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Yewri Guillén, in an undated family photo
THE BASEBALL MEN started coming around when Yewri Guillén was 15. Like thousands of other boys in the Dominican Republic, he had been waiting for them for years, training on the sparse patch of grass and dirt across the road from the small concrete-and-wood house he shared with his mother, father, and two sisters in La Canela, a hamlet 45 minutes southwest of Santo Domingo. By the time the American scouts took notice, he had grown into a 5-foot-10, 165-pound, switch-hitting shortstop with quick hands and a laser arm. In 2009, at the age of 16, he signed for $30,000 with the Washington Nationals. The first thing he’d do with his bonus, he told his parents, was buy them a car and build them a new house.
But soon after Guillén’s signing, Major League Baseball put his plans on hold. The league, having grown more vigilant about identity fraud, suspended him for a year, alleging that he’d lied about his date of birth on paperwork to boost his potential value to scouts. Guillén’s family got a lawyer to fight the suspension, and in the meantime he lived and trained without pay at the Nationals’ academy in Boca Chica, the epicenter of MLB’s training facilities in the country. There, he was notoriously hard on himself. Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ international scouting director, said Guillén would even take himself out of games after making small mistakes like missing a sign from the third-base coach. “He had no education, none at all,” DiPuglia told me. “I didn’t think he had any teeth because he never smiled. And he always had watery eyes—there was always sadness in his eyes.”
DiPuglia made it his mission to cheer up the teenager, “to open up his heart.” He wouldn’t let Guillén pass without giving him a hug and a smile, and little by little, DiPuglia said, Guillén started to loosen up, becoming a better teammate and a happier kid. Later, when other talent brokers approached Guillén claiming that they could get him a better deal with a different team, Guillén turned them away because he felt that he owed it to the Nationals for sticking with him. After MLB finally authorized his contract at the beginning of 2011, the Nationals told him they’d be sending him to play for their rookie league team in Florida. He was to leave in mid-April.