BY DAVE SOUTHORN
© 2013 Idaho Statesman
Before he could be himself again, Orbandy Rodriguez had to be Manuel Gil.
Rodriguez, a 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher, is the oldest player on a Boise Hawks club that makes its home debut against Salem-Keizer on Monday night.
Rodriguez was born Sept. 29, 1988 - but that wasn't always his birthday.
Coming out of the baseball-mad Dominican Republic, Rodriguez signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008 under the name Manuel Gil, who was "born" on March 17, 1991.
After playing in 15 games over two seasons with Arizona on its Dominican Summer League team in 2009, Rodriguez fractured the elbow on his pitching arm. Still recovering from the injury, his true identity was found out, and he was released the following year.
"It was hard to go through, because I had just wanted to develop, be a pro baseball player, and I didn't know if I would be able to again,'' Rodriguez said through pitching coach David Rosario, who translated. "I'm glad it's behind me, that I have a new start, and I really want to make the most of my second chance."
When Dominican players reach age 16, they can sign with major-league teams - in most cases, the younger the player, the bigger bonus.
According to Baseball America, 12 of the top 13 bonuses ever paid to international amateurs (Cuban defectors excluded) were given to 16-year-olds.
In a country with approximately 35 percent of the population below the poverty line, that gave rise to a rash of doctored documents.
There were cautionary examples like the $1.4 million the Washington Nationals gave to a 17-year-old prospect in 2006 only to find out he was 21 and had a different name. Marlins closer Leo Nunez was found out to actually be Juan Carlos Oviedo (and a year older) in 2011. Six-time All-Star Miguel Tejada said in 2008 he was two years older than had been reported his first decade in the majors.
"There are agent-type guys who get a part of that bonus, and normally they're the ones that take advantage of these young kids, most are uneducated and they're told it's OK, that it will help their families, that they can get money to play baseball," Rosario said. "Most of them, like (Rodriguez) weren't trying to trick anyone."
The deception, once rampant, has been greatly reduced in recent years, but the damage was done for Rodriguez. Once healthy, he resumed pitching in amateur baseball games in the Dominican Republic, even frequently moonlighting as a slowpitch softball pitcher.
Last November, after a Chicago Cubs scout was told of a big, strong pitcher throwing some heat in amateur contests, a workout was held, and Rodriguez got that second chance.
"He's older, and it'll be interesting to see how he handles this, but I think he'll be fine," manager Gary Van Tol said. "You can tell he's been waiting a long time for this opportunity."
With a towering presence, but a soft-spoken demeanor, Rodriguez is aware his clock is ticking, playing in a league with few players born in the same decade as him, but a four-year wait has him ready to prove himself quickly in Boise.
"A year ago, I didn't think this would be a possibility," Rodriguez said. "It's amazing being here in a uniform, being able to pitch in front of a crowd in the U.S. I hope I can perform to where everyone likes it."
HAWKS WIN, IMPROVE TO 2-1
Right fielder Yasiel Balaguert went 2-for-4 with four RBIs Sunday to help the Hawks top the Emeralds 8-2 and win their season-opening series in Eugene.
Balaguert broke the game open in the ninth with a three-run triple off the left- field wall.
Center fielder Kevin Encarnacion went 2-for-3 for the Hawks, with catcher Lance Rymel adding a pair of RBIs.
The Hawks return home Monday night to open a three-game series with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
Duane Underwood gets the start for Boise, opposite left-hander Joe Kurrasch.