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December 12, 2007 at 4:58 PM

The Mitchell Report’s forgotten names

Only 18 more hours to go until the Mitchell Report is released by MLB and adds roughly 60 to 80 names to the growing list of baseball players said to have used performance enhancing drugs. I know this report will be greeted by plenty of skepticism. I know there are those out there who say the past should be kept in the past and that many of the ballplayers will have used the drugs before they were outlawed by MLB.
But I think it’s an important story that needs to be followed up on. In all of its complexities. Fingers need to be pointed not just at the players who took drugs to further their careers. But also at the teams, players’ union and MLB leadership that largely turned a blind eye to the problem. One thing that won’t surprise me about the list of names tomorrow is if it contains an abnormally high percentage of Latin Americans.
Latin America and the involvement of its players with steroids is a subject I’ve followed with great interest for the past three years. I travelled to the Dominican Republic in 2005 for the Toronto Star and did an extensive, two-part investigative report about how steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (like farm supplements meant for large animals) were easily obtained and frequently used by teenagers there.
An excellent photo essay on those stories, taken by photographer Peter Power, who accompanied me throughout the trip, can be viewed by clicking on this link. The text link on the Zuma Press page also contains Part II of my series. That story was about the so-called “buscones” — unlicensed street agents who gather up all the young ballplayers they can find on the streets of the Dominican and “groom” them to become professionals as young as age 16. How are these prospects groomed? Well, for one thing, major league teams scouring for talent at that age will want to see young players who physically show them something.
How does a great young player gain physical maturity by age 16 or 17? Well, some are truly gifted, freaks of nature. Others get help from a needle. Even the truly gifted ones get a needle boost at times. Injections are nothing to young Dominican boys, who start taking vitamin B-12 shots given by their teams and “buscones” at ages as young as 11 or 12. Mix some performance enhancing drugs into those shots and well, the vitamin “boost” becomes bigger.
How did Rafael Palmeiro say he wound up with the anabolic steroid stanozolol in his system? Why, from a B-12 shot given him by then-Baltimore teammate Miguel Tejada, subject of today’s big swap with the Astros. Yeah, still taking B-12 shots in the majors. Some habits die hard.
That’s kind of my point. You can pass all the rules you like, provide education to players about the harm such drugs can do to their system, but the bottom line is: old habits are hard to break. When you’ve been groomed on steroids or farm animal supplements from even before you’re a teenager, it’s going to be psychologically difficult to break your dependence — even if it’s only a mental one — on such performance enhancers. Ballplayers are a very superstitious, highly-regimented bunch. The Dominican ballplayer who escaped a horrible life of poverty by hitting a baseball further than anyone else is going to be reluctant to stop taking enhancers if that’s something he’s been doing all of his life.
Take a look at the photos from Peter Power and you’ll see one of a scrawny ballplayer and his mother standing outside their shantytown home (my hand is on the far right, holding a pen). That boy was actually a 17-year-old, who looks about 13 because, I’m told, of malnourishment. But he dreamed of following his hero, David Ortiz, into the major leagues. He knew he had to get bigger if his hitting ability (said to be pretty good) was going to attract attention. I don’t know what happened to the boy. Don’t know whether he just filled-out naturally, started pumping weights, or if he’s still even playing ball. But I do know that the boys all around him were all doing what they had to in order to get bigger. What would you do if you were him?
I mention this boy because I saw Ortiz quoted in a Boston Herald story from this year saying that for all he knows, he may have taken steroids back when he was in the Dominican. Hey, it’s entirely possible. That’s how rampant the problem is down there. Nothing would surprise me. Some groups, like the New York-based Hispanics Across America, have called on MLB to institute drug testing for baseball prospects in the Dominican and Venezuela before they sign pro contracts.
MLB has balked at doing it. Part of the problem is money, since this would be a very costly venture. The other part is legal, since none of these prospects are actually employees of any MLB team. You’re talking about a U.S.-based corporate entity extending its rules on to foreign soil.
MLB has already stepped on some toes and waded through legal murk by extending its drug testing policy to the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues. Venezuelan players in that league (under contract to MLB teams) receive the full brunt of the plan and the same penalities if caught, as I reported on a year ago for the Times when I visited Venezuela. As you can see by reading, the plan has run into its share of problems while being implemented. But the fact Venezuelan pros are now being tested and punished is a huge step forward from where MLB was just three years ago.
The photos below are a couple I took of batting practice being taken by a Venezuelan Winter League “B” team. The guy throwing it is a Pittsburgh Pirates prospect who has to work out with this club because he’s been suspended 50 games from any Venezuelan Summer League activity after getting caught with steroids in his system.
South America 109.jpg
South America 107.jpg
The punishments are not the same in the Dominican Republic. Violators of MLB’s drug policy there cannot be suspended, mainly because Dominican labor law won’t allow players to be denied employment for taking drugs that are actually legal in that country.
So, it’s an enforcement program with no teeth.
As you can see, it’s a challenge just to test and punish the pros. But the reality is, most of these players being caught got their start on performance enhancing drugs well before they turned pro. By the time they reach the pro ranks, their dependence — mental and physical — on these drugs to achieve athletic success is ingrained. Some of them are taking human growth hormone, or animal supplements, which are not being tested for.
This isn’t as simple as saying that kids in California, or Florida, face the same pressures. Or an unfair obstacle in competing for jobs against Dominican and Venezuelans being groomed as “pros” — drugs, training and all — from their pre-teen years onwards. Baseball in the Dominican and — to some extent — Venezuela truly is a life-or-death thing. For those who don’t make the big leagues (and we’re talking about 95 percent of those signed as “pros” for bonuses usually totalling $5,000 to $15,000), they have little education and will be doomed to a grim future. Many of them took their drugs, got bigger, gave up school and were told baseball would cure everything in their lives. They were told wrong and were largely forgotten about once dropped by their teams. But at least they have their bonuses. The ballplayers who don’t get signed wind up doing untold damage to themselves for nothing.
Whatever happens tomorrow, this is a sad story we’re talking about. Try not to think only about the names of major leaguers that get mentioned. Think of this problem in the context of all those names you’ll never get to hear about — shining shoes or living in a tin shack in some impovershed neighborhood. Steroids and the pressure to take them is only part of the global exploitation of players from underdeveloped countries.
But it’s an important part.
I don’t bat an eyelash when I hear that a Dominican player like Jose Guillen, who I had many casual conversations about steroids with during his time in Seattle, has been linked in news reports to performance enhancing drugs. It disappoints me. But it doesn’t surprise me.
And a part of me, based on what my eyes have seen, feels greater empathy for Latin American born players named in such drug stories. Far greater than I have for their American and Canadian counterparts. Much more than I have for the product of a wealthy family and school system like Barry Bonds. Yes, it’s a double-standard and you don’t have to agree with it.
But it’s two different worlds we’re talking about. And they’re about to come together tomorrow.



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