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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 12: The feds launch an investigation of international scouting

South Africa v Cuba - World Baseball Classic - Mexico City Day 1

MEXICO CITY - MARCH 08: Hector Olivera #28 of Cuba is congratulated by his teammates after hitting a home run against South Africa during the 2009 World Baseball Classic Pool B match on March 8, 2009 at the Estadio Foro Sol in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Major League Baseball’s practices in Latin America -- and the practices of some Latin American agents and scouts -- have long been shrouded in controversy. It’s not shocking why, really. There is a ton of money being thrown at baseball players, most of whom are underage, most of whom are poor. When it comes to Cuba, players are often at the mercy of those who help them -- with various motives, benevolent or malign -- escape the country and seek asylum in places where their free agent status can be preserved. The opportunities for corruption, exploitation and sharp practices of many kinds are limitless in this environment.

Occasionally major league scouts and executives get into hot water over this stuff. In 2017, for example, Braves general manager John Coppolella was banned for life by Major League Baseball and an assistant was banned for a year for circumventing international signing rules. A decade ago Nationals general manager Jim Bowden resigned after the age and identity of a prominent signee was found to be fraudulent and a number of allegations were hurled at Bowden and others as to how, exactly, that happened. A prominent agent was sentenced to prison for human trafficking. Signing players out of Cuba and in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries that are not subject to the draft or a posting arrangement can be a murky and often dirty business.

Back in September we learned that that murk and dirt is now subject a federal grand jury probe. The probe is looking into Major League Baseball teams’ dealings with international players and has issued subpoenas to club officials. It’s not a minor thing either: FBI agents and DOJ lawyers who deal with Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases were reported to be involved.

The probe is reported to be centering on the signing of former player Hector Olivera who was scouted by the Braves, signed by the Dodgers and was later traded to the Braves before leaving the league in disgrace due to a domestic violence conviction. At least one former Atlanta Braves official -- rumored to be Coppolella, who obviously has nothing to lose -- is cooperating. It could be any number of people, however.

Reports soon emerged that the focus was much broader than just Olivera’s signing. A dossier prepared by someone with knowledge of MLB team’s practices in Latin America was given to the FBI claiming that MLB personnel “are aware of—and brazenly discuss—this unscrupulous culture and the potential for corruption.” The Dodgers are said to be a particular focus. From Sports Illustrated’s blockbuster report on the matter:

One particularly remarkable document shows that Dodgers executives in 2015 went so far as to develop a database that measured the perceived “level of egregious behavior” displayed by 15 of their own employees in Latin America. That is, using a scale of 1 to 5—“innocent bystander” to “criminal”—front-office executives assessed their own staff’s level of corruption. Five employees garnered a “criminal” rating.

We’re not talking about mere financial crimes here either. Multiple alleged victims of smuggling and human trafficking have spoken to law enforcement and the federal grand jury. It’s not hard to imagine this leading to criminal indictments of employees of major league baseball teams. Possibly senior employees whose names you know. This investigation could have profound implications for the league, the union and Latin American players past, current and future. Drugs. Money. All of which surround pitched competition for, quite literally, the talents of children.

As it is, it’s a major story. Once indictments start coming, it could be the biggest story to hit baseball in years.

Follow @craigcalcaterra