- Mike Fish
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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Angel "Nao" Presinal struts about like a muscle-bound canary with his bright yellow Nike cap pulled low and his matching yellow T-shirt drenched in perspiration on a sunbaked morning. Short, piercing blasts from his yellow whistle help him orchestrate the movements and amp up the heart rates of 50 or so pro ballplayers.
On the asphalt parking lot outside Gate 3 of the Palacio De Los Deportes, the basketball venue for the 2003 Pan American Games, Presinal is running a boot camp of sorts to ready Dominican players for the start of Major League Baseball's spring training. The workout is four hours of sweat, misery and laughs. Major and minor leaguers alike are taking part, often identifiable by a cap or jersey from their current clubs -- Angels, Brewers, Rangers Danville Braves.
The players are here to build and strengthen muscle for the long season ahead. Some are recognizable names certain to grace box scores again this summer: Ervin Santana, Robinson Cano, Luis Castillo, Francisco Cordero. Jose Guillen comes as part of his rehab from offseason surgery. Pedro Martinez, too, occasionally joins the group when he's in the Dominican, although he isn't here today.
The draw is the 54-year-old Presinal, fitness guru, massage therapist and personal trainer to baseball's Latino elite.
"Oh, he is the best in the Dominican," Cano says fondly. "That is why he has a bunch of people."
"He is like the prince here of getting people healthy," Guillen adds. "Every year, people come from everywhere [to Presinal]."
And that's an issue.
If Major League Baseball had its way, none of these athletes would be trained via Presinal's powerful workouts, or even be seen in his company. Unwelcome in major league clubhouses, Presinal is -- in the opinion of MLB executives -- a suspicious character linked, rightly or wrongly, to performance-enhancing drugs.
One MLB official told ESPN.com that Presinal's close involvement with the players is a "concern and a problem," though the official acknowledged that the league is powerless to prevent players from training with him.
Presinal has been a persona non grata around the majors since an October 2001 incident in which he and former two-time American League MVP Juan Gonzalez, then Presinal's top client, were connected to an unmarked bag discovered by Canadian Border Service agents at the Toronto airport. The bag had come off a Cleveland Indians charter flight and, according to a New York Daily News story last summer, contained anabolic steroids and hypodermic needles.
Gonzalez, an outfielder with the Indians at the time, told Canadian Border Service agents that the bag belonged to Presinal. Presinal disputes that it contained steroids, but contends the gym bag and everything in it belonged to Gonzalez. Canadian authorities never filed charges against either the player or the trainer, but rumors about the incident have festered throughout baseball ever since.
Before the 2002 season, according to MLB spokesperson Pat Courtney, clubs were advised to keep Presinal out of their clubhouses. In the wake of the BALCO scandal that drew in baseball stars such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, that edict was broadened in February 2004 to include all personal trainers not under contract to teams, Courtney says.
As spring training 2007 approaches and Gonzalez contemplates another comeback, ESPN.com visited Presinal, who is known by athletes and friends as "Nao" (pronounced "Now").
His account of the Toronto incident, as told to ESPN.com and interpreted by ESPNdeportes.com reporter Enrique Rojas:
"I go to Toronto on a commercial flight and Gonzalez was on the Indians' plane. I can't put a bag, or another guy's brother or family can't put his own bag on the [team] plane. This bag was for one guy from the club -- Juan Gonzalez. It is Gonzalez's trouble. Gonzalez has a special assistant for clothes, for bags, for baseball stuff. This guy put all Gonzalez's stuff in this bag. Gonzalez says it is vitamins. And when the customs [agents] talk about having some substance that is not allowed in Canada, this guy who works for Gonzalez says, 'This bag is for another guy coming in on another plane.' They say it is for Nao.
"But I never take a bag for players, because it is not my work. My work is to get the player in condition. Not carrying clothes, taking care of food or something like that. All my life, I work with natural medicine, and natural vitamins. I don't work with chemical medicine. I say this to Juan Gonzalez before I start working with him."
Presinal insists that the gym bag did not contain steroids, although according to the Daily News, the Canadian seizure document made a general reference to steroids. To ESPN.com, Presinal describes the primary contents as:
• Soladek, a painkiller.
• Dolo-neurobion, a vitamin B complex used in fighting the flu.
• Clenbuterol, a stimulant similar to ephedrine, which is believed within the bodybuilding community to promote muscle tone and weight loss.
"In 2001, this stuff was not forbidden, but now it is forbidden," Presinal says. "You can buy it in the Dominican Republic over the counter."
Indeed, those three substances are available for purchase without a prescription at a Santo Domingo pharmacy.
John Hart, now a senior advisor for the Texas Rangers, was the Indians' general manager at the time of the Toronto incident. He says the team looked into it and ultimately exonerated Gonzalez.
"He was a great guy," Hart says. "I did a one-year deal with him. Ultimately, I didn't go into this with any idea that there would be anything that had to do with drugs. And obviously, at that time, we couldn't test [players]. I don't know. I don't know who was doing what. I don't think anybody did. Did you suspicion certain things? I think by that time, the world was getting more aware of what was going on, or what potentially could be going on. But how do you prove it? How do you know?"
Remembering the incident, Hart says, "We flew into Toronto. I think at some point, they went through the luggage. We came in at 2 or 3 in the morning. They went through the luggage. I got a call that said that there had been a bag that went on the trip with us that had something suspicious in it. Listen, it was in the hands of the authorities. We paid attention. At the end of it, nothing came out of it. It wasn't attributed to Juan. And Angel was not on the trip with us. He was coming in separately. I'm not sure when he came in. I'm not sure exactly what happened to Angel. I don't really recall."
Even after the episode in Toronto, Presinal remains a popular figure in the Latino baseball community, though he is little-known to baseball people in the States. At about 5-foot-9, he has a thickly chiseled upper body that enables him to move players around with ease as he stretches them, and gives him the appearance of a bodybuilder.
His initial experience with athletes, he says, came when he worked with the training staff of the Dominican national volleyball and basketball squads. He says he remains on the government payroll, earning $100 a month with use of an office and a small weight room, to help with the country's Olympic athletes. His focus shifted to baseball after he hooked up with former big league pitcher Jose Rijo in the early '90s.
The walls of his cramped office in the bowels of the basketball arena are lined with photos of Presinal and some of the top-shelf players he professes to have trained: David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, Raul Mondesi, Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Stan Javier, Adrian Beltre, Ruben Sierra, Vladimir Guerrero.
One-time national basketball team player and coach Frank "Frenchy" Prats, pointing to the photos gracing the walls, says, "He has a problem in the States, but I just know that he is good. Everyone is happy with him."
And since baseball began testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2004, none of his players has failed a league-mandated test.
So in the Dominican Republic, Presinal remains at work, a demanding taskmaster, at one point stopping a recent group training session while Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Carlos Villanueva drops on command and rips off 20 push-ups. But Presinal's emotions swing hot to cold. As he discusses the 2001 drug allegations, he twice breaks down in tears.
"Everybody puts my reputation in a hole; this hurts," he sobs, lowering his head as tears trickle down his face. "I have four sons. We have family, relatives. They read and hear about that. They don't understand. They ask me, 'Hey, Poppy, what is this? What are they saying? You sell drugs? Did you sell drugs in the street? You are drug dealer? You are killer? You are mafia guy?' Because they read about a bag in the airport, the Canadian police, USA police.
"And one kid, his godfather is Juan Gonzalez. This is real hurt. This guy is my family. Juan Gonzalez is my family. Gonzalez helped me to buy two houses, because it is in the contract."
According to Presinal, Gonzalez paid him a $50,000 bonus after the player was named the American League MVP in 1996, and then another $80,000 after his second award in 1998. Presinal later signed a four-year deal with pitcher Bartolo Colon and pocketed the keys to a 2003 black Hummer after the Angels' right-hander won the 2005 Cy Young Award, although the SUV remains impounded by the Dominican government because Presinal can't cover the $30,000 tax bill for it. The Hummer, he says, came with an odometer reading on the far side of 100,000 miles.
"In the USA, it is an old, old car," he says, shifting from tears to laughter. "I need to say in the contract: 'new Hummer.'"
When ESPN.com catches up with his workout group, Presinal is negotiating a deal to work with veteran outfielder Jose Guillen. If it works out, Presinal will take up temporary residency in Seattle this season and follow Guillen on the road with the Mariners.
Asked if he has misgivings about Presinal in light of the Gonzalez incident, Guillen says, "No, it doesn't bother me. I know Nao. Like, I've been with him for the last seven or eight years [in the offseason]. I never heard Nao mention anything to anyone about that stuff. He never mentioned it to me I just heard the rumors over there. They both are grown-up men and they both know what has been."
In his book "Juiced," Jose Canseco identified Gonzalez as one of the players he injected with steroids, a charge Gonzalez, who has never failed a drug test, has denied. Gonzalez declined an ESPN.com interview request last summer while he was playing for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent League.
After three injury-plagued seasons with Texas and Kansas City, Gonzalez was re-signed by Cleveland in 2005, but tore a hamstring in his first at-bat and didn't return.
Presinal says he knew Gonzalez only as a hard worker. He says Gonzalez never mentioned steroids around him.
"I tell every athlete, 'You can't use any substance because if you test positive you affect me,'" he says. "I work in the international federations -- volleyball, soccer. I told Gonzalez. I tell every player before we start. If Ervin Santana goes positive in Major League Baseball, it will affect my work with the volleyball team, the soccer team. Ervin Santana is coming this year to work out; but next year, maybe not. But I have 31 years working for the government with athletes going to the Olympic Games."
Presinal describes his relationship with Gonzalez now as a total disconnect, saying they haven't spoken in five years. Yet he also says they continued working together during the 2002 season after Gonzalez joined the Texas Rangers for a second time.
Asked why he stayed with Gonzalez if he felt he'd been made a scapegoat in the Toronto incident, Presinal says, "OK, because the first time, Major League Baseball didn't make a case; no big deal about that in 2001. The problem was, one year after, officials for Texas say I'm not allowed in the clubhouse. The first year, I think it's no problem. It's not my bag. I don't have a problem. It only became a problem later."
After Major League Baseball effectively banned him from its clubhouses, Presinal says he worked with Gonzalez outside the ballpark. And when he took on Colon as a client in Anaheim, they worked out of a small gym in the pitcher's home and a hotel gym on the road. Colon paid him a salary, put him up in an Orange County apartment and covered his airfare and hotel rooms on the road.
Although MLB security investigated the Toronto incident, Presinal says they never spoke to him.
"They wanted to have a conversation with him," Courtney, the MLB spokesperson, says of the league's security officers. "He sort of just disappeared."
Nor, Presinal says, has he been contacted by anyone associated with former Sen. George Mitchell, who was commissioned last year to lead baseball's steroid investigation. Presumably, that isn't because he's been difficult to locate lately, as Presinal can be found most days at the sports complex in the center of Santo Domingo, where ESPN.com reporters attended four daily workout sessions in January.
Last spring, Presinal enjoyed a visible presence at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, overseeing strength and conditioning for the Dominican team.
Presinal suggests that his status as a pariah in the big leagues can also be traced to jealousy on the part of some MLB team trainers. With the Indians, for example, he says the team's medical staff was put off by his access to a room set aside for him to work with Gonzalez.
Current Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who was an assistant GM for the team in 2001, says he wasn't involved in any of the conversations about the Toronto incident and isn't familiar with the details. But according to Shapiro, Gonzalez in theory was strictly forbidden from bringing any outside trainers into the clubhouse that season, either before or after the Toronto trip. Shapiro doesn't remember the training room set-up the way Presinal does.
"At that point," Shapiro says, "we didn't think it was healthy to have the distraction of Juan having an entourage with him that he was known to have in Detroit [in 2000]. So we tried to separate that out. I know for a fact that was John Hart's intent when he signed the deal. Now, what other access his guys were given, I can't really speak to."
Hart, too, says Gonzalez was not to bring any outside strength and conditioning help, including Presinal, into the Indians' clubhouse during his one season in Cleveland.
Still, Presinal claims that club-affiliated MLB trainers didn't appreciate that Latino players gravitated to him.
"Trainers say this trainer comes from Dominican Republic, doesn't speak English, doesn't know anything," Presinal says. "When I started working with Gonzalez, every Latin player wanted me to work with them. The trainers say they are the trainers for this team. It started a war. And I'm working for no money, because only Gonzalez pays me. But the players want to work with me.
"Like in Anaheim, Vladimir Guerrero never paid one penny to me. I had a room in Bartolo's house because I worked every day. So Vladimir would go every day to Bartolo's house and work. And Jose Guillen, too. Vlad Guerrero won the MVP award [in 2004], but no money for me.
"That year, Anaheim thinks about back surgery for Guerrero; and I am working to make it better, and he doesn't need surgery. Boston wanted to do surgery on Pedro Martinez [during the 2001 season]. Pedro says, 'I don't need surgery. I want to first try with my personal trainer.' He came to me at the end of the season and I worked with him. He had no operation and he came back and challenged Barry Zito for the Cy Young."
That's why some of the players have gathered in the parking lot this morning. Obviously, they haven't been swayed by the Toronto rumors. They come to the sports complex in the offseason because of Presinal's reputation as a healer of athletes. They come hoping to catch some of the success enjoyed by Martinez, Colon and Gonzalez, who collectively own four Cy Young Awards and two MVPs.
And they are convinced that Presinal's hell-bent program really works to get players in shape, especially pitchers preparing for the long grind of the season ahead.
Santana, who is 28-16 in his first two big league seasons, met Presinal through Colon, his teammate on the Angels. He's back with him this winter because the regimen helped strengthen his tired shoulder last season.
"Everybody wants to work with him," Santana says. "Some guys may have a hurt elbow or shoulder and the organization thinks that maybe they need surgery, but he checks it out and then some don't need surgery. My shoulder was weak -- no power or nothing. It hurt. And he checked it out and we did exercise and everything and it feels a lot better."
While he rehabbed from Tommy John elbow surgery in 2004, the Mariners' Rafael Soriano wasn't part of Presinal's workout gang, and he came around only sporadically last offseason. But wanting to impress after a trade to the Atlanta Braves this winter, the right-handed reliever is now among the regulars driving up to the training sessions in Cadillac Escalades and Land Rovers.
Pausing to gather his thoughts, Soriano says a dream played into his conversion.
"I'm dreaming I have shoulder trouble and Nao comes in like the savior," Soriano says, solemnly. "And he has the cure for the shoulder. In the morning, I got on the cell phone and called Nao. I told him, 'I was dreaming I had a shoulder injury and you are the man for rebuilding my shoulder.'"
Meanwhile, back on the asphalt parking lot, Presinal continues to cut a larger-than-life figure, drilling his sweaty troops in preparation for another baseball season. The volume of players, young and old, under his command is unmatched.
But to the people running baseball, the Jack LaLanne of the Dominican Republic remains a mystery.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPNdeportes.com's Enrique Rojas also contributed to this report.
Angel Presinal trains some of the best baseball players in the Dominican Republic, and Major League Baseball isn't happy about it. Investigative reporter Mike Fish explains why.