Caught Looking

Updated: May 28, 2007, 1:29 AM ET
By Ian Gordon | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: This story appears in the June 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

These are desperate days for Alfredo Reyes. But he's trying not to think about it on this sun-drenched morning at a dusty field in La Isabelica, minutes after a Venezuelan winter league matinee. His teammates holler at him to hurry the hell up, but the 21-year-old lefty reliever chats away -- about his family, his hometown of Valencia -- as he idly scans the dugout for his glove. When asked about his failed drug tests, though, he can't hide his exasperation. "If they say that's what happened," he says with a helpless shrug, "what more can you do?"

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They say Reyes was juicing. Last August, while playing in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, he became the first Venezuelan to receive a 100-game suspension for twice testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In the three years since the BALCO scandal and subsequent congressional hearings pushed Major League Baseball into implementing a tougher testing policy, Rafael Palmeiro is still the only household name to have gotten caught. The vast majority of suspended players have been anonymous minor leaguers, like Reyes, and nearly half of them hail from Latin America, like Reyes.

Even before the positive tests started piling up, something felt wrong to Dominican star David Ortiz. In May 2005, Big Papi spoke out against the policy following the suspension of his former teammate, Twins pitcher (and Venezuelan) Juan Rincón. The Red Sox slugger was concerned that a language barrier was leading to confusion and more positive tests among Latino players. "You might think everyone's got the message," Ortiz said, "but they don't."

Especially not in Venezuela, home of MLB's most far-flung minor league. There, the number of suspensions is nothing short of startling: A country that supplied 11.8% of professional ballplayers accounted for 20% of the game's drug cheats in 2005-06. Last year, 13 of the 37 pros penalized for performance enhancers -- or 35% -- were Venezuelans. So far this year, three Venezuelans, including Mets pitcher Lino Urdaneta, have been suspended for 50 games.

The 27-year-old Urdaneta spent two weeks in the majors in May. Ten years ago, he was pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League. Today, the VSL features nine academies run by 11 different major league organizations in the hot sugarcane valleys west of Caracas. Despite the growing number of Venezuelans in the game, the academy system lags behind that of the Dominican Republic, where 29 MLB teams have training complexes. Because of president Hugo Chávez's autocratic leadership and anti-Washington rhetoric, fewer teams are willing to commit long-term to Venezuela. So while modern digs do exist, the academies lean heavily toward the makeshift. The World Series champion Cardinals, for example, rent space behind the country's largest brewery, the Polar plant in San Joaquín. The baseball field, originally built for the brewers, features an all-dirt infield and an uneven outfield covered with patchy brown grass. If a righthanded hitter slices a hard foul, he could lose the ball into rows of beer crates set back off the first baseline.

Many of the prospects who play on these fields are confused by MLB's drug policy, scared of it or simply unaware of it. And, of course, there are those who deny breaking it. The six-foot, 185-pound Reyes claims he took only Motrin, B-12 shots and vitamins during a 2006 VSL season in which he finished 5­1 with a 2.86 ERA in 34 2/3 innings. But something tripped the tests (he says he wasn't told what), costing him the next season and a half. That, in effect, ends his shot at a big league career, since the Pirates released him in January. "People asked me why, if they had caught me before, had I tested positive again?" Reyes says before getting on the Magallanes team bus. "I told them I just didn't know."

It's an answer that leaves a lot of folks shaking their heads. Says a high-ranking MLB executive, "If you do this as long as I have, there's one thing you learn: People who are positive under these policies, it's never their fault. It's always, 'Somebody didn't tell me,' or 'The dog ate my homework.'"

And yet whomever you believe in this instance, Reyes does have a point.

Because pharmaceutical regulations are looser in Venezuela than in the U.S., players who pay little attention to labels may not know what sort of banned substances are lurking in legal dietary supplements and over-the-counter medicines. Many coaches are inclined to tell their players to avoid everything, a virtual impossibility, rather than try to keep track of which substances are okay and which are banned. "There's no list of what players can take," says Ramón Fereira, director of operations for the Venezuelan Summer League. "At least I don't have it."

Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, says baseball conducts educational sessions so players understand what is banned, and that administrators are instructed to pass out both English and Spanish copies of the drug policy at those sessions. "Did I physically see that happen?" Manfred says. "No, but I know that's what's supposed to happen." Though MLB forwarded a Spanish-language copy of the policy to The Magazine, many Venezuelan players and coaches told us they've never seen such a document.

The Pirates, however, made sure every player in their academy received a hard copy of the policy last year, along with verbal warnings. "It's pretty easy to understand," says Osmin Meléndez, manager of the team's academy in San Joaquín. "The information is there." White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén, a native Venezuelan, agrees. "They give the information to those kids," he says. "If they put it in English, they put it in Spanish, also. I know because I read it."

So why did three of Meléndez's pitchers test positive last summer, and another, Gabriel Cañones, get caught in January? Righthander Edison Barrios admits he purchased Deca-Durabolin in a pharmacy before he signed his contract, but what about Reyes and Juan Casas, two others who deny having used steroids? "It's a question of culture," Meléndez says. "The same anxiety of being hungry, of not having, makes them look for the easiest way to move forward. They're thinking about today, not tomorrow."

Rather than blame MLB's policy or even the kids, Guillén points his finger at Venezuelan baseball's unregulated network of hangers-on, trainers and scouts. "I think the main problem is the people who surround these kids, who lie to these kids, who give them supplements they're not supposed to, who say they're going to be better, richer," he says. "I think those are the people we have to control." And so, as the most prominent Venezuelan in the game, Guillén has offered to make PSAs warning young players not to run afoul of the rules.

Because even when you think they've all gotten the message, they haven't.

BEFORE HE signed with the Pirates, in May 2006, Edison Barrios tried everything -- shakes, creatine, eventually steroids -- to pack on some pounds. "I'm skinny," says the 18-year-old reliever, speaking over the blaring salsa after a December winter league game in San Joaquín, a small town about two hours west of Caracas. "I bought Deca to gain weight."

Barrios, who's 6'1" and 152 pounds, says he didn't know over-the-counter Deca-Durabolin was banned in baseball, but he did know it was prescribed to kids suffering from malnutrition. After arriving at the Pirates academy, he discovered another supplement he had taken contained the banned substance stanozolol, and that it was likely he would test positive for one or both of the steroids. On Aug. 1, Barrios was suspended for 50 games. Now he's not touching anything, not even Coca-Cola.

He doesn't dare, especially after what happened to his teammate Reyes. The competition is stiff enough at the academies, where a surplus of players are often signed on the cheap and given three years to prove they're worth a travel visa to move up to the Gulf Coast League in Florida. "If there's 20 pitchers at the start, only three go to the U.S.," Barrios says. "That's pressure."

With a high-80s fastball and a plus curve, Barrios has the most promise of the suspended Pirates, as evidenced by his $20,000 signing bonus. He invested the money with several uncles in a construction company in Maracay.

Whatever return the family makes will go toward helping out at home in Villa de Cura. Edison's father, Román, is a teacher; his mother, Lourdes Castillo, looks after their younger son, 12-year-old Jefferson, as well as Edison when he's not staying at the Pirates' team house in San Joaquín.

But to really cash in, Barrios must find a juice-free way to bulk up. He pitched in only eight VSL games last year before testing positive, finishing 2­0 with a 1.86 ERA. His talent and his age have earned him a second chance, which he'll finally get come July. "I thought they were going to kick me out of the academy," he says, his voice trailing off. "Now I have to wait till the suspension runs out and start from zero."

ON THE other side of Venezuela's baseball corridor, in Valencia, Alfredo Martin says he'd play for nothing. And for nearly a year, he's had no choice. Like the other VSL players who've tested positive, the Twins first baseman has practiced without pay, losing out on $300 a month until his suspension ends late in June. But unlike Barrios, the 19-year-old Martin doesn't have his bonus money to fall back on, not after a con man stole the $5,000 he got from Minnesota in August 2005. Martin took his check to a man in Maracay, someone he'd met through the clubhouse attendants, to change dollars to bolívares at the black-market rate -- a common practice because the Venezuelan government inflates the value of its national currency. Before Martin knew it, the money and the man were gone. "I started with nothing," he says.

At 6'1" and 248 pounds, Martin is one of the VSL's largest players, but he says he's just naturally big, the product of a Spanish father and a Venezuelan mother who are both tall and thick. He says he worries about being overweight and that he has tried to stay away from shakes and supplements, but he admits to sharing his teammates' products every now and again.

On July 24, 2006, he was suspended for using performance enhancers. He claims he took only muscle relaxants and B-12 shots for a leg injury and that he didn't think twice about his drug test. "I wasn't worried," Martin says. "I was one of the first to go and give a sample." Now he hopes the Twins will let him redeem himself. "Maybe the people in the States think a lot of negative things about me, but I just want to move forward and show them that this was a mistake," Martin says. "That's all I want."

WITH THE summer league now underway, the chance to get back into a game is nearly here for most who tested positive in 2006. But not for Alfredo Reyes, who's only halfway through his suspension. And while he continues to work out with the minor league affiliate of Magallanes, the Venezuelan winter league's most popular team, his chances of moving up to the big club are slim.

Reyes has considered going back to school to become a CPA, but he still can't bear to think of a future without baseball -- especially because he's not just playing for himself. "If you move up, your family will move up too," says Reyes, whose father, Alfredo Sr., runs a bodega in Valencia to support his wife, two daughters and son. "My family is counting on me."

So he'll keep grinding, keep trying to kick that mid-80s fastball up a notch. In the end, it's the only way Reyes knows to pass the time in baseball purgatory.

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