Slowing steroid use in Latin nations is daunting
In Latin America, the new frontier of baseball, they are injecting kids with steroids. Grown men are taking needles and plunging them into the backsides of 16-year-olds in the name of profit.
This is no big secret. Major League Baseball knows it is happening. It does not know how to stop it.
“Honestly, this is an extremely difficult problem,” said Rob Manfred, an executive vice president with MLB.
Over the last two months, 40 players in the Dominican Republic have tested positive for steroids. Ten more from Venezuela were caught. Most are teenagers.
The youngest was 16. His name is Braulin Beltre. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him last year, one of more than 500 kids plucked from Dominican Republic in baseball’s version of the gold rush. Teams last year spent nearly $34 million in the small island country. This year, in the week after the Latin American market opened July 2, teams spent close to $30 million on players and by year’s end will shatter the previous record.
Money is at the center of the latest steroids scandal that baseball can’t seem to wrap its arms around. After dropping the last three years, the percentage of positive tests among players in the Dominican Summer League has jumped from 2.5 percent to 3.3 percent, according to figures provided by MLB. Escalating bonuses in Latin America – Oakland shelled out a record $4.25 million for 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michel Inoa in July – have caused a feeding frenzy among the street agents, known as buscones, which translates loosely to “searchers.”
All of them want a crack at the treasure chest. If that means giving illicit drugs to a kid ignorant of steroid use’s repercussions – or, in many cases, lying to him about what the drugs really are – so be it. The buscones get their cut of a signing bonus whether a kid is clean or dirty.
“I guarantee you those kids who are 16 years old aren’t going to the pharmacist and saying, ‘I need these,’ ” said Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuela native. “It’s somebody who does it for them. They say, ‘You take this and you’re going to play like this guy, you take that and you’re going to play like that guy,’ and obviously those kids are going to do it.”
So begins the cycle that ends in days like Sept. 5, a Black Friday for baseball’s fight against steroid use: Twelve minor leaguers – seven Dominicans, five Venezuelans – were suspended, the most in a single day since May 12, 2005. That was the first year of MLB’s performance-enhancing-drug testing program, and the 68 players suspended this season – 66 in the minor leagues – represent the most since ’05, too.
Unlike the United States, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are countries with steriods available at the local drug store, no prescription necessary. The ability to easily obtain the drugs, combined with the impoverished lives so many players’ families lead, makes teenagers particularly susceptible to the quick fix steroids are supposed to provide. The average annual income in the Dominican is around $2,500, and Chicago Cubs infielder Ronny Cedeno, a Venezuelan, said: “We’re poor. We’re really poor. We need to make money. And it’s really hard to say no.”
At least 50 haven’t this year. Undoubtedly, more have avoided detection, waiting until after their mandatory once-a-year test to start a steroid cycle, then hope their names aren’t selected for a random test. All of them are part of a culture that reveres baseball and the opportunities it gives people to get out, go somewhere, better themselves.
“In the U.S, if [high school players] don’t like the money, they have the option to go to college,” said Edgar Mercedes, the buscon for Inoa and other Dominican prospects. “Down here, there’s no such option. It’s either baseball or death.”
When Pete Kiefer went to Venezuela and met Adis Portillo, he loved, more than anything, the kid’s attitude. Portillo was 14 years old. He already was hitting 84 mph with his fastball. He was tall and lanky, the perfect build for a pitcher. But it was his yearning for information that piqued Kiefer’s interest.
Kiefer is an agent playing the dual role of buscon. He lives in Connecticut. He got into the talent-seeking business figuring his strength-training background – as well as his policy of taking only 5 percent of bonuses, compared to buscones’ normal cut of 20 to 40 percent – would help him land clients.
After going through a workout with Portillo, who had pitched in the Little League World Series two years earlier, Kiefer took him to a local Internet café. He introduced Portillo to e-mail and told him to check it weekly for workout routines. Weekly wasn’t enough for Portillo. He wanted to get stronger.
Soon enough, Portillo bulked up and added 10 mph to his fastball, and all of a sudden he had turned into the hottest pitching commodity next to Inoa. Teams wanted to throw millions of dollars at him. Portillo’s family never had owned a car. One of the first priorities for Portillo’s parents after he signed for $2 million in July with San Diego was to learn how to drive.
“I know it can be done clean, so it’s staggering when you look at the numbers,” Kiefer said. “That’s why I’m such a stickler for my guys to stay away from it. You don’t need to use steroids to add to your fastball.”
Kiefer’s tack is admirable, if a little naïve. Steroid use generally isn’t as much of an issue among top-tier players – partially because teams have started taking blood tests in between agreeing to a contract and wiring the first bonus payment into a bank account – as it is with the fringe players for whom a couple extra miles per hour or a little more pop in the swing might mean the difference between $10,000 and $100,000.
Timing is a factor, too. Nearly all of the players scouted and signed in Latin America are 16 or 17. It gives teams time to put the players into development programs where they can learn English and acclimate to the baseball life before getting shipped off to the backwoods of the low minor leagues. Every one of the 15 highest bonuses handed out this year was to 16-year-olds.
Accordingly, those with talent who have not physically matured at 16 or 17 fit the profile of those looking for a boost. If 18-year-olds are near-unsignable, steroids are an easy solution for a 17-year-old late bloomer.
“We take some responsibility,” one team’s director of Latin operations said. “But it’s up to them. They go home. They do their thing. Every kid I sign, I talk to him the moment I sign him. People from MLB come and talk to the kid for an hour about it. They get clinics. But they just want to do what they do.”
Which, no matter the schooling, the messaging, the warning, could not resonate with every one of the 1,207 kids in the Dominican Summer League this season. Though some of the 40 caught were in their 20s and well aware of MLB’s quest to rid the game of steroids, the majority were teenagers, many of whom might not know better.
“You’re dealing with an education problem,” one National League general manager said. “You can monitor the players you have under control all you can, feed them, give them English classes. But they’re still susceptible to outside influences and quick fixes.”
“There are going to be slip-ups,” the GM said. “And we all know how.”
There are buscones with clean records, like Mercedes, who has seen none of the 22 kids signed from his Born to Play academy test positive.
Others are leeches of the worst sort. Buscones claim they give some kids what they didn’t have: food, shelter and, most of all, baseball tutelage. While that may be true, executives in the United States and Latin America said what they reap from players’ signing bonuses can far exceed what they provide.
Earlier this year, the FBI confirmed it is investigating claims of Latin American scouts and buscones skimming money. Under the plan, a buscon would give a scout a figure it would cost to sign a player. The scout would return to his team, give an inflated number and split the surplus with the buscon, sometimes ripping off the player in the process.
And yet the code of silence that for years protected steroid users in baseball seems as pervasive in the Dominican Republic, where even the kids who test positive – generally a career death sentence in a place with such an abundance of talent – are loath to finger the culprit of their positive test.
“We try to find out,” said the Latin operations director. “And nobody wants to talk.”
The culture divide between the United States and the Latin countries already had caused enough issues with steroid testing. Only this year was MLB allowed to suspend players in the Dominican Summer League for a positive steroid test – and that took a long offseason of negotiation between MLB and the Dominican government, Manfred said.
Policing buscones, then, is a near-impossible task. The law signed by Dominican president Leonel Fernandez limiting buscones from taking more than 15 percent of a player’s bonus is toothless because of the difficulty in enforcing it.
“When you talk about that kind of regulation,” Manfred said, “you’ve got to be the government to do that.”
So buscones – everyone from Mercedes to a local coach to a person who doesn’t know anything and is trying to make a quick buck off a family member – roam free. They can supply the drugs and encourage the kid to take them, because they view him more as investment than person.
“Sometimes the kid wants to, sometimes he doesn’t want to,” Mercedes said, “and sometimes the coach has put so much into him that the kid gets forced to.”
So what’s the solution to something that could be construed as organized child abuse?
Gomez, who grew up in Santiago, D.R., can’t count the number of times people have offered him what were supposedly vitamin B12 shots. Gomez would take the needles, cross-check the ingredients with the ones listed on an official MLB handout and almost always find them filled with a banned substance.
He grew up in a middle-class family, his dad employed by a bank and his mom a corporation, so Gomez didn’t have nearly the pressure to take performance enhancers as other might. At the same time, he feels accountable to the next generation of Latin American players, as the one that preceded him was integral in making Dominicans and Venezuelans such a vital part of baseball.
“I’ve got more responsibility,” Gomez said. “If I find some guy who brings (kids) this other stuff, he’s got problems with me.”
Such individual obligation, plus education programs, are MLB’s current methods of prevention. They are not enough, Manfred said, so MLB is considering other options.
“I’m all for testing the kid before he signs,” Mercedes said. “That’s the only way you’re going to do it.”
MLB is too. The Dominican government won’t allow it. So MLB has varied the times of its tests to make them less predictable, though with only one mandatory test a year, MLB could stand to increase the frequency as well.
Another consideration, Manfred said, is to start educational seminars for the scouts on ferreting out potential steroid users and buscones who may provide them.
“It’s on the scouts,” Gomez said. “They have a good idea who (represents) the kids that are going to sign and his reputation.”
Finally, baseball’s Department of Investigations, formed on the advice of the Mitchell Report and already well-versed in the Latin American world after exploring the skimming scandal, is trying to extract the names of the buscones who provide the drugs, no matter the roadblocks. While MLB cannot officially ban those pegged in the investigation, it’s unlikely a team will dole out big money for one of his players.
“I’m an optimist by nature,” Manfred said. “I do believe that we are going to have to continue to improve the programs, and I don’t mean just the testing and education. We will be able to reduce the numbers.”
How much is the question. Eighteen players in the United States have been caught this season, and due to increased testing, less than 0.2 percent administered have come back positive. MLB continues to say it has the strongest testing program in American professional sports.
Only it’s not dealing with the United States. Latin America is the new frontier. And right now, the outlaws are winning.