- Mike Fish
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New York-based Dominican activist Fernando Mateo says baseball's honchos, including commissioner Bud Selig & Co., should be scolded for ignoring the drug issue that continues to plague Latin American teenage prospects.
Three years ago, Mateo, as president of the advocacy group Hispanics Across America, took up the cause of young Latino ballplayers, successfully lobbying baseball to drug test young talent in the Dominican Republic and Venezuelan summer leagues. Now, Mateo chides baseball for failing to follow through on its promise to test prospects for performance-enhancing drugs before they sign with major league clubs and as a condition for collecting their bonus checks.
"I spent a lot of time drilling major league baseball, and we got out of them what no one else had gotten," said the Dominican-born Mateo. "We got them to start drug testing in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. We forced them to be responsible. And they don't like me, but I could care less.
"The issues are not so much with the major league camps anymore. There are more eyes watching the camps. The big problem is [Dominican teenage prospects] are doping before tryouts, before they get signed to a bonus."
A disturbingly high number of players are testing positive in the Dominican Summer League, where just-signed prospects get their initial taste of pro ball before promotion to the minor leagues in the United States. The first tests in 2004 produced 97 positives for steroids and related substances, or 11 percent of the players -- a rate six times that found in the U.S. minor leagues.
The rate has dipped the past two summers as a total of 132 players tested positive, yet players are not disciplined because Dominican law doesn't allow for the suspension of employees who fail drug tests.
Compare that number of positive tests with the drug testing results for most of professional baseball. Only 157 total players in all major and minor league teams and the equivalent summer league in Venezuela tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs since the start of the 2005 season, with almost one-fourth of them from the Dominican Republic.
Mateo argues baseball is only letting the problem fester by waiting until prospects are in the system before testing. As it is, some folks speculate on young Dominican baseball talent like some on the island deal in sugar cane and coffee. And the development of talent isn't always clean.
The international players can't sign with major league clubs until they're at least 16½, but by that time spindly prospects have been known to bulk up with anabolic steroids or, in some cases, veterinary substances. Also lurking in the background are street agents or buscones [pronounced boo-SCONE-ehs], some of whom stand accused of pushing performance-enhancers to their players prior to tryouts.
"I spent a lot of time drilling Major League Baseball, and we got out of them what no one else had gotten. We got them to start drug testing in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. We forced them to be responsible. And they don't like me, but I could care less."
-- Fernando Mateo
"The buscones help them out, and even the coaches help them out," Mateo said. "You have to understand that everyone gets a cut of their signing bonus. So as long as everyone is getting a cut, everyone wants them to be bigger, stronger and faster. Everyone wants everyone to get scouted. You have to understand it is a third-world country. Everyone is after the mighty dollar. So whatever it takes to get them whatever it is, they will get it.
"If you're not big and strong and fast and you throw hard -- you're not looked at. And that is the big problem that Major League Baseball is not looking at. They have to let it be known that if a kid tests positive for steroid use or drugs that the team is not going to give him his signing bonus. That is where you stop it. You don't stop it after they're scouted and after they're in the minor leagues and in the major leagues. You stop it before you sign them to a bonus. And that is what they refuse to do.
"They say that is not their responsibility. Well, if you're going to buy a car, you're going to test drive it. You're going to have a mechanic look at it. If you're going to do anything in life, first you research it. And they're not willing or wanting to do that. That is where I believe they are using the willful blindness situation."
Then again, perhaps individual clubs deserve a tad bit more credit.
While MLB doesn't require prospects to be drug tested when they sign, clubs have been known to discreetly test players on their own. And there is talk within Dominican Republic and Venezuelan baseball circles of bonuses being slashed in instances when tests came back dirty.
"With high-profile players in Latin America, I know that teams request after the player is signed a complete physical," said Ronaldo Peralta, who heads MLB's Latin American operations from his office in the Dominican Republic. "So in that complete physical exam could be included a test for steroids. So that is what happens. It is not that, 'Hey, we are testing for steroids.' It is a complete physical."
Yet by not being implemented for all prospects before they sign professional contracts, this form of testing falls well shy of what Mateo thought he bargained for.
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.
A critic says Major League Baseball is letting the problem fester by waiting until kids are in the system before testing, writes Mike Fish.