominican, "had fudged either their date of birth, or their name and their date of birth."
And even now, she says, Major League Baseball has found that "a full third of the prospects who are coming in are found to be with fraudulent documents."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
It was the lure of money in Major League Baseball that landed a Florida Marlins pitcher in hot water. As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, Leo Nunez lied about his age to get a Major League contract. He's come clean now after playing under an assumed name for a decade.
Frances Robles has been covering the story for the Miami Herald. She joins me now.
Good morning, Frances.
FRANCES ROBLES: Good morning, Lynn.
NEARY: So who is the player formerly known as Leo Nunez?
ROBLES: His real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo. And when he was 17, he assumed a friend's identity who was 16 because the teams pay so much more money for 16-year-olds, that people are just going nuts, assuming names and faking their dates of birth.
NEARY: Wait. He was 17, and he wanted to be 16? I mean, 17 is pretty young for a baseball player, still. I don't understand that.
ROBLES: They don't pay big bucks for 17. They pay big bucks for 16. The difference can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. So when you have these kids who are dirt poor, who's, you know, family income is probably, you know, a couple of grand, 100 or 200 or $300,000 difference to fudge a year off your date of birth, hmm, you know, that's pretty tempting.
NEARY: So you're saying that this kind of a lie is fairly widespread in the Dominican Republic, for young baseball players trying to make it into the big leagues?
ROBLES: Absolutely. The issue really exploded after the September 11th attacks, when the United States Embassies started cracking down on visas and just taking a closer look at who all these players were that were coming into the Minor Leagues. And at that time, they found 540 Dominican players who had - well, most of them were Dominican, I should say - who had fudged either their dates of birth or their name and their date of birth.
And what Major League ball is seeing now is that even now, when supposedly the problem has been resolved, a full third of the prospects who are coming in are found to be with fraudulent documents.
NEARY: Well, Oviedo himself came clean on this. I mean, he made this public. Why?
ROBLES: That's the big question. What I do know is that he did call the Dominican Consulate here in Miami and made a shocking revelation. He said, hi. You know, this is Leo Nunez, the Marlins' pitcher. My real name is Juan Carlos Oviedo, and I need to come in to straighten out my paperwork. And when he came in, he was met with the prosecutor's office in the Dominican Republic. And the player gave a sworn statement about how this fraud took place.
NEARY: And didn't his father who died recently also have something to do with his decision?
ROBLES: There's two different prevailing theories as to why he came forward. What he has told some of his teammates is that his father, who died in the spring, that this was the father's dying wish. Now, in Bonao, the town where he's from, what everyone has been saying is that he wanted to get U.S. citizenship. And he wanted U.S. citizenship so that he could bring his family over to the United States.
Presumably, you know, his mother's now a widow. So, presumably, he would want his mother to join him. But that's going to be up to the U.S. government.
NEARY: Yeah. So what is next for Mr. Oviedo now?
ROBLES: That's the big question. The prosecutor's office in the Dominican Republic has said that they're investigating and that they may bring charges. And in all likelihood, he's going to have to sit out a suspension of at least a year. And he was set to make $6 million last year. So I think for a lot of people, that's a really big punishment.
And the other thing that people keep saying, 319 Dominican players signed in 2011 of a total bonus of $42 million. So, Lynn, as long as there's that many players with that much money, this fraud is going to continue.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us.
ROBLES: Thank you.
NEARY: Frances Robles is a reporter for the Miami Herald.
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NEARY: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.