tampabay.com

Lugo linked to phone-card scam

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published December 25, 2005


Salvador Delgado said major-league players from the Dominican Republic are viewed as "heros" by their countrymen. But Delgado said some of those countrymen in the New York area are feeling ripped off, and some of baseball's biggest names, as well as Devil Rays shortstop Julio Lugo, are accused of being involved.

Delgado, an attorney representing convenience store owners who say they unknowingly sold defective phone cards advertised by the players, filed a $35-million civil lawsuit.

Named as defendants, among others, are Lugo, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez and Yankees pitcher Octavio Dotel. Also named are American Worldwide Telecom, STX Communications, TWD Prepaid Cards, STI Mobile and Global Compass Inc.

Delgado said most of the cards known as Grandes Ligas (Major Leagues) were bought by Dominicans who used them to phone home. The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in United States District Court in New York and claims fraud and deceptive advertising, says the cards substantially shortchanged users.

According to the lawsuit, a $2 phone card that was supposed to provide a 70-minute call to the Dominican, provided either nine or 10 minutes.

"These baseball players are basically heros to the Dominican community," Delgado told the Times from his office in Elmhurst, N.Y.

"We find it disturbing they would be involved in a situation where products are defective and are being sold to the community under their image or their names."

Lugo did not respond to several pages. His agent, Jeff Borris said, "I'm in the process of contacting Julio and I'm not prepared to comment at this time."

Ortiz's agent, Diego Bentz, told the Boston Globe his client, Tejada and Martinez were lured into the deal by Dotel.

"They were trying to do a favor and it just snowballed," Bentz said.

But Delgado said, "We think it is unlikely that any of the baseball players entered into the preprinted card business as a favor to a friend."

Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said the team has "no involvement at all in this matter."

Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said the matter is being investigated but stressed the phone cards have no connection to MLB.

"It has nothing to do with us other than it's our players, which is disturbing," he said.

Delgado, 53, said the lawsuit brings him no pleasure. A New York native, he said he is a fan of both the Yankees and Mets.

"And I personally like and admire many of these baseball players who are involved in this situation," he said. "Some members of the community, even before we went to court, were scandalized.

"I want to restore (the players') image before the community."

He also wants the federal government to regulate phone card sales.

"This industry is of enormous importance to the immigrant community all across the United States," Delgado said.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Yankees offered centerfielder Johnny Damon $12-million more than the Red Sox, and Boston, according to numerous reports, never came off its four-year, $40-million stance.

The Yankees also pursued Damon hard with phone calls from Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and manager Joe Torre.

"We know George Steinbrenner's reputation. He always wants to have the best players," Damon said at a news conference. "I think he showed that.

"He and (general manager) Brian Cashman came after me hard, and now I'm part of the Yankees and that great lineup. We're going to be tough to beat."

DAMON ON THE BRAIN: How fun has it been to watch Red Sox Nation have a hissy fit?

The message board on the Boston Globe's Web site ran 258 pages Saturday afternoon. One notable post clobbered Damon.

"Damon is a traitor. Who cares what he has done for us. He's a flat-out liar. He deserves to be booed right along with A-Rod and all those other money-hungry sellouts."

Another one backhanded Boston's co-general managers Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington.

"If there are any towns in Massachusetts who are missing idiots, look in the Sox front office."

"If they're crying, I'm smiling," said John Quirk, manager of the Yankee Tavern.

MONEY BALL: The Yankees have been hit with a $34,053,787 luxury-tax bill by the commissioner's office, the Associated Press reported.

The Red Sox were the only other team taxed and had to pay $4,156,476.

Both teams' 2005 payrolls exceeded the $128-million threshold established in the collective bargaining agreement. The Yankees payroll was $213-million, the Red Sox $142-million.

Because New York has exceeded the threshold three straight seasons, it was taxed at 40 percent. Because Boston had exceeded two consecutive seasons, it was taxed at 30 percent.

Next season's threshold is $136.5-million.