Seattle Mariners

Mariners’ former Dominican trainers allege racial discrimination against club

It’s unlikely even the most dedicated Seattle Mariners fans have heard of Leonardo Santiago or Jose Valdez.

They were two of the Mariners’ three trainers at their complex in Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic. Santiago had been with the club for 10 years and Valdez since April working with minor leaguers. They are no longer employed by the team after the Mariners declined to renew their contracts last month.

Santiago and Valdez spoke to The News Tribune last weekend about what they view as racial discrimination by the Mariners, specifically by director of player development Andy McKay. They said McKay treated them differently than he did Americans.

They also speculated they were let go because of their connection with the Mariners’ former director of high performance, Lorena Martin, who has publicly alleged racism and gender discrimination since her firing on Oct. 10.

Martin said she felt compelled to make her allegations public last week because she learned of Santiago’s and Valdez’s termination. Neither of them could speak to the validity of Martin’s specific allegations, but they said they felt their experiences with Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and McKay might relate with hers.

“It seemed like Dipoto and McKay would talk to just about everyone who was of American descent and talk to them more personally and try to be involved with them,” Santiago said through an interpreter over the phone. “But never with me.”

He was asked if he believed that was because he is Latino.

“Under God and before you and in my mind and in my heart — yes,” Santiago said. “Because I am a Latino of color.

“I felt like, ‘Wow.’ They have relationships with all the Americans. They would talk with all of them, but they never came near me. Andy McKay never stopped by, even though he would stop by every other area.”

A Mariners spokesman denied the accusations.

“As we have said previously, Andy and Jerry both treated everyone they came into contact with the same,” said Tim Hevly, the Mariners’ vice president of communications. “There was certainly no difference in how they would treat a trainer if they were Dominican, Puerto Rican or anything else compared to how they would treat a trainer who wasn’t. We reject that out of hand.”

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Martin promoted Santiago to Latin American coordinator in April to oversee the team’s trainers in the Dominican Republic and be in communication with coordinators in the U.S. Santiago then recommended Martin that they hire Valdez.

Santiago said his experiences in his previous years in the organization were different than after Dipoto took over following the 2015 season.

“Before Dipoto and McKay came everything was in order,” Santiago said. “I didn’t feel discriminated against. Everybody respected everybody from different areas. But when they came, everything changed.

“In the past, the previous regimes, the general manager would come and talk with us. They would visit more often, specifically the farm director. Andy McKay never came by my office. He never said anything to me. He never looked for a way to see how I worked, to see if I was good or bad at what I did. He never found a way to talk to me, but he would talk with everybody that was American.”

Both trainers said they were never given a reason why they weren’t brought back, and Santiago said he was notified a day before his contract was set to expire that the Mariners weren’t renewing it.

The Mariners say that wasn’t the case.

“They were told explicitly why we were making the change and they were told that in both English and with a translator so there was total understanding,” Hevly said.

The Mariners would not comment on why they were let go, citing privacy in regards to personnel decisions. Hevly did say their trainers at every level of the organization are hired on year-to-year contracts, and that the Mariners sent a representative to their Dominican Republic complex midseason for an evaluation.

Hevly said assistant GM Jeff Kingston was in charge of those contract decisions and he acted based on recommendations.

MLB.com reported that a source indicated Santiago and Valdez were not retained because neither trainer was certified.

The Mariners already hired a trainer to fill one of the vacancies, Hevly said, and that he is from Puerto Rico and is certified in athletic training. In comparison, Santiago was promoted by Martin to supervise athletic trainers even though he is not certified.

When that was brought up to Santiago, he questioned why his certification was never an issue the previous 10 years he worked for the Mariners, nor the previous 15 years he’s worked in baseball. He said the Mariners, for the past four years, were paying for his training to receive a physical therapy degree and to earn certification. He said he has a year remaining before he obtains it.

Valdez said the club was paying for him to work on his certification as well.

“I always felt that I was doing my job, like being up at 4 in the morning to get things ready and prepared to go,” Valdez said. “So when they let me go, I just didn’t know why. I was told, ‘We are not renewing your contract and you will no longer be a Mariner’ and that I needed to leave the premises immediately. Andy called me and he placed Jeff Kingston on the phone and without reason he let me go.”

Valdez then interrupted the interpreter to speak on his own in English.

“I just wanted to know why,” Valdez said. “I was just doing my job — and well.”

And Santiago said they weren’t the only trainers in the Dominican who weren’t yet certified, even though plenty others still have their jobs. Bladimir Friars is the Mariners’ other athletic trainer in the DR and a source said he is also not certified, yet is still with the club.

“There are organizations that have trainers that are working to get certified and they did not get let go,” Santiago said. “Many were studying with me.

“I am very grateful to the Mariners for the opportunity they gave me. They were part of my development. But I want to (say) that Jerry Dipoto and Andy McKay were unethical and very unprofessional. It doesn’t take anything to let your staff know with time and not wait until the last minute to let you go and not give you any explanation or reason why.

“I felt it was a premeditated, malicious act. I never did anything to Jerry or Andy for them to do this to me.”

Valdez said he was shocked to hear Martin was let go last month. He and Santiago said they had a good working relationship with her, that she constantly made herself available when needed and pushed them to continually improve their work.

That was opposite of what they perceived of McKay’s or Dipoto’s presence.

“It felt like the relations between the American employees and Latino employees within the club, it felt like they were different,” Valdez said through the interpreter. “Almost like one was superior to the other.”

Although, he had no specific examples when asked.

“It was just (Andy McKay’s) demeanor,” Valdez said. “He would arrive, see us and not acknowledge us. He wouldn’t want to talk or be with us. He would arrive to the staff meeting and that was it. I never exchanged words with either (McKay or Dipoto).”

Hevly said it’s unlikely Dipoto would have ever have much of a need to communicate directly with the Mariners’ trainers in the DR, and that the same would apply to trainers at Single-A Clinton in Iowa or anywhere else. He also said McKay, who was hired from the Rockies after the 2015 season, has not been involved in high performance for the Mariners since about February, which was not long after Martin was hired and right about when the Mariners began spring training.

Santiago said he never voiced his concerns to McKay or Dipoto, saying he figured he just needed to keep his head down and keep working.

But Martin said she had several “informal” meetings with the Mariners’ human resources, including one over cheesecake during spring training in Peoria, Arizona. She said she also spoke to multiple other staff members who would speak on her behalf and has emails proving the Mariners’ breached her contract. She had not yet made those available.

The Mariners in their internal email about their investigation said Martin never filed a complaint with human resources.

Martin was hired on Nov. 1, 2017, after Dipoto said the club spent a year creating their new high performance position and just as long trying to find the right person, only for her to be dismissed less than a year into her three-year contract. She was the only woman leading a department in the Mariners’ baseball operations, and Dipoto had raved about her and her resume, which includes three post-doctorates in GIS spatial analysis, biostatistics and epidemiology and a Ph.D in exercise science.

She was to be responsible for all aspects of the Mariners’ physical and mental training approach to players and staff, including their minor league affiliates. She was given oversight over the club’s medical, strength and conditioning, nutrition and mental skills departments.

“She checks off every box we were going to hit,” Dipoto said when she was hired. “It is very rare to hire one person with so many levels of expertise.”

Martin, however, was fired less than a year into her three-year contract. She posted on her social media last week that she witnessed Dipoto, McKay and manager Scott Servais calling Latino players “LAZY, DUMB and STUPID, especially the DOMINICANS.”

Martin later told The News Tribune that Dipoto, in a January meeting, called Martin a “cocky Latina,” that McKay in the same meeting said Dominican players are “just plain stupid” and said the same of her. In a separate instance Servais told her that you don’t see Latino catchers or managers because “they aren’t bright enough” and told her she wasn’t allowed in some meetings with players because she is a woman.

Major League Baseball announced Tuesday that it is investigating.

Dipoto addressed the allegations for the first time, publicly, during an interview on 710-ESPN on Monday.

“There is an ongoing MLB investigation, so there is a limit to what I can comment, but I will say the accusations are unfounded. Simply not true,” Dipoto said. “I feel terrible, personally, and I feel terrible for the Mariners’ organization and Scott and Andy that we’ve been dragged into what is really an ugly mess. My hope is that 30 years in the game for myself, 31 for Scott another 15 or so for Andy that that counts for something. We’ve carried ourselves in a professional way, treating people the right way each step and I hope that is read loud and clear here.

“Unfortunately, I cannot control the behaviors of others, but I can say that this is simply untrue. “

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TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.
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