Why Some International Players Can Sign, But Have Trouble Entering the U.S.

Today marks the start of the international signing period, which is a big day for teams as they get their first chance to sign players who recently turned 16. To be eligible to sign, those players have to pass a background test with Major League Baseball, showing that they are who they say they are, and that their age is correct. Sometimes the latter part can’t be determined, due to poor record keeping in Latin American countries. In those cases, MLB will try other means to determine the identity of a player, while giving an “Age Undetermined” disclaimer, which allows a player to sign.

Once a player is cleared by Major League Baseball, he can sign with any team. But in some rare cases, it can be difficult for that player to make the jump to the United States, even after MLB and the team have cleared him. The player has to go through another background check to enter the U.S., and that can be a little more difficult than the MLB identification process.

Rudy Guzman is a guy who has learned this the hard way.

Guzman is an outfielder, playing with the DSL Pirates. He’s currently 23 years old, turning 24 at the end of this month. That’s old for a prospect out of the DSL, but Guzman is athletic and showed a lot of promise, which is why the Pirates tried to bring him up to the U.S. during instructs in 2013, following his first season in the DSL at the age of 22. Unfortunately, they were denied, and any attempts since that point have also been denied.

The reason Guzman can’t enter the U.S. is because his identity can’t be cleared by the United States Embassy in the Dominican Republic. The embassy looks at various records to determine the identity of the player, including school records, birth certificates, baptism records, family photos, and so on. Guzman claims that his records were lost after a hurricane, which puts him in a situation where he has nothing to prove his identity prior to the age of 15.

So if the Pirates and MLB can verify Guzman to play (he played 29 games in the DSL in 2013), then why can’t the U.S. Embassy clear him to enter the United States?

Players go to the embassy to receive a work visa to play in the United States. The concern from the U.S. is over the possibility of illegal immigrants. Specifically, a player could use a false identity to get a visa into the United States, and then someone with the real identity could use that access to enter the country. The false identity would allow two people to enter the country, with only one being tracked and given the right to work in the U.S. by their team.

In Guzman’s case, none of the parties involved — the Pirates, MLB, or the U.S. — can individually verify his identity before the age of 15, since those records are missing. However, the Pirates have taken an indirect way to verify that he is who he says he is. Guzman has two brothers, and both have full records. The Pirates are able to use those records to determine the identity of those two individuals. They are also able to use DNA testing to show that Rudy is actually the third brother in the family. The Pirates can’t verify Guzman individually, but they can determine the identity of his brothers, determine that he is related to them, and by the process of elimination, determine that he is who he says he is, rather than trying to share the identity of one of his siblings.

However, the U.S. will not take this approach, saying that they aren’t investigating the two brothers, but are only investigating Guzman. So despite the fact that the Pirates believe they have verified his identity, and despite the fact that he has been cleared to play by MLB (he just started back up this season on June 24th), he can’t enter the U.S. to be moved up to the GCL or higher.

That’s unfortunate, since Guzman was highly regarded as one of the best players on the 2013 team, which was a team that included Michael De La Cruz, Pablo Reyes, Tito Polo, and others who have made the jump to the GCL or higher. Granted, Guzman was older than everyone else, which puts a big disclaimer on his skills and production. But the Pirates obviously saw something in him, which is why they’ve been trying to bring him up. Rather than getting a shot in the GCL or higher, Guzman has had the last two years wasted, and still can’t enter the country — although the Pirates will continue trying to get him a work visa.

As I mentioned above, this is a rare circumstance, but it does happen. A similar situation happened a few years ago with Yunior Montero. He originally signed in 2009, but the contract was voided. He signed again in 2010 for more money, and then made a start in the DSL in 2011. However, he couldn’t move up to the GCL until 2014, at the age of 21, after being announced as a signing again in 2013. Montero is a hard throwing reliever in the GCL, and in a small sample this year he has a 9:1 K/BB ratio in 5.2 innings. That’s an improvement over his 18:12 K/BB ratio in 25 innings last year. Ultimately, he’s a non-prospect right now, and just an interesting arm, but you have to wonder what might have been if he was able to make the jump to the U.S. in 2012, at the age of 19. That would have given him two years in pro ball at a younger age, rather than two years off before making that key jump.

The problem here lies almost solely with the record keeping in the Dominican Republic, and not necessarily with the verification process at the U.S. embassy in the Dominican Republic. In some cases, it’s preferable to send players to the Dominican to get a work visa for the U.S. That recently happened with catcher Paul Brands, who the Pirates signed out of The Netherlands. Brands was able to go to the United States to work out the deal, and spent some time in Bradenton during instructs. However, he had to switch from a tourist visa to a work visa in order to remain in the country and play in the GCL.

The Pirates could have sent Brands back to his home country to get this information, but the downside is that he wouldn’t be playing baseball during this time. So they sent him to the Dominican Republic, where he doesn’t need a visa to enter the country, and can play with the DSL team while having “tourist” status. During his time with the team, Brands was able to play, while waiting for his records to arrive from Holland. These records included his school records, birth certificate, and family photos — the same information needed for Guzman. Once the documents arrived, the Pirates and Brands went to the U.S. embassy in the Dominican, applied for a work visa, and the next day he was moved up to the GCL.

Brands was able to enter the country because he had his full records, and could easily verify his identity. That’s not the case with some players out of the Dominican, like Guzman. Their identities can be verified, but in a more roundabout way that still leaves some uncertainty for the U.S. embassy. This allows them to play in the DSL, but either delays their move to the United States, or denies it completely, with both scenarios essentially removing any chance they have of ever advancing their careers.

  • I’m not sure if any of you guys have read the Million Dollar Arm book, but there was a kid in India that was never able to get out of the country due to record keeping problems. This article reminded me of that. I think in the kid’s case there was no record of him existing.

  • MLB ha started carbon dating these players. They core sample their arm or leg they do analyis to determine if it is within 5-10 years accuracy. This is called the TABATA TEST.

    • John Dreker
      July 2, 2015 1:59 pm

      They actually do bone density tests, which is what happened with Miguel Sano when he signed and they said he had the bone density of an 18 year old, so the accuracy is pretty good. It may be even more accurate now because that was six years ago

      • I was going to mention that very thing from your….I don’t think it was in an article. It was from the comments from a Heredia article. Since Sano just got called up today to DH. Social media wasn’t quite as big then so I wasn’t aware of everything that went on. I thought Minnesota just outbid the Bucs and that was that. Guess not.

    • I’ve heard a rumor that Tabata is actually old man winter- can this be verified?