(Not) Being Fausto

For a dozen years, Fausto Carmona lived an outrageous and totally reasonable lie.
TAGS: Baseball
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"Carmona" still gets praise for his Redman imitation.

Image courtesy of apackaday.

The story of Fausto Carmona, nee Roberto Heredia, ended last week at the imaginary age of 28. Heredia, it happens, is 31, and he wore Carmona’s identity as a mask for more than ten seasons in the Cleveland Indians system. This story is a tragedy.

It is not, however, a terribly unique one. In the baseball marketplace, pitchers are volatile commodities. Mechanical flaws gnaw delicate ligaments, recoveries are long and often incomplete. Velocity and break are maddeningly temperamental, here one year (or start, or moment) and gone the next. Recall the rude intrusions into, impingements upon and ruptures of our erstwhile Dontrellian and Lirianian reveries—every arm is vulnerable. And yet, even before his very literal identity crisis came to the fore, few pitchers’ career narratives have knuckled like that of Fausto Carmona.

The skinny Dominican seemed destined for Cleveland's desperate young rotation around 2004. (Even Chad Durbin, who finished with an appropriately ominous 6.66 ERA, was permitted to start eight games that year). Carmona had just received the team’s Minor League Player of the Year award and cracked the top 100 on Baseball America’s annual prospects list. He earned a starting slot out of spring training in 2006, and in his first appearance gave up one earned run in six efficient innings for the win. It would be his last victory of the season, a devastating campaign in which he finished 1-10 with an atrocious 83 ERA+ that he earned/absorbed in stints as both starter and reliever, including a memorable stretch in late August when he recorded a blown save plus a loss in three consecutive games.

And then, the very next year, Carmona defied all reasonable projections by becoming a serious Cy Young contender, and was denied the actual honor perhaps only because his achievements were so improbable. He went 19-8 with a glittering ERA+ of 148, second in the AL only to John Lackey. All season he missed bats with a morning-to-midnight sinker that popped in the low 90s, complemented by perplexing motion on his fastball and a solid changeup. Oftentimes he looked better than his teammate C.C. Sabathia, to whose acedom he was suddenly, strangely, and finally the heir apparent. As inspiring as Carmona’s 2007 turnaround was, the way his season ended sunk the 2006 knife back into our hearts—in a potential clincher in Game Six of the ALCS against the Red Sox, he lost his command, surrendering four walks and seven hits in two innings, including a tragicomic first-inning grand slam to J.D. Drew. The Indians lost in a rout, 12-2, and lost the series the next night.

Because history needs narratives, that game was glossed as the one that broke Carmona’s back. The spiral that followed was among the principal reasons that the Indians, who quite reasonably expected to compete in 2008, bowed to reality and fast-tracked their rebuilding mode. For Carmona, 2008 was bad, and 2009 was worse. The putative groundball specialist began handing out home runs, and walked five batters every nine innings. By June he was so profoundly ineffective, with no apparent injury at fault, that the team optioned him to the Arizona Rookie League to rehab his spirit by working with someone called a “mental skills coach.” Perhaps at this point in the story it will be unsurprising to learn that Carmona resurrected his career in 2010, even making the All-Star roster. Nor that in 2011, he resumed being terrible, surrendering the most home runs of his career and going 7-15 on a .500 club.

There is the standard pitcher-related inconsistency, and there was Fausto. Even before the question got truly, poignantly complicated, it was impossible to avoid the question: just who the hell was the real Fausto Carmona?

***

Baseball, more than any other sport in the U.S., is beset by purity scandals, most of which track closely to Americans’ collective geopolitical psyche. The game was born under a dust cloud of impurity sometime in the 19th century, with since-debunked fables about the ingenuity of a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday deflecting the likelihood that baseball was actually a variant of a foreign invention—cricket.

And then, for a century, the disillusion kept coming. The Black Sox scandal brought crashing down (for the third or thirtieth time in the game’s history) the myth that players couldn’t be bought, and various other myths followed it into the grave. If the brutal competition, dope, and hayseed carnality endemic to baseball ever came as a surprise to America, they are now as utterly banal as the revelation that politicians cheat on their spouses, at campaign finance laws, and ethically in general. As iniquity was illuminated in public life, so it was, again and again and somehow each time in new ways, in our national pastime.

And now? In 2012, economic facts be damned, the mood of global capital is expansionist, blusteringly robust. In this world, control turns inward, to our bodies and our identities. What threatens the system is no longer ideological contagion but opacity, privacy. This relates to baseball because Sabermetric quantification has made the management side of the sport so actuarial; teams are built on the expected depreciation of individual capacities, and charting such decline depends on forthright bodily forensics. Both steroids and age-trickery are thoroughly modern impurities because they short-circuit quant-y analysis at its roots. Truth in baseball today appears in drug tests and birth records. That both can and will be conned is—like the unfathomable and unavoidable non-surprises that Mickey Mantle was a lush and a lecher, or Joe DiMaggio kind of an asshole—somehow only now dawning on us.

***

The Cleveland Indians run a leading Latin American recruiting operation, and opened a state-of-the-art facility in 2011 for their summer academy in the Dominican Republic. Major League teams have, in recent decades, staked a formal presence in countries like the D.R. in order to cultivate and sign young prospects, of which the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona was just one. For the fortunate or crafty ones, like Fausto, the son of a farmer, long-term contracts—even at pennies-on-the-dollar rates relative to domestic prospects—offer unimaginable benefits in wealth and status.

But baseball’s globalization, like all of capital's third world sorties, is two-edged on a good day. Everyone involved is aware that baseball’s recruiting is a form of resource-extraction, and that there are perverse incentives for players to game the system that’s gaming them, not so much through performance enhancement as by withholding the profitable secrets that the sport demands to know. Carmona signed with the Indians in 2000, when he was biologically just 20 and claiming to be 17. His false identity was likely assumed at the behest of a savvy coach or buscon—the word translates roughly to "pimp," but in Dominican baseball scans more like "agent"—who understood the value accorded to age by Major League teams when assessing players, and who no doubt hoped to capitalize on his own stake in Carmona’s success. The man born Roberto Heredia thus furtively adopted the identity of a person named Fausto Carmona, promising him a share of future earnings in exchange for the loan.

For 12 years or longer, Heredia interacted with teammates, fans, and media under the sobriquet “Fausto,” which must have pounded like a telltale heart in his brain, especially as reliever Leo Nunez—born Juan Carlos Oviedo, a year before the actual Leo Nunez, Oviedo's childhood friend—and others were exposed under similar circumstances. Whether because of his heavy secret or for some simpler reason, Fausto has never quite convinced as a passionate athlete. Fingers to chest, he praises God and dutifully, superstitiously skips over the foul line. In interviews he is self-effacing and temperate; his English isn’t all that good. He looks most comfortable with his head tilted back and his eyes cast down. The suspicion that he does not love, or perhaps even like, his work is hard to escape.

The coming weeks will determine the future of Heredia’s contract with Cleveland, and perhaps about the history of his arrangement with the real Fausto Carmona. We can’t know, because he’ll likely never tell us, the extent to which Heredia’s decade under false pretenses amplified the paranoia of a man already prone to fantastic crises of confidence, or had something to do with his wild, cruel swings of professional fortune. If Heredia is to be blamed for swindling his employers, he is also to be pitied for enduring a working life that long ago left his hand and took on a consuming path of its own. We are flawed; baseball is flawed; Fausto Carmona is not Fausto Carmona. This part of the story is a comedy.


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Here's the irony:

Fans: Entertained.
MLB: Profited handsomely.
Sports Media: Ditto MLB, and now mocking him.
Roberto's Agents and Handlers: Ditto MLB.
Guy fighting his way out of poverty: Out on bail.

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Fausto Carmona is such an amazing name, regardless of all the rest.

Fausto. Carmona.

Yes. The story was even more incredible when it seemed like he chose that name.