Wagner Mateo is a 16-year-old from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. His mother cleans an office and his father works as a handyman. He was planning on pulling his family into wealth with his prodigious baseball talent, rewarded in July with a $3.1 million signing bonus from the St. Louis Cardinals.
During the physical examination standard for a player signing such a huge contract, doctors informed the Cardinals of a possible issue with the vision in Mateo's right eye. The team sent him to specialists, but definitive answers were elusive. With the 90-day window to void the contract approaching, the Cardinals acted swiftly Tuesday night.
They swooped in and took money from a blind kid.
Of course it's not that simple, little in the Latin American baseball business being so. As signing bonuses have risen dramatically among teenagers primarily in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, so has scrutiny. Top prospects now undergo DNA testing to verify their age and steroid testing to ensure their coaches aren't doping them. Almost a dozen scouts and executives have been fired in a bonus-skimming scandal that drew FBI interest.
And now comes the case of Wagner Mateo's right eye and whether it's a "physical defect," as the Cardinals termed it in their statement announcing the voiding of his contract, or "the same as it was when the Cardinals worked him out," according to Mateo's representative.
Edgar Mercedes, owner of Born to Play academy, the preeminent talent factory in the Dominican Republic, said Mateo sees 20/30 out of his right eye – and has since March, long before the Cardinals flew him to Jupiter, Fla., for a private workout before signing him July 2. Mercedes declined comment on the specifics of the eye problem, saying that agent Adam Katz is considering filing a grievance on Mateo's behalf against the Cardinals for terminating the contract.
Katz confirmed he was looking into Mateo's case but declined to go into specifics. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said via text message, "I stand by our release."
The two-paragraph statement was terse and non-specific, and it left Mercedes curious how a team so eager to establish a presence in Latin America could bungle the highest-profile signing of the year. The $3.1 million represented the second-highest bonus ever given to a Latin American teenager, trailing only the $4.25 million Oakland awarded to 6-foot-7 right-hander Michael Ynoa in 2008. Mateo is a power-hitting, left-handed center fielder with a strong arm and the sort of highlight tape that made him a must-see among international scouts.
"I wish we had more money," one National League Latin American scouting director said before Mateo signed. "Everyone wanted him."
Now, they have another chance – and, in all likelihood, at a discount. Not only did Mateo never see a penny of the Cardinals' bonus money, the stigma of the vision problem is like a leech. Whether Mateo has a degenerative issue or the concern is overblown, teams attending the Oct. 17 workout Mercedes plans to hold in Santo Domingo will do so with their own visual transformation: skeptical eyes instead of longing ones.
"He's looking forward to having tryouts and showing people that there's nothing wrong with him," Mercedes said. "He's taking it pretty much in stride. He's a very confident kid.
"Maybe he's too young to realize what happened. Maybe he's never thought about what $3 million looks like or what it buys. Maybe he's taking it personally and just wants to show everybody what he can do. Go ahead and find a guy with 20/20 vision. He's not going to hit better than him."
The Cardinals believed otherwise and mitigated their risk. If Mateo's eye is fine, they could long regret giving Moises Rodriguez, their director of international operations, the go-ahead to call Mercedes and inform him of the voiding. And if the condition is as real as the team believes, that's $3.1 million and a massive embarrassment saved. The money can go toward signing Matt Holliday(notes) or Mark DeRosa(notes) or maybe the next big thing in Latin America in 2010.
The previous big things are hit and miss. Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Felix Hernandez(notes), two sure-thing bonus babies, are franchise players. Ynoa, on the other hand, was shut down this summer with elbow discomfort and is just beginning a throwing program in the fall instructional league. Angel Villalona, signed by San Francisco for $2.1 million in 2006, today sits in a Dominican jail, charged with the murder of a man in a bar last Saturday night.
Mateo, in the meantime, continues to train. Mercedes wants him to forget about the Cardinals. It is not that easy. He is 16. His family remains impoverished. St. Louis provided him the gateway out.
"I am proud to sign with the Cardinals, a team with so much history," Mateo said on July 2, the day he believed his life changed. The Cardinals sent scouting director Jeff Luhnow to Santo Domingo for a news conference. Mateo wore a Cardinals jersey and cap and a big smile.
Everything he saw that day was clear and perfect.
"Now it's going to be tough," Mercedes said. "It's brutal. Now they're going to say he's hindered. No. He's not. He can play."
And he will. Wagner Mateo will swing a bat and catch balls and hope that his eye gets better. And he'll never, ever forget the day the St. Louis Cardinals called him defective and kept the millions. Because who could?