SAN FRANCISCO - After playing for highly successful college coach Augie Garrido at Cal State Fullerton during the Titans' ascent to national prominence in the early 1980s and spending five formative years in the Atlanta organization during the Braves' climb to dominance in the early 1990s, David Wilder appeared destined for a prominent executive role in Major League Baseball.
But his career path has been sidetracked dramatically. The White Sox fired Wilder on Friday, a move likely to have repercussions in an organization that takes great pride in loyalty and commitment to its front-office staff members and scouts.
That Wilder and two scouts were terminated amid an ongoing federal investigation of scouting and signing procedures in Latin America speaks loudly about the severity of the findings that revealed "violations of club policy and standards," according to the White Sox statement on the matter.
"Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying," general manager Ken Williams said Friday night, pausing frequently and choosing his words carefully in discussing the dismissal of one of his closest friends and most trusted talent evaluators.
Williams and other Sox staffers would not elaborate on details of the investigation because it is ongoing. Williams wouldn't say if financial improprieties were involved, but a source with knowledge of the probe said there were questions regarding the manner in which signing bonuses were distributed to Latin American prospects. Investigators were seeking to determine if Wilder and dismissed scouts Victor Mateo and Domingo Toribio were skimming from those bonus payments.
An MLB investigator confirmed to the Tribune on Saturday that the probe involved skimming and that it currently is limited to the White Sox.
"There are probably others who have done it and there may be others who do it, but we don't view it as widespread or organized in any way," he said.
Wilder shifted to the talent-evaluation side of baseball after hitting .267 in six minor-league seasons. As a player, his claim to fame was being part of the five-player trade between Oakland and the Cubs that sent Dennis Eckersley to the Athletics and launched his Hall of Fame career as a relief pitcher.
Wilder never played in the major leagues, but he earned a bachelor's degree in management from St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., and embarked on a career in player development that saw him land front-office jobs with five teams, including the Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers and most recently the White Sox.
He held the title of senior director of player personnel with the White Sox and was believed to be on track to become a general manager. He interviewed with the Boston Red Sox in 2005, in the wake of Theo Epstein's brief resignation less than a month after the White Sox won the World Series, and made an impression.
"There are a lot of people in the game who have great respect not only for what he has done but the kind of person he is," Boston adviser Jeremy Kapstein told reporters after Wilder's interview. "Kenny Williams and Dave Wilder are the two leaders of the franchise in terms of putting that club together. And we all saw what that club did."
Wilder also interviewed for GM positions with Seattle, Baltimore and Arizona as his influence with the White Sox continued to expand in the areas of scouting and player development. Although he had been with the organization only since 2003, he had more say in talent evaluation than colleagues with 15 or more years of service.
In fact, Williams put Wilder in charge of overseeing an overhaul of the Sox's Latin American operations, which included building a new facility in the Dominican Republic and a greater emphasis on scouting and instructing in a talent-rich area where the team's efforts had lagged.
It was Wilder who scouted Cuban prospect Alexei Ramirez after the speedy infielder/outfielder left Cuba and recommended his signing to Williams after a tryout in the Dominican Republic. The Sox also signed 16-year-old shortstop prospect Juan Silverio last summer.
Wilder has been keeping a low profile since rumors of a probe of the Sox's Latin American operations first surfaced. In the statement announcing his dismissal, the Sox said they conducted their own probe before asking Major League Baseball's Department of Investigations to get involved.
The findings, the statement said, have been turned over to federal authorities to see if any federal laws were violated.
Williams said the White Sox will move forward with stepped-up Latin American operations even if the results of the investigation are embarrassing to the organization.
"If there's a silver lining, we've identified long ago where we needed to be headed and we're on our way," Williams said.