Those Miraculously Aging Dominicans

added 9/11/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Progeria is the term used to describe the unfortunate souls who suffer from a rapid aging disorder that causes its victims to appear as small, frail old people even as they are still children. Sadly, most will die before they reach the age of 20.

Dominican players seem to have their own sense of rapid aging, brought on by trying to fool baseball scouts into believing they are younger than they actually are.

The Astros have had two recent apparitions of this. Last year, Miguel Tejada was ambushed by ESPN into revealing that he was actually two years older than what he claimed when he signed a contract as a 19-year-old instead of the 17-year-old he alleged to be. This week, reliever Jose Valverde was listed as a year to 16 months older than previously reported by the Astros. This makes Valverde 32 years old instead of 30 when he takes the field next spring.

(In Valverde's case, the Astros claim there was a mix-up on their end. He had been listed with a birthdate of July 24, 1979 instead of March 24, 1978 yet a number of internet sources had different numbers and even the Houston media guide had conflicting birth dates.)

Some probably wonder why accurate birth records are so difficult to find in the Dominican Republic but the answer is more economic than anything else.

Many of these young players live in squalor before they come to America. The poor in our country would probably be considered "middle class" on the island. While our poor might bemoan the lack of a tv set, their poor have no electricity. While America's poor might live without hot water, their poor live without plumbing.

For teenage boys, baseball offers one of the few avenues out of such poverty. The ones who make it to the majors return to the island as heroes - rich heroes with wealth their countrymen can't fathom.

American scouts comb the island for players in a certain age range because most will need years of development before they are ready to be big leaguers. By age 18 or 19, you're considered "old" and many scouts will pass you by if you don't show them something special before that time.

Occasionally, it works the other way around and an outstanding prospect claims he is older than the truth. There are laws about how old a player must be before he can be signed but it your scout thinks he has found the next Albert Pujols, he might be tempted to look the other way rather than wait another year when the prospect might be lured to sign with another organization. The Braves and Dodgers have been punished for such practices.

Given that context, it's understandable why teenaged boys are coached to lie about their age or told by an agent who bird dogs for the scouts to not mention that the birth certificate has been altered to show a more acceptable age.

Once in the States, the players dare not admit the fraud for fear they might be sent home if the truth were known too soon. It shouldn't surprise anyone that several players haven't confessed until outed about their actual age.

I really don't blame Tejada or any other Domincan player for misrepresenting their age. Spend 30 minutes in their homes growing up and tell me you wouldn't do the same for a chance to be rich beyond your wildest dreams.

In my mind, neither Tejada or Valverde have defrauded their employers. They haven't performed at a lesser level because of shaving a few years off their birth certificates. Tejada is still among the club's leading hitters and Valverde led the National League in saves just a year ago. He can still pop the mitt in the high 90s.

I suppose the only real danger is that the players may sign long-term deals when they might actually hit that wall Father Time keeps that tells players they're done sooner than their employer was expecting.

Age obviously doesn't hit all players at the same time of life. If it did, Jamie Moyer would have had to hang them up a decade ago. But perhaps there needs to be some better system for verifying a player's age short of cutting them in half and counting the rings. At least when they get to the U.S., some better system needs to be developed so players and teams don't have egg on their faces years later when they hit their thirties.

Now, if somebody could please verify Lance Berkman's birth certificate for us. He's been the one who is suddenly hitting like he's really five years older than listed.