February 28, 2002 at 10:51 PM EST - Updated July 26 at 11:00 PM
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - The Cleveland Indians have been fined $50,000 and had their Venezuelan baseball operations shut down for two months by the commissioner's office for signing an underage player in 1998.
"We admit we did something wrong and have complied completely with the commissioner's office," general manager Mark Shapiro said Thursday before the Indians opened their exhibition season against the Minnesota Twins.
The Washington Post first reported the sanctions on Wednesday. Shapiro said commissioner Bud Selig's office contacted him "about six months ago" regarding the matter.
Luis Aponte, the Indians' top scout in Venezuela, signed shortstop Laumin Bessa in 1998. Bessa was 15, but Aponte attempted to shelter him at the team's training facility until he turned 16 and was eligible to sign. He reportedly promised $300,000 but Bessa received $30,000.
When he turned 16, Bessa left the Indians' training facility and signed with Atlanta for $500,000.
"We've dealt with Luis," Shapiro told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. "His authority and power were diminished."
Aponte still works for the Indians but can no longer sign players.
Los Angeles and Atlanta are two clubs that have had their baseball operations in the Dominican Republic suspended for periods of time for signing underage players.
"It is difficult to patrol people across oceans and different countries," Shapiro said. "We already have put into place a system of controls that will prevent it from happening again."
Shapiro said that Rene Gayo, the club's director of international scouting, and John Mirabelli, Indians director of scouting and assistant general manager, must approve the signing of any international players.
The Indians are not allowed to sign or scout Venezuelan players in July and August. It hurts them because teams can sign players for the following season starting July 2. The Indians will be allowed to field a team in the Venezuelan Summer League.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)