Steroids in the D.R.: critical mass
Editor's note: This story originally was published on Feb. 13, 2007.
BOCA DE NIGUA, Dominican Republic -- Waner Mateo was a time zone and a culture removed from his tropical homeland, an aspiring major league pitcher hunkered down in a Florida training camp, when he bungled his foray into performance-enhancing drugs. And so last March, in need of help for his bum right shoulder, the 21-year-old Mateo chose not to seek out a New York Mets trainer, for fear it might earn him a ticket back home to the Dominican Republic.
"I didn't want them to know I was hurt," he said.Instead, Mateo claims a teammate, another pitcher, told him he had just the thing: a shot of vitamin B-12. So he took a needle in his buttock. And on April 11, while he was pitching for the Mets' Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md., Mateo's name appeared on the list of players suspended 50 days for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. A week later, the teammate, too, was suspended for testing positive for Dimetabol, a mixture of vitamins and the steroid Nandrolone. The performance-enhancer is manufactured by a Mexican veterinary supply company and is intended for use on cattle and horses during periods of stress or after birth to aid in recovery and weight gain. It isn't meant for sore-armed pitchers. In a way, Mateo is fortunate. His once-tender arm is fine now. And with minor league spring training just around the corner again, he was among 40 or so Dominican players bunking at the Mets Baseball Academy here in preparation for another departure for Port St. Lucie, Fla.
OTL: The Steroids Era
SportsCenter presents a five-part "Outside The Lines" series focusing on performance-enhancing drugs, featuring reports by ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPNdeportes.com. PED-related articles are posted on ESPN.com, while ESPN Deportes will present reports beginning March 8.
Sunday, March 1: The D.R. Connection.
• Presinal still has support in D.R.
• Problem reaches critical mass
Monday, March 2: Power Surge.
• Do U.S. sports measure up?
Tuesday, March 3: The Enablers.
• Baseball's code of silence
Wednesday, March 4: Youngest Users.
Thursday, March 5: Early Detection.
Of the 157 players suspended during this time, 37 (close to one-quarter) are from the Dominican Republic. And approximately 132 others have tested positive since 2005 in the 32-team Dominican Summer League, which generally features players just starting out in pro ball. They can't be suspended because of the country's labor laws.How to explain it? Should we blame it on the "buscones" (pronounced boo-SCONE-ehs), baseball street agents, some of whom are suspected of starting teenage prospects on steroids to improve their ability to sell them to pro scouts? On tainted supplements and a government that allows banned drugs to be bought over the counter? On a lack of education about doping rules? All of the above? Money, no doubt, plays an important role. The annual per-capita income in the Dominican Republic hovers around $2,500, so the lure of a big pro contract is strong. It's the golden ticket off this steamy, sun-baked island. Kids grow up dreaming of becoming the next Vladimir Guerrero, the next Albert Pujols, the next David Ortiz. When Pedro Martinez eases into the Mets' complex of meticulously groomed diamonds while driving his racy orange Dodge Charger one afternoon, his arrival has the feel of a papal visit. Julio Franco reaches inside Martinez's car and grabs a wad of U.S. dollar bills, and tosses them to the delirious crowd. Just outside the idyllic compound, though, is the real life of a dirt road lined with single-room tin shacks, with chickens and scrawny dogs roaming the shoulder and kids in their underwear playing in mud from a late-morning downpour. Amid that poverty, big-league ballplayers are the country's pride. They live in a tantalizing world of palatial estates, Land Rovers and Mercedes. They're able to take care of family, friends and neighbors. Even the younger prospects, the ones with modest signing bonuses who haven't yet made it big, live with the obligation to lift up extended families. Recalling his positive drug test, Mateo said: "It affected me a lot and affected my family, too. They worried about what would happen. I definitely thought I was going to be released. A lot of things were going through my mind." Except for the potential the Mets see in both Mateo and the other pitcher, they likely would have been sent packing. Both are still under contract to the team, although the other pitcher wasn't in camp this day. "They like them both," acknowledged Henderson, the camp administrator. "That's probably why they didn't get released." For his part, Mateo promises never again to rub shoulders with the steroid scene, even unintentionally. "The Latin player thinks it's going to improve their performance; but in the end, it is going to affect you," he said. "Never in my life am I going to see an injection anymore."
Alberto Hall, a young New York-born-and-bred middle infielder, isn't among the long line of outstanding shortstops who learned their craft in this country, which is barely the size of South Carolina. But Hall's contacts run as deep as his family's rich Dominican blood; so for the past three summers, he says he has bunked at the Arizona Diamondbacks Academy in Boca Chica, a dusty beach town up the coast from Santo Domingo that is home to many MLB team complexes. Hall, now a freshman at SUNY/Old Westbury, says he spent his mornings working with the players, mostly teenagers either signed by the D-Backs for their Dominican Summer League team or brought in for an evaluation. From summer to summer, he saw familiar faces, familiar physiques, bulking up. Away from the watchful eyes of camp officials, he says he witnessed players being injected, and claims to have been offered steroids himself. "At nighttime, a lot of the players would inject themselves with steroids," Hall told ESPN.com. "I was amazed, because the kids that were doing it weren't just older kids. There were kids 16 years old doing it. I personally never used it, but they offered me. 'Come on, it's only for two, three, four weeks.' I never did it, but I've seen them do it almost every night, every other night.
"Some of the guys injected themselves. Others used to do it in groups. It is amazing what goes on over there. And believe me, I think it went on in all the [major league] complexes."When he returned home last summer, Hall gave a firsthand account to Fernando Mateo (no relation to Waner Mateo), president of Hispanics Across America, a New York-based advocacy group that has taken up the cause of young Latino ballplayers. "He was always much bigger than the kids that he played with, much bigger," Mateo said about the 18-year-old Hall. "And all of a sudden, he went down last summer and these kids were huge. He called me because he knows that I have been working on this. He said, 'Fernando, what they told me was, you've got to shoot up in order to be looked at. If you don't shoot up, you're not looked at. If you're not big and strong and fast ... you're not looked at.'" Junior Noboa, who manages the Diamondbacks' camp in the Dominican, initially told ESPN.com that he didn't remember Hall, and then said Hall was only at the academy for several weeks, at most. And Noboa says Hall never mentioned to anyone in a position of authority at the academy that he'd seen players using steroids. "He wasn't there for three years," Noboa says. "He was there for two to three weeks that I remember. I [didn't] have that kid for three years . . . I remember we were closing the academy when he came. That makes me sick if they say that. He was only there for three weeks. And if he saw something over there, that is strange. He was supposed to tell me if he saw something at nighttime like he says. That is really sad. They are not true when they say [he] came down for three summers. That is not right. That is not right [for] people that wanted [me] to do a favor." Hall says isn't sure about the source of the drugs, but he suspects the players bring them from their towns. He's not sure of the specific steroids being used, either, but he's fairly confident they're being used without the knowledge of Noboa and the rest of the Diamondbacks staff. "I don't know if maybe they've seen it and turned their heads, but I know [players] are tested," Hall said. "It takes a certain amount of time to get out of your system; so they would all take it so that when they do take the test, it would come out negative."
Juan Uribe, the Chicago White Sox shortstop, is a product of Juan Baron, a tiny rural town 30 miles southwest of Santo Domingo. He lives just down a narrow two-lane road from Vladimir Guerrero's home. On this day, as he welcomed a handful of reporters into his three-story cinder-block house, his mother, sisters and brothers, cousins and infant nephews and nieces were mingling about. The Uribe home is a sleek diamond in the rough located just beyond the right-field corner of Juan Baron Stadium, where Uribe played as a kid and where he still works out in the mornings to ready for spring training. The $4 million-plus per season Uribe earns in the majors helps his extended family live well beyond the means of the locals. Next to them, Uribe lives like royalty. From a third-floor pool room, Uribe, 27, pointed across the field beyond the centerfield fence to his soon-to-be new place, a magnificent pink structure rising from the ground. His luxury SUVs -- a black Land Rover and white Cadillac Escalade, loaded with a $20,000 sound system -- were parked along the pothole-riddled street. His sleek black Mercedes sports coupe was inside a garage that doubles as a playroom for the toddlers.
In some ways, Ronaldo Peralta is the Bud Selig of Dominican baseball. From MLB's office in an upscale, gated residential neighborhood of Santo Domingo, Peralta serves as the eyes and ears of baseball in Latin America. He manages baseball's only operations office outside the United States. In a country where the game is an industry worth nearly $100 million annually, according to an economic impact study done by the Dominican government, Peralta deals with the routine stuff: agents, scouting issues, the multitude of baseball academies, rookie summer leagues and drug testing. He is a friendly character who lives by the creed that the glass is half-full.
"People speak Spanish and explain very well all about the regulations, the test program," said reliever Rafael Soriano, acquired this offseason by the Atlanta Braves from the Seattle Mariners. "We know [the rules]. I don't put anything in my system, because I fear this system. I only take medicine from the trainer for the major league team."Mariners outfielder Jose Guillen is more blunt, suggesting that players should follow the lead of Mets reliever Guillermo Mota, who admitted his screw-up after he tested positive last fall. In a statement after his 50-game suspension was announced in November, Mota said, "I have no one to blame but myself. I take full responsibility for my actions and accept MLB's suspension. I used extremely poor judgment and deserve to be held accountable." Mota is still with the Mets under a two-year, $5 million contract, but he won't be paid for the first 50 games this season. "When you're putting something in your body, you're not going to tell me you don't know what you are putting in your body," said Guillen, a 10-year veteran. "We're all grown men. We're over 18 years old. I think everybody that gets caught has got to take full responsibility for what they are doing. There is no reason to be complaining and pointing fingers, saying this guy gave me this and that. You know it was a steroid on your own. So explain yourself." Guillen said he was approached about using steroids earlier in his career. "But that is something I never considered in my life," he said. "You're ruining your whole career. You're ruining your reputation. This really is hurting baseball right now, the image of the game. "When some kid comes to me and asks why this guy got caught with steroids, what am I going say? It is hard stuff. I got two kids. That's what I always think about -- my kids."
Luis Polonia has been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things. He made it to the majors with the Oakland A's in the late 1980s, just when the Bash Brothers -- Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire -- hooked up in the Bay Area. A pint-sized outfielder blessed with speed, he played 12 big-league seasons for a half-dozen clubs. At 43, he still plays winter ball; and on the night he spoke with ESPN.com in Santo Domingo, he was in left field for the Aguilas Cibaenas, the eventual league championship team from Santiago.
The investment in that teenage talent has grown to the point that MLB officials estimate the Dominican Republic is home to more than 6,000 independent baseball academies, each typically grooming a dozen or so players who may potentially sign pro contracts. They're fed and housed at the academies, then, once they're signed by teams, the people running the camps take a cut of the bonus.The incentive to impress pro scouts is great. "If you're 16 years old and throw 90, 95 miles an hour, which I see a lot here in the Dominican, you see what kind of bonus you're going to get," Polonia said. "If you're 16 and throw 85 or 86, you see the big difference. You know the Dominican is a poor country. I guess a lot of kids see an advantage of having a big bonus when they sign and be set for life, if they don't make it." In his four years at the academy, Polonia has developed 24 players who signed pro contracts. None of them has tested positive, he said. It's good business to keep it that way. He gets a chunk of each prospect's signing bonus, which can be cut if the player tests positive. So Polonia said he has his prospects tested himself at the first sign of serious interest by a scout. "You don't want to have a kid there, develop the kid for a couple years, and then the kid gets signed and comes out a positive test," he said. "There are two things I have to watch. First, make sure that he is clean so when he gets his bonus, he doesn't go back. The other thing is my name. If they find some guy with steroids in my academy, what are they going to say? 'Oh yeah, Polonia provides steroids in his academy so he can make the kids stronger and make more money out of the signing bonus.'" Polonia said he's heard of other academies, though, that don't fly so straight. He's heard of prospects testing positive and major league clubs subsequently pulling the deal or slashing the bonus. "There are guys who run an academy, and all they care about is how much money they can get," he said, his voice rising. "And this kid throws 85 miles an hour and they know the guy's got a good body, good ability to play. And you know what? 'I am going to work with this guy; and in two or three months, this guy is throwing 95 miles an hour. And see how much money I am going to get with this guy.' "They don't care what can happen to the kid. I'm not saying everybody is doing that, but there are some guys that do it. They don't care. This is a hungry country. People are looking for money everywhere you can get it."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. ESPNdeportes.com's Enrique Rojas also contributed to this report.