Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Tangled Web

Last Thursday began the way that most days have begun in my house in the past few months, with my now-2-year-old waking up around 6 AM and proceeding to wake up the rest of the house, eventually prodding his parents into beginning their preparations for work and for the day. With the kids fed and bundled, they were taken over to the babysitter’s house so my wife and I could begin our work days, which we concluded in the early afternoon as we had plans to go to Milwaukee for a long weekend with the in-laws. After returning from work, we loaded up the car, picked up the kids and proceeded west on I-80/I-90 with the kids entertained in the back by Cars 2, then The Music Man and with their parents in the front, talking about kindergarten options for the oldest next year while their iTunes account provided the background noise.

Just so you don’t think that I’ve completely lost it, it was during this trip that the whole Carmona/Hernandez Heredia thing broke, so imagine my surprise after driving for 7 hours with 3 kids in a car on a random January night…but I’ll get to this #55 thing if you allow me this early digression.

Anywho, upon arrival to Milwaukee, we enjoyed a weekend with the grandparents in the way that we always do during Wisconsin winter weekends - with trips to libraries and museums, a day of sledding, enjoying meals with extended families, and with the evenings usually ending with a group of us sitting around the fireplace or at the card table with some drinks. Yesterday, we made our way back home in the warm cocoon of the Family Truckster as rain and snow fell in Illinois and Indiana, eventually arriving to our house on the North Coast, attempting to get back into everyday life after some time away as well as sliding back into our professions that allow us to live in the manner that we have become accustomed to, even if we are probably not thankful enough for the life that we have grown into.

This is not meant to bore you with the minutiae of a largely uneventful weekend away for a couple of 30-somethings and their three kids in the Midwest, but rather to serve as a sort of introduction to point out that even about 4 days after this news broke that the Fausto Carmona that we’ve watched for the better part of 6 years is a man not named Fausto Carmona, I have no idea what to think about this false identity story as I simply lack the context (or even the capability to assume context) to understand the decision that was made by a 20-year-old Roberto Hernandez Heredia some eleven years ago in the Dominican Republic.

Fortunate enough to be born where I have been born, when I have been born, with the ability to create the life that I now find myself living, to even attempt to walk a mile in the shoes of that 20-year-old in the Dominican Republic is simply something that I cannot begin to imagine. If these words are meeting your eyes via a PC or a laptop or a Smartphone or a tablet, it’s possible that the decision that was made by a tall, skinny, RH pitcher may not something that you’re able to properly evaluate either as the world that Hernandez Heredia occupied prior to that decision is one that most of us have probably only seen on TV, in pictures, or perhaps during a brief taxi ride from an airport to an all-inclusive resort during a honeymoon. Obviously, the impetus for that decision – to escape his situation in the Dominican Republic through the betterment of his life as the money of MLB could allow – is just the jumping off point for this, but it’s one that I don’t think has received enough attention as the disparities between the lives of most of us and what was staring Hernandez Heredia in the face as a 20-year-old unable to get the attention of MLB scouts is something that cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for anyone else, but to attempt to understand the enormity of this situation is to begin with the idea that eleven years ago, a 20-year-old Dominican named Roberto Hernandez Heredia decided to assume the identity of a man three years his junior named Fausto Carmona, earning the rapt attention of scouts - under the impression that Hernandez Heredia was now 17 years old, not 20 years old, which would have caused scouts to likely ignore him because of that 3-year difference – eventually making his way into the Cleveland Indians’ organization, beginning a meteoric rise through the Minor Leagues, ending up in Cleveland as a fireballing RH pitcher at the tender age of 22...or so we thought.

Did Roberto Hernandez Heredia break the law by assuming the identity of a man named Fausto Carmona?
Absolutely...and there’s no question that there are some prominent ethical issues that fill this story in terms of assuming another man’s identity, paying that man “hush money” to keep quiet about the falsehood, and continuing to live that lie on a stage as big as MLB, signing contracts and seeing jerseys sold with another man’s name and your number in Team Shops across Ohio.

However, what compelled Hernandez Heredia to make those decisions should not and cannot be glossed over in the telling of this story as his “shedding” of three calendar years in one fell swoop certainly put a foot in his MLB door and, while that foot didn’t technically belong to him, he was the one that kicked it down by virtue of his talent as the opportunity has been there for countless young players, with Hernandez Heredia using the opportunity that was presented to him (even if under false pretenses) was used to catapult him into what is now a 6-year MLB career with nearly 935 MLB innings under his belt. Certainly, his “age” afforded his opportunities along the way that they wouldn’t normally have (his rookie season wouldn’t have provided the optimism it did if people knew he was 25 years old and not the 22 that he was reported to be), but ultimately #55 thrived in MLB (albeit intermittently) and whether he was Fausto Carmona or Roberto Hernandez Heredia, he is still the player that finished 4th in the Cy Young voting and authored one of the best games that I’ve ever seen against the Yankees in the ALDS as midges could not affect his gaze that has been so out of focus ever since.

If Roberto Hernandez Heredia had not lied about his age, would the opportunities he “enjoyed” have been put in front of him?
Maybe though probably not, and while some can pontificate from their towers built on 140 characters or less that the Indians should void his contract and cut ties with him based on his duplicity, don’t think that the ability to have those opportunities didn’t play a major role in the decision to assume a new identity AND to pay hush money to keep that information concealed for eleven years now. Ultimately, the person who was pitching all these years for the Indians is the one that earned the salary that has been meted out to him even if the initial opportunity and the idea that he was as old as he said he was played a role in how long his leash has been as well as the long-term contract that he signed.

Certainly it’s unlikely that the Indians would have approached him about that long-term deal that they did when they did if his true age was known, but let’s be real about this as he’s been paid just over $elevenM over the last two years (4.47 ERA, 399 IP) and has cashed paychecks totaling $15,157,000 in his career. That’s certainly not a paltry sum, but let’s remember that Derek Lowe (4.52 ERA, 380 2/3 IP in the last 2 years) will be paid $15,000,000 this year alone by the Indians and the Braves. For a 20-year-old Dominican, the opportunity to earn that generational-altering wealth would be a dream come true…one that Roberto Hernandez Heredia realized, just not without deception and with a whole tangled web of lies that eventually ensnared him.

There are many emotions from a fan’s perspective (as well as that of just a human perspective) in this – sadness, confusion, anger, doubt, and more – but it certainly calls into question how most of us can even relate to the decision that was made by #55 those many years ago. Playing a major role for me in formulating a rational reaction to this has been the fact that for the last couple of years, I’ve made a concerted effort to divorce myself from getting too attached to these players – call it attempting to root for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back – but there are a few players that have tested this effort. Most of those “personal” connections have ended in disappointment in recent years, from watching the bodies of Sizemore and Hafner wilt when prolonged success seemed imminent for both or enduring the sight of Victor weeping at his locker, I’ve rooted for these guys and wanted them to succeed not just because they wore the laundry that I rooted for but because they represented something that I did not grow up with as a child of the mid-to-late-1980’s – legitimately elite MLB talent that figured to be in Cleveland for a while. Similarly to the soft spot that I have in my heart for those players, Fausto always held a special place for me…maybe it was because of that midge game or because he famously pounded on Sheffield’s head, but there was a part of me that hitched my dream wagon to his star and always hoped (probably against logic) that Fausto v.2007 was someday going to magically return after his star began to fade.

Today, that idea that he’ll ever return to a level of effectiveness for the Indians looks even more foolish than it did when he was sent to the deep Minors to be re-built or when he would deconstruct before our very eyes – a combination of prolific amounts of sweat and jangly nerves – every so often in the past few years. For all of those seasons that we would assert that the year would depend on whether “which Fausto” would show up, the idea that a “Good Fausto” and “Bad Fausto” existed and were constantly at war with each other seems almost too prophetic. Here he was, living this lie, trying to keep it all together while attempting to keep the lid down on a Pandora’s Box that must have ready to burst after that 2007 season, after that ALDS game, after his big contract, and (most recently) after the Indians picked up that $7M option for the 2012 season.

For years, we would read about Fausto going to the Dominican Republic in the off-season to “work on his farm” and keep a low-profile, but now we know what #55 was really trying to do – to wake up one more day living in his castle built on sand instead of seeing it crumble around him.

Now, it has collapsed for him and there are very serious questions about what the future holds for Carmona/Hernandez Heredia in terms of securing a visa to even re-gain entry into the US and as the Indians have already moved towards ostensibly replacing him with Kevin Slowey in what is only the most recent move that the Indians have made that was directly affected by the man who was thought to be Fausto. By that I mean, it’s hard not to see how that one decision in the Dominican Republic in 2000 has affected the decisions made by the Indians since Carmona’s breakout 2007 season, from assuming that they could rely on Carmona after that 2007 season (“sure CC, we don’t need you all that much anymore…we have a 23-year-old Fausto to front the rotation”), or the hopes that he could right himself year after year as the Indians didn’t pursue more pitching because of the idea that a 25-year-old or 26-year-old or 27-year-old player could right his ship.

Whether #55 will ever be donned again at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario by Carmona/Hernandez Heredia remains to be seen as the Indians’ acquisition of Slowey (and…um, they can stop the whole “we thought of getting him before this Fausto” notion unless they started talking to the Rockies when they found out about it, which could have been as long as 3 weeks ago, which is when Hernandez Heredia was outed in the DR, with the Indians probably having somebody on the island who would know that) certainly could lead one to the assumption that the Indians aren’t counting on Hernandez Heredia to be toeing the rubber for them this year, as the Tribe would ostensibly attempt to survive with some combination of Slowey, Barnes, Gomez, McAllister, Huff, and others to hold down the #5 spot in the rotation.

Among those names, the newly-acquired Slowey is certainly the most interesting (and the fact that he has an option and could perhaps be under the Tribe’s control for 3 more seasons if he spends about 2 months in the Minors this year) as he’s always been a pitch-to-contact hitter who had fallen out of favor in Minnesota. He’s not going to walk hitters and he’s not going to strike too many hitters out, but he’ll operate in that Josh Tomlin world where we watch a lot of fly balls go into the air with bated breath but will do so efficiently. Giving up a young player like Zach Putnam is difficult to see in terms of the idea that Putnam looked like a player on the precipice of getting a serious shot at contributing to the MLB bullpen for the next couple of years, but if the Indians can squeeze some back-end-of-the-rotation innings out of Slowey, it’s certainly worth a young, unproven reliever for a team that’s teeming with relievers up and down the farm and is short on legitimate MLB starting options to start 2012…thanks in part to this fiasco with #55.

According to the team, the Indians have apparently been interested in Slowey for a while (he has a career ERA+ of 90 in 532 2/3 IP) and it’s possible that Slowey needed a change of pace from the “Minnesota Way” and will take this newfound opportunity and run with it by asserting himself into the back-end-of-the-rotation. It’s not like the other “competitors” for that 5th spot have picked it up and run away with it and some combination of Slowey and a guy like Scott Barnes intrigues me far more at this point than to see another combined 80 IP from Jeanmar and Huff for the 3rd straight season. Of course, it should be mentioned that despite the early season success of Josh Tomlin, there is a very real possibility that Tomlin struggles in 2012 the way that he did down the stretch in 20eleven, meaning that one of Tomlin’s options could be used in the upcoming season, making the addition of Slowey all that more important in terms of throwing another arm on the pile to fill out the rotation. Regardless of how those arms at the back-end-of-the-rotation sort themselves out, the idea that those players (or someone like Slowey) would get extended looks this season has bubbled to the surface as the Indians attempt to pick themselves up off of the floor after this whole Carmona/Hernandez Heredia episode.

Perhaps that’s why analyzing these guys for a rotation spot feels so odd, as (despite the faults of #55…and there have been many) Carmona/Hernandez Heredia has been an assumed starter for this team since he broke out in 2007. Obviously, his opportunity to break out came about because of false pretenses and falsehoods and he now finds himself attempting to put the cork back in the bottle as the ocean of lies that he’s perpetuated over the last eleven years consumes his life.

Despite this, the inescapable feeling that I have in all of this is sadness – sadness at what that 20-year-old must have been feeling those many years ago as he attempted to “bargain” his way out of poverty (and the fact that his new name was “Fausto” is surreal), sadness at watching a man caught up in the success that he earned through duplicitous desperation, and sadness at knowing that a player that we’ve rooted for as he rode the roller coaster of the last few years has possibly reached the end of his MLB ride.

Ultimately, there is an inherent sadness in the reality that the baseball player that we have known as Fausto Carmona is no more and Roberto Hernandez Heredia will never be the man that he once dreamed of becoming as the lies of one man have caught up with him in a swirling mess, thrown him off course in a way that those midges were never able to, and now threatens to engulf him.


Halifax said...

Very well done, Paul, you make me proud. Looking into the personal side of the situation is not something often done in times like these. It's interesting to read of him living in an environment that we cannot really imagine. The payoff is also more than we can fathom as your basic working stiffs. The rags to riches (millions) story is one of extremes that is foreign to us in every way.

CLohse said...

One thing that's interesting is Carmona/HH's relationships and how they'll be effected. I'm talking about the relationships with his teammates, his team's front office, and with his team's fans (yeah, that's us). I can't speak to how professional baseball players will react to the news that they've been training, playing and living alongside an alias for a decade or so for some Indians, but I can imagine those responses will be as varied and nuanced as those of the fans (again, that's us). How the team reacts will most likely be the easiest reaction to predict: follow the money. If he's still worth $7 million under a different name and age, he'll pitch.

As a fan I can only say that Carmona/HH was an enigma even when we didn't know that he was throwing the ball with somebody else's name on his jersey. This situation gives us as fans a chance to either disown him entirely or embrace him more closely. I'm leaning towards the latter based mostly on my interest in the stories of the people in the game, and this is most definitely a story. It's fascinating. I look forward to learning more about Fausto/Roberto in the coming months, not just in stories as they appear on the web or on television in 2 minute segments, but as he appears on the mound, trailing this new narrative like toilet paper stuck to his cleats.

Go Tribe (is that the team's real name?)!

Halifax said...

My guess is that the one segment that would be able to relate the most to Fausto's p[light would be his teammates. They should recognize that he had to keep that part of his life secret, or this would happen. As most strive for big bucks in baseball, they would also understand the desire to succeed.

All said, my guess is outside the name, Fausto was completely himself with teammates and they would welcome and back him up all the way. I wouldn't think they'd react by second guessing everything that comes out of his mouth from here forward.

GMAC said...

He seemed to be a bit fragile mentally even before this. Have to wonder what happens now. CF Perez said on that Pure Rage podcast that "Grande" will be welcomed back so I doubt there are any worries in the clubhouse. I am rooting for him, and lets face it, we need him.

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Coin said...

Thanks Paul. Well said. I share empathy for the 20 year old kid who made his deal with the devil, and got the shot he might otherwise have missed. Sort of like you feel for Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"

I haven't heard any speculation or fact about this anywhere, but this news raised real integrity of the game questions for me.

I cheer the laundry first, and who is to say this did not have an impact on games? And lets face it, one game might just have been the trim tab that turned the Indians ship of state. No question, things would have been radically different had the Indians made the world series in 2007.

Is it not reasonable to think the frailty we've observed is the direct result of FC/RHH staring the wolf in the face?

"Hey Bobby, I've got a little cabbage on the Red Sox tonight. See if you can't groove a few pitches, or Momma Carmona might make a little phone call to ESPN Desportes!"

This news sheds a new light on his failures as a closer at Fenway, and certainly on the dreaded ALCS game, where a single at bat saved Nancy Drew from the well-earned ire of Sox fans for a dreadful 2007 season. That Sox team had a bunch of Dominicans.

Certainly this must have been a bit of an open secret in the Dominican. RHH did not just start playing ball at 20, did he? Either he or the real Fausto had to have played ball with someone who knew someone? He had to have teammates and coaches along the way who knew!

Knowledge is power. Did someone wield it against Hernandez, to the detriment of Indians fans everywhere?

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