When the Miami Marlins sent Marcell Ozuna to the minors on July 5, there was more in play than just giving the slumping third-year outfielder a chance “to get his rhythm back,” as Ozuna’s agent Scott Boras said he was told. Whether Ozuna becomes eligible for arbitration after this season or next depends on how much MLB service time he’s accrued. A minor-league stint of any longer than about five weeks would have saved the Marlins money—and cost Ozuna and Boras. Ozuna stayed down for six weeks.

About halfway through Ozuna’s stint in minor-league “jail,” rumors began circulating that there was a recording of some sort involving Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and team president David Samson saying something awful about a player. The rumors were maddeningly vague. They also eerily predicted the contents of a brief audio file that was later emailed to us.

Here’s the very first reference to the rumor, from a Miami print shop employee:

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This put Marlins fans, several of whom emailed us about the vague rumor, in a bit of a tizzy. At one point, one of the first Twitter users to mention the rumor claimed to know the person who’d recorded the audio, and five days later asked us how one could send it along. We told him to email us or use our SecureDrop. Nothing turned up just then.

In the meantime, the rumors continued percolating, with Marcell Ozuna coming up as a possible subject of the purported conversation. None of the follow-on speculation, though, contained anything that hadn’t been said in or implied by Castillo’s initial tweets.

We tried to run down some leads. We asked a former Marlins employee and heard nothing. None of the national baseball writers we spoke to knew of the existence of the tape. One Miami-based sportswriter said he had heard whispers, but didn’t know how much stock to put in them. One MLB player heard the rumors, but dismissed them after he couldn’t find the actual audio.

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Then, out of the blue on Aug. 31, our tips email account received a 22-second audio file with the brief explanation that “it was recorded on a phone in someone’s pocket.”

In the form we got it, it was nearly indecipherable. But a little cleaning up—most notably, eliminating one stereo channel which contained only noise—revealed this:

Female voice: “Scott Boras is on the line.”

Male voice: “Let me tell ya, tell Boras that his client is getting demoted, and that his client is a fat, [unintelligible] lazy, Dominican fuck.”

The emailer said he did not record the audio himself, but instead said he got it from a friend who worked for the Marlins. When we pressed for more details, and asked for corroboration or contact information for the friend, we were greeted with radio silence.

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Though the initial email claimed that the male voice on the tape was that of Jeffrey Loria, it sounded more plausibly like David Samson, Loria’s ex-stepson. We played the tape for two people who have had regular contact with Samson; with caveats about the low quality of the audio, both said it sounded like him. (Compare here.)

I emailed MLB’s communications boss, and was deliberately vague; I wanted to get him on the phone. I wrote only that we had audio purporting to be “a team executive making offensive comments.” He called me immediately. Before I could say hello, he said, “So what’ve you got on David Samson?” Rumor travels far.

I sent a note to the Marlins’ media relations head. Within an hour, I received a phone call. It was David Samson.

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Samson surprised me by volunteering that he had heard the tape already. And he told me unequivocally that the voice was not his.

“It is absolutely not me,” Samson said. “It is a complete fake ... If I had said that, I would tell [Loria] and I would resign.”

Samson said he wasn’t even in Miami when Ozuna was sent down, but was rather in St. Louis for a funeral; that the female voice on the tape “is not anyone who works for me”; and that he wouldn’t have spoken with Scott Boras anyway. He and Boras, Samson said, have been on bad terms for a decade. A source familiar with the two’s relationship confirms that the two don’t talk, and says the enmity dates back to Ivan Rodriguez’s contract negotiations, and an alleged comment made by Samson that Boras took as a personal and out-of-bounds attack on the catcher.

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At one point during my conversation with Samson, a second voice jumped in. I hadn’t realized there was anyone else in on the call. He introduced himself as Jeffrey Loria.

“I was in the room,” Loria told me of the announcement of Ozuna’s demotion. “That was not [Samson]. It sounds nothing like him.”

Then whence the tape?

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“I have no idea,” Samson said. “Someone is trying to take me down.”

Who could be out to get David Samson, besides every Marlins fan?

Samson was the public face of the team’s swindling of Miami for a new stadium, and has had more than his fair share of controversial moments. There was the time he went on the radio and joked about owning a penis pump and asked a caller to bring his girlfriend to Samson’s office. There was the time he appeared as a contestant on Survivor, and was the first eliminated. And, of course, there was the time he called Miamians stupid.

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The cost-cutting on Ozuna, which, his underwhelming performance this year aside, actively made the Marlins worse, was another strike against the front office in the eyes of fans. The third-year player needed to appear in 130 games this season to be eligible for arbitration this winter. Because he is now incapable of reaching that mark, the Marlins will get an additional year of Ozuna for the league minimum salary. The difference between that and what Ozuna was likely to win in arbitration is at least $3 million, according to one baseball source.

In late July, Boras told the Miami Herald that the Marlins’ cost-cutting objectives were transparent, and that it was ludicrous to suggest Ozuna, coming off a borderline All-Star caliber season, wasn’t one of the 25 best players in the system. He said that other Marlins players had complained, and that he had attempted to complain to Jeffrey Loria but couldn’t get the owner to return his calls. (Boras declined comment for this story.)

Samson floated me the idea that someone was attempting to get him fired, perhaps out of anger at Ozuna’s demotion, though he wouldn’t hazard a guess who it might be. But multiple times, he threatened legal action if we said that it was him on the recording. If we did, Samson said, “I have to come at you with lawyers.”

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Loria made the same promise, and let slip something I hadn’t known. When I asked how they had already heard the audio, Loria said that the Miami New Times had confronted the Marlins with the tape last month. Loria and Samson had given them the same denial they gave me, and the paper had ended up not publishing. “The New Times’s lawyers were not comfortable,” Loria told me. “My lawyers are very comfortable.”

Within 30 minutes of getting off the phone with Samson and Loria, I received a call from the president of a public relations firm that works for Loria and the Marlins. He also flatly denied the authenticity of the tape, offered to hire a voice analyst to prove it wasn’t Samson, and threatened the possibility of a lawsuit.

The Miami New Times, it turned out, had been down this same rabbithole, and had not liked what it found.

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The paper had received the same clip we did, from someone telling the exact same story we were told, though the tipster wrote from a different email address: that the clip had been recorded by a friend who works for the Marlins. That story did not hold up to examination. The paper attempted to set up a meeting with the supposed Marlins employee, but was rebuffed or stood up at the last minute. The tipster gave the New Times a name for the supposed Marlins employee, but a Google search showed the two were co-workers—at a business that isn’t the Miami Marlins, mind you. When asked to provide some proof that the friend worked for the Marlins, the tipster sent the New Times a photo of an obviously fake team business card.

All of this was going on in early August, at the same time someone claiming to know the person who’d recorded the audio was promising to get it into our hands.

One of the New Times’ reporters said he entered the story feeling that it had the ring of truth, but came away from the interactions with the tipsters “very confident” that it was a hoax. Weeks after putting down the story, he says he now believes they were “not telling the truth.”

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Tim Elfrink, a reporter at the New Times who worked on the story, denied that the Marlins’ legal threats had anything to do with the paper’s decision not to publish. “We thoroughly investigated the tip and it was total, utter bullshit,” Elfrink said. “That’s why we didn’t publish a story.”

We went through the same progression. If you were attempting to get an executive fired, why be so cagey about sharing the audio? Why record something of such low quality that it required technical enhancements to become intelligible? Why not say something more incendiary than what this tape contained? If this is a hoax, it’s either brilliantly subtle or so amateurish as to be accidentally plausible.

But the timing and the content of the recording can perhaps tell you a lot about its origins. Though Ozuna was sent down on July 5, the audio didn’t surface until the very end of July. The first mention of its existence came on July 30, the very day that Boras first complained about Ozuna’s status to the Miami Herald. It was also one week after ESPN parted ways with Colin Cowherd for his remarks disparaging Dominicans—a tortured analogy that began as an attempt to make a point about a Marlins front-office move. If the tape is a hoax, and you’re looking for its creators’ inspirations, you don’t have to look beyond that week’s headlines.

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As we increasingly pressed our tipster for details, perhaps expressing our skepticism, they stopped responding.

Of everyone I spoke to for background on this story, not one expressed disbelief that David Samson might have been caught saying something offensive. (A few even blatantly said they hoped he had been.) Not racial comments, specifically, but something controversial. “If you told me an executive had been caught on tape saying something fireable,” one baseball reporter told me, “I’d guess it was Samson before you finished your sentence.”

Samson makes the perfect patsy for a hoax, because he won’t ever receive the benefit of anyone’s doubt. That same widely-held dislike for him makes just about everyone in baseball a suspect in a set-up. But it’s at least as believable as anything else that there really are Marlins fans willing to go to incredible lengths to clear out their front office. And who can blame them?

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Additional reporting by Tim Burke. Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP.