RAIN FELL AT YANKEE STADIUM, prompting a delay that temporarily interrupted Mike Radcliff’s scouting assignment. With time to kill, he retreated to the back of the press box.
Radcliff’s primary responsibility was to conduct advance research on the New York Yankees in preparation for a 2009 playoff series against the Twins. A different matter weighed heavily on him that night.
Radcliff exchanged a flurry of calls with his bosses — high-ranking Twins executives — and the agent for highly coveted Dominican prospect Miguel Sano throughout the evening.
The team’s 19-month pursuit of Sano had come down to money. Big money. And the moment to make a decision had arrived.
Radcliff talked first to General Manager Bill Smith, who put CEO Jim Pohlad on the phone.
Sano’s signing bonus would cost north of $3 million. The Twins had never invested that kind of outlay on an international prospect. Four other teams, including the Yankees, were believed to be in the final group interested in signing the 16-year-old slugger.
Complicating matters was a protracted Major League Baseball investigation into Sano’s background that included bone scans and DNA testing.
The investigation — standard practice for Latin players — had verified Sano’s identity and determined that he likely was either 16 or 17 years old, but MLB couldn’t say definitively that he wasn’t older. That made teams uneasy.
The Twins were smitten, though. Their top scouts fell in love the first time they laid eyes on this power-hitting shortstop who reminded them of the great Miguel Cabrera.
Smith and Radcliff were unwavering in their sales pitch to Pohlad, who didn’t need much convincing.
“There’s nothing more seductive than hearing about a great prospect,” Pohlad said. “These guys were just totally all in on this one.”
In their phone conversation that September night, Pohlad gave Radcliff the green light to negotiate a $3.15 million signing bonus, a then-record payout to a Latin American position player not from Cuba.
Sano as a teenager. From the movie Pelotero
A few days later, Sano feasted on salmon and broccoli at Neptuno’s restaurant in Boca Chica. Surrounded by his parents, family members and a few reporters, Sano signed his first professional baseball contract.
The Twins’ contingent of scouts at the celebration included Fred Guerrero, the organization’s Latin American supervisor who gained the trust of Sano and his family at a time of vulnerability and uncertainty.
“He was very excited, he was crying,” Guerrero said. “I was probably happier than him.”
The organization’s diligence and financial commitment have paid dividends.
Sano injected power into the Twins lineup last season, hitting 18 home runs with 52 RBI in 80 games. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting primarily as a designated hitter. He is transitioning to right field this season and will bat in the middle of the lineup.
Sano’s signing in 2009 ended a long recruitment marked by wild rumors and mistrust of a Latin baseball system that breeds corruption and lies. The Twins patiently waded through the morass, not knowing if they could compete with other suitors financially, yet determined not to lose out on one of the best Dominican prospects in years.
Twins officials believe their victory in the Sano sweepstakes brought a seismic shift in the perception of their organization inside the Dominican’s fertile land of baseball talent.
“A new player is in town that’s willing to spend on the best guys,” Radcliff said.
AN AREA SCOUT IN SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS phoned Fred Guerrero in early February 2008. The man told Guerrero that he needed to make an hour drive to see a 6-2, 185-pound phenom named Miguel Angel Sano. The kid was a few months shy of his 15th birthday.
Guerrero was 29 at the time, still fairly young in the scouting world. Baseball scouting was a family business, five sons following in the footsteps of their father, Epy Guerrero, a legendary Dominican scout who is credited with helping open the pipeline of talent to MLB that includes the likes of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Robinson Cano.
Fred Guerrero learned the trade from his dad, including how to identify young talent. Sano was an easy case. The young scout marveled at Sano’s raw power and maturity at the plate the first time he watched him take batting practice.
“That’s when I basically first fall in love with him,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero called his boss, Radcliff, who sent special assistant to the GM Joe McIlvaine to evaluate Sano at the Twins academy in the Dominican.
At Fort Myers in 2010. Elizabeth Flores photo
McIlvaine had scouted Miguel Cabrera in Venezuela years earlier. He had flashbacks the first time he watched Sano swing a bat.
McIlvaine asked Guerrero to find his best pitchers in camp to face Sano in a scrimmage. The first pitcher hit 94 miles per hour on the gun. Sano pulled those fastballs foul.
“I’m looking at this and scratching my head,” McIlvaine said. “I said to Fred, ‘You’re sure this kid is 15? Fifteen-year-olds usually can’t even touch a 94-mile-per-hour fastball. And this kid is pulling them foul. It seemed surreal.”
One thought lingered with McIlvaine.
“Wonder what this kid is going to cost?” he said.
Those two unknowns — Sano’s age and his potential price tag — created a saga that would endure for months.
BASEBALL TALENT HAS BECOME A LUCRATIVE EXPORT of the Dominican Republic. According to MLB, 10.2 percent of Opening Day rosters were made up of Dominican-born players.
The allure of baseball riches fosters an insidious culture of deception and corruption in a country of high poverty rates. Prospects are known to lie about their age or fake their identities to pose as 16-year-olds, the age requirement to sign with major league teams.
“International and Latin American in particular is still the Wild, Wild West of scouting,” Radcliff said. “There are rules, but they’re not followed all that well.”
Young Dominican prospects are discovered and trained by street agents known as buscones. The buscones promote their talent to major league scouts in return for a cut of signing bonuses.
Teams nurture relationships with buscones in order to find top players every year in advance of the July 2 signing day.
MLB scouts scour the island for prospects, which meant the Twins weren’t the only team salivating over Sano.
“That kind of talent is never a secret,” Guerrero said.
To make his presence even more pronounced, a camera crew shadowed Sano for a documentary titled “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which shed an unflattering light on his recruitment.
Rumors circulated that Sano’s price tag could reach $5 million, possibly $6 million. Sticker shock scared off some teams.
At Class A Beloit. Jim Franz photo.
Twins scouts were anxious because they desperately wanted a chance to sign Sano, but they had a sinking feeling that one of baseball’s big spenders ultimately would write a larger check.
“You just want to kidnap the kid, put him in your academy, hide him out and sign him,” McIlvaine said.
The Twins had been down this road before with Miguel Cabrera. They scouted the future Hall of Famer as a 16-year-old in Venezuela and fell hard for him.
The team even arranged for Twins legend Tony Oliva to meet with Cabrera in their recruitment.
On July 1, 1999, a Twins contingent checked into a Venezuelan hotel filled with front-office personnel from other teams. The Twins made their final pitch to Cabrera, though the team never submitted a formal offer. The Marlins won the Cabrera sweepstakes with a $1.8 million contract.
Twins officials were devastated. Radcliff described general manager Terry Ryan as “mad that day as ever.” Radcliff joked that he’s saving the whole story for “my book.”
“I’m not going to throw any particular person under the bus,” he said. “But we weren’t set up to commit the necessary financial resources to get it done.”
They were determined to avoid that same fate with Sano a decade later.
MONEY WASN'T THE ONLY FACTOR hovering over the situation. Sano’s age became a hang-up in the process.
Age and identity deception have long been tricks of the trade in Dominican baseball. MLB rules allow teams to sign 16-year-olds, a golden age for international prospects.
MLB has enacted stricter policies in recent years to combat corruption, but the system remains a minefield for scouts. Older prospects have been known to alter — or even buy — identification paperwork to create a different profile. The penalty for players caught lying about their age is a one-year suspension.
“You get to be 18 in the Dominican or Venezuela, you might as well be 60,” Radcliff said.
Scouts recount tales of being duped by prospects. As a young scout in a different organization, McIlvaine signed a Latin player who he thought was 19. McIlvaine later learned the player was 29.
“When they tell you one thing, you’re a doubting Thomas because you got burned,” McIlvaine said. “I felt that way about Sano.”
Radcliff scouted Sano seven times in person and remembers looking closely at Sano’s physique — even studying the size of his hands — in the dugout and lunch room, hoping to get clues about his age.
“He never wavered [that he was 16],” Radcliff said.
Mike Radcliff. Carlos Gonzalez photo
Radcliff admits he was conflicted on the issue. If Sano were a college player in the United States, his age wouldn’t be an issue. And did it really matter if Sano was 17, 18 or even 19, considering his enormous talent?
“That was an ongoing discussion,” Radcliff said. “But if you can’t verify his age or his name or who he is, he’s not going to be able to get a visa.”
Sano’s then-agent, Rob Plummer, was adamant that his client was telling the truth. Plummer has created a niche market in the Dominican, a trailblazer in attracting lucrative signing bonuses for 16-year-old prospects.
Plummer has traveled to the Dominican more than 110 times since 1996. He said he’s caught two clients lying about their age.
“It’s pretty hard to fool me,” he said.
Guerrero, the Twins’ point person in the Dominican, also believed Sano and his family. He never made a big deal of Sano’s age.
“I focus on his talent,” Guerrero said. “At first, I said, ‘I don’t care if this guy is 18.’ I thought he was special.”
SANO REMAINED UNSIGNED as the July 2 signing day passed. A typical investigation takes a few weeks, maybe a month, but MLB’s investigation into Sano stretched much longer, forcing teams and Sano to sit idle.
Plummer questioned whether the prolonged timetable was a calculated effort by teams to drive down Sano’s bargaining power.
“They kept dragging their feet,” he said. “I must have made 20, 30 calls to Major League Baseball to see what was going on in terms of trying to get this resolved.”
“Pelotero” highlights the frustration of Sano’s family and the steps it took to find a resolution. It tracked down birth and school records and agreed to medical tests.
Sano underwent a DNA test that proved that his mother indeed had given birth to him. He also had bone scans that narrowed his age between 16 and 17.
In one scene in the documentary, Sano’s family secretly videotapes a Pittsburgh Pirates scout named Rene Gayo at their home. The movie paints Gayo as a conspirator with MLB in the dispute over Sano’s age, insinuating that Gayo fueled rumors to scare off competitors and undermine Sano’s leverage in negotiations.
Turning 16. Photo provided by his family
Major League Baseball strongly condemned that depiction after the movie’s release. Plummer declined to discuss his interactions with other teams.
Whatever the truth is, Twins officials believe the work that Guerrero and Radcliff did in establishing relationships struck a chord with Sano’s camp.
“In the end, we think that they trusted our organization,” said Smith, the team’s general manager at the time.
Plummer asked teams not to submit offers until after the investigation was complete. The Twins complied but they maintained constant contact with Sano’s camp.
Radcliff spoke regularly with Plummer, while Guerrero visited with Sano and his family every other week for more than a year.
“Miguel went through a lot because his family is so poor,” Guerrero said. “I would sometimes feel sorry for the kid. I knew he was going to have a bright future, but I could only imagine what he’s gone through.”
Six years later, Sano and Guerrero remain close, still talking by phone several times a week.
“When I was being investigated,” Sano said, “Fred called me all the time saying, ‘You’re all right. I know your age.’ ”
THE TWINS EARNED SANO'S TRUST, but money often trumps everything in negotiations. The potential cost was unknown throughout the investigation, though Radcliff said rumors “were way out there.”
“So any [dollar figure] in the past is not good enough,” Radcliff said. “It’s going to be higher than that. Everybody knew that.”
The Twins had already committed considerable money to sign international players Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco that July, so scouts were uncertain how much was left in the budget.
Smith never sensed any hesitation from Radcliff or Guerrero on Sano’s potential, which gave him the assurance in his pitch to Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter.
“Somebody’s got to stick your neck out and say, ‘Yes, we should do this,’ ” Smith said. “We have two guys that we trust [do that].”
Smith declined to say how high the Twins were willing to go if a bidding war ensued, but he described their offer as “groundbreaking.”
“That was a major moment,” Radcliff said. “In the player acquisition business, we are now a major player.”
Pohlad downplayed the suggestion that the moment signified a fundamental shift in organizational philosophy, one that showed the Twins were committed to building a championship roster.
“I hope that’s always been the case,” Pohlad said. “Internally, that’s what we believe and we’ll keep doing that.”
At TwinsFest in 2013. David Joles photo
The Twins have beefed up their operation in the Dominican in recent years by building a new academy and adding more scouts. Guerrero lives in the country and supervises a team of six full-time scouts — three in Venezuela and three in the Dominican.
On July 2 of last year, the Twins signed 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Wander Javier to a $4 million contract.
Sano still ranks as a professional highlight for Twins officials. Radcliff lists Sano among the best young prospects that he’s scouted in his long career, a group that also includes Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Yu Darvish and Cabrera.
Sano has heard Cabrera comparisons a lot. He finds those comments flattering but said he strives “to be like Miguel Sano.” He wants to create his own identity and legacy in Minnesota.
“I feel good here,” he said. “I will be here a long time, the team that gave me an opportunity.”