For Carmona, a Faustian Bargain

As an Indians fan, few players have been more frustrating to me over the years than Fausto Carmona, the man we now know is actually Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and three years older than he claimed. In a sterling 2007 season — more on that season in a moment — he sparkled with a 3.06 ERA and finished fourth in Cy Young balloting.

Since then, his ERA has been under 5.25 just once, in 2010. He's been wildly inconsistent, but more bad than good. I often wondered if it was worth keeping him around.

So I surprised myself by how upset I was to learn he had been arrested in his native Dominican Republic and revealed to be living a lie.

It's probably more common than we realize. Just last year, "Leo Nunez," the Marlins pitcher, was outed as really being Juan Oviedo and being a year older than he stated. Given that the Marlins just resigned him to a multi-million dollar deal, it looks like they are taking for granted that they will be able to get Nunez back to the U.S., which bodes well for Carmona (and I don't know whether to be surprised or not that millionaire baseball players are granted exceptions when it comes to such slam-dunk deportation issues as bearing a false identity).

But that's not to say I think Carmona should be deported. Or that he shouldn't be. This is one of those issues where it's impossible to know even where to begin. These are some very tough ethical issues to grapple with.

The Dominican Republic is a third-world nation mired in poverty. Baseball players are their most notable and proudest exports. Several MLB teams have an official training presence there. Besides luring quality players, there are several other reasons why establishing a base in the Dominican Republic is an attractive option for major league teams.

One is, foreign players are not subject to the MLB draft, so teams can sign as many players as they like. They can also develop players with a devotion and singular purpose that they can't with American kids who are busy with high school and college.

Most of the kids recruited into the DR development complexes are poor, poor, poor. Third-world poor. Baseball gives them an opportunity to get a way out, and when that opportunity goes wanting, players will do what they can to re-enter the system and try again, replete with a new name and birthday.

This is because the brains of baseball have decided, rightly or wrongly, that a players with skills but also, say, control problems or a lack of plate discipline are worth investing in at 16, but not at 18 or 19. At that young age, so the thinking goes, you know whether you have a real talent on your hands.

So the players who are 18 or older and dumped from a developing program have two options: give up, which would sting the pride of anyone, let alone a teenager, and, worse, go back to poverty with no real avenue to lift yourself out of that poverty.

Not only is baseball a chance to escape the poverty, but it's a chance to elevate your family out of it, as well. This cannot be overstated. We all know what a strong sense of family prevails in the Latin world.

In fact, it's easy to make the argument that lying-and-trying again is the ethical, family-saving choice.

But, obviously and reasonably, MLB teams do not want to be lied to. They don't want to invest in a player that statistically is much less likely to improve and, more to the point, they want to know what they are truthfully getting. Who wouldn't? And it's not MLB's job to eradicate poverty. They are in the Dominican Republic to find baseball players, not be an avatar of righting social inequality, which is a problem MLB did not create.

Towards that end, MLB has reacted to the burgeoning specter of age falsification by conducting DNA tests, bone density tests, and the like to determine as scientifically as they can what a player's real age is — and they test the players' siblings, too. A lot of teams have also responded by moving their focus from the Dominican Republic to Venezuela, where false identity problems are not much of a concern.

So Major League Baseball deserves to know what they are truly getting in a player and sign and cut players accordingly. But it's understandable and even in my view forgivable for players to try to game the system for the reasons I outlined above. That's why it's hard to extract right and wrong from all this, to assign good guys and bad guys, or at the end of the day, know what is the "right" thing to do about Carmona and others like him.

So with my moral compass failing to produce an answer here, I'm forced to default to a far more base instinct, sentimentality.

When Carmona is good, he is very, very good, and has already sewed himself into the fabric of Indians lore. He did so not just by pitching well, but by making himself into an icon of determination in a game that many Indians bloggers and commentariat are calling their favorite Indians memory, and mine as well.

2007 ALDS, Game 2. New York Yankees at Cleveland. You might remember the game, it became kind of famous. In the eighth inning, with New York up 1-0, a swarm of tiny insects called midges descended on Jacobs Field. It was so bad that play had to be stopped for a time. After a few minutes the game resumed, but the bugs were still there. On every pitch, the camera would close in on Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain. Drenched in sweat, Chamberlain swatted and rubbed and fussed against the insects covering his body.

I can still see the closeups of his neck with about a dozen of the small, non-biting insects taking root as he fruitlessly slapped at them, harried and distracted. It reminded me of some sort of fighting video game, where you can see the opponents health meter go down, bit by bit. The bugs, they got to him. Chamberlain threw 2 wild pitches and allowed 2 walks and the Indians tied the game off of him without a hit.

In the top of the ninth, it was Carmona's turn. He was composed. He didn't swat. He didn't call timeout for more bug spray to be sprayed on him. It was like the bugs weren't even there. He retired the first two batters, and after Bobby Abreu singled and stole second, Carmona struck out A-Rod to end the threat. He pumped his fist and yelled. It was his last pitch of the game, and the Indians went on to win in 11 innings and, three nights later, win the series.

A picture of Carmona, leaning in to read the signs of his catcher, his head in a cloud of midges, hangs in the Indians front office and in their spring training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, "an example to all the Minor Leaguers who pass by of the mental toughness it takes to succeed at the game’s highest level." as written by Anthony Castrovince.

That (and a righteous nosebleed delivered to Gary Sheffield) is who we are dealing with. That's Roberto Hernandez Heredia. That's Fausto Carmona. I hope he comes back, and is greeted with cheers and applause when he does.

Comments and Conversation

January 26, 2012


Agreed. And wow if baseball had more scrums like that, I’d watch it more!

Well written and enjoyable to read, as always.

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