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October 21, 2010 at 5:36 PM

New story on Dominican Republic baseball reality has lessons for all baseball fans in regards to steroids, exploitation

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Had an interesting phone chat today with Dan Rather, the longtime CBS news anchor, who now does an hour-long, magazine-style show titled Dan Rather Reports for HDNet. Rather just finished a fascinating full-hour segment on baseball in the Dominican Republic, dealing heavily with the practices of the “buscones” and how they gather talent for MLB teams. The segment aired on Tuesday and can be viewed for a small fee on iTunes.
“I was only vaguely aware of some of the things that were going on down there,” Rather told me.
This should be a big item of interest for Mariners fans, given how Seattle continues to benefit from international signings more than the amateur draft. Seattle’s top international scout, Bob Engle, spent years honing his craft for the Toronto Blue Jays in the Dominican before moving on to Seattle early last decade. The M’s are now heavily focused in Venezuela — which has its own share of problems, though not to the extent the DR does — but Engle and company continue to seek out Dominican prospects as well.
Engle’s reputation is solid internationally, more so than other top scouts linked to abuses and exploitation. But we also have to accept the fact that most of us don’t know completely what takes place in other countries, especially on a Dominican front that Rather’s story accurately depicts as the last “Wild West” for baseball.
Rather is no baseball rookie. He covered the sport as a young ABC reporter, did play-by-play of Houston Buffaloes minor league games and still attends roughly 10 games per season as a fan of the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Houston Astros.
He’d been to the Dominican before on other stories and knew about how MLB teams go there to scour for cheap talent. But when it came to the buscones, he had his eyes opened to “the whole racket” and what’s really going on.
The word “buscones” is literally “searchers” in Spanish. They are a largely unregulated band of freelance talent scouts and hustlers who groom boys as young as 12 to be future MLB stars. There are few organized leagues in the DR, so MLB teams tend to sign Dominican players based on tryouts arranged by the buscones, who then receive a percentage of any signing bonus as payback for their work tutoring and caring for the players.
It’s a tough, shady world they live in. Some buscones have stolen the entirety of signing bonuses, while keeping more than half of it is not uncommon. And the players being signed are usually 17 or 18 (sometimes 16) years old and the majority will never even make it to the lower levels of minor leagues in the United States.
Rather said he didn’t realize how so many of the prospects under the care of the buscones — and recruited by MLB teams — drop out of school so they can be groomed full-time. Players in the U.S. have to finish high school (or, at least exhaust their playing eligibility at that level) before being eligible to be drafted by MLB teams.
The drug issue is also front and center in Rather’s story. Buscones will often pump their prospects up with drugs so they can throw the 90 mph fastballs at age 17 and 18 that MLB talent scouts want to see. How many American-born kids throw that hard at that age? Yes, it is a double-standard.
The piece by Rather, I think, strikes a fair balance between placing blame for what’s going on in the DR on the buscones themselves, the Dominican goverment that allows them to operate with near impunity and on MLB. Let’s face it, the only reason major league teams care about the DR is because of the cheap talent it offers in teenagers being groomed in professional-style fashion instead of going to school. Heck, the Mariners spent only $10,000 to sign David Ortiz back in the 1990s, even if they weren’t smart enough to hold on to him. You can sign 100 young Dominicans for the cost of a first-round U.S.-born draft pick and only need a handful of them to pan out for the investment to be worth it.
It sounds a lot like the kind of exploitation that gets U.S. clothing manufacturers in trouble, doesn’t it? The folks who get their goods manufactured by child laborers in third-world countries, then make a mint selling them over here.
Rather has done stories like those his entire career. So, I asked him whether he saw similar parallels as well.
“It is a distant relative of what we see time and again everywhere,” he replied.
Rather said he didn’t want to “overstate” the case by comparing what goes on in Dominican baseball to the type of exploitation we see, for instance, with young girls in the international sex trade. But he also admits to being surprised by the depth of the Dominican problems, having assumed that, because MLB teams have operated down there for so long, more regulation of the industry would have been in-place.
I went to the Dominican to write about the buscones in 2005 and also did stories on MLB drug testing in Venezuela in 2006. So, I was aware of what was going on.
But I enjoyed Rather’s piece and highly recommend it because of the way it advances the story. It also provides an all-you-need-to-know primer on the issue of the buscones system for first-timers. Rather describes the grim life realities faced by players who don’t make it. For every Sammy Sosa-type “shoeshine boy-to-riches” story of a Dominican going on to big league stardom, the abandonment of education means you have hundreds of others who eventually are forced — once their often meagre signing bonuses run out — to go back to being shoeshine men, or petty criminals to make ends meet.
It’s an eye-opener for the uninitiated. And it should give pause to people who argue that the MLB steroids issue is hardly life-and-death and is really just about sports entertainment. Not in the Dominican it isn’t. Kids there shoot up with steroids, or farm animal drugs — supplied by the buscones — in order to keep pace with the MLB stars they worship and emulate. I visited the family home of a 19-year-old who died after taking farm drugs supplied by his buscon. He took them because he had a tryout scheduled with the Phillies and wanted to play the way he felt a big leaguer was expected to. You can bet the player’s family wasn’t sitting by the TV applauding on Tuesday when Barry Bonds was honored by the San Francisco Giants pre-game and received a warm, raucous ovation from Bay area fans.
Some folks just don’t know. Or don’t want to try to know.
Anyhow, back to Rather’s piece, which picks up the current-day Dominican story — a lot like the old one, with a system rife with corruption and exploitation. The difference now, as Rather tells it, is that Seattle native Sandy Alderson, a former Oakland A’s general manager, MLB vice president and San Diego Padres CEO, has been dispatched by MLB to the DR as a consultant to “clean things up.”
Photo Credit: Raul Espinosa/AP


For years, MLB has resisted implementing drug testing of Dominican teens before they sign contracts with big-league clubs. Five years ago, when I worked on the story, the MLB official line was that Dominican law made it tough for baseball officials from here to carry out tests in what is, in fact, a foreign country. But MLB critics for years have suggested that money was the real reason for the reluctance, given the expense involved in testing so many kids, the majority of which had little chance of ever making it to the majors.
Well, that’s now changing.
In Rather’s piece, we learn that Alderson recently implemented a pilot project in which 40 young Dominican players were drug tested in advance of signing contracts. A third of them failed.
The players also had their identities screened in advance. Dominicans lying about their age has become a huge issue since the 9/11 terror attacks as U.S. immigration officials crack down on the validity of documents used to obtain work visas. In the past, Dominicans used phony birth certificates to lie about their age. Why? Because MLB teams tend to lose interest in Dominican prospects once they turn 19, figuring there are better, younger players out there to take a chance on.
This also ties into the drug issue. Knowing their kids have to make a splash by ages 17 or 18, the buscones pump their prospects full of drugs to get them to physically mature more quickly. And it’s not “The Cream” and “The Clear” those kids are getting, either. The DR is a poor country and buscones and players don’t have access to high-tech performance enhancing drugs and the proper medical supervision for taking them.
In many cases, the buscones go with 1980s-fashion, fallback stuff like stanozolol, available without a perscription in Dominican pharmacies. Or, the kids themselves head off to the local veterinarian and buy farm drugs like Diamino, which is meant for horses and cows, but cheaper than your garden variety steroids. There are, of course, as I’ve mentioned, health concerns associated with pumping your body full of stuff meant for four-legged animals. But Dominicans wanting to make it to the big leagues — and their buscones — are desperate and willing to take the risk to level out what they see as an uneven playing field in the U.S. built on a mountain of PED use over the past 25 years.
MLB teams have known for years about this drug use by Dominican teenagers. You’d have to be a bit impressionable, or foolish, as a pro scout to believe that so many 17-year-olds from a country that small could perform the same athletic feats as Americans in their 20s.
“The buscones arranged for this to happen,” Rather said of the drug use. “The Dominican government has a lot to answer for…but MLB’s responsibility is that they have been big enablers.”
MLB had also been aware of the fake ID issue for years. So, why all the fuss now? Well, as Rather’s story indicates, the signing bonuses for top Dominican players keep rising as buscones — and some U.S. agents now infiltrating the country to work with them — get smarter and demand compensation closer to what top U.S. draftees would make.
And with those rising investments come greater risks.
Nowadays, teams could see those investments face 50-game suspensions for a positive drug test in the majors or minors. That’s a year of messed up development for any player caught and money wasted for a team.
Also, teams risk forefeiting the entire signing bonus given a foreign prospect if that player turns out to have lied about his age and gets denied a U.S. work visa. Not a problem for the Dominican kids who cost a team $5,000 to sign. A big problem if the player was one of the premium ones now receiving $4 million.
Rather told me he believes that some MLB officials are motivated by the desire to change things in the DR because the situation has gotten so out of hand. But his piece itself, I think, strikes the right cynicism about the fact that money could be the prime motivator as well in this case.
After all, even Alderson, a man who enjoys a stellar reputation throughout baseball, is a walking contradiction of sorts. The man now tasked with “cleaning up” the Dominican drug problem, among other things, was the same guy who put together the Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire-led A’s of the 1980s.
The A’s of the 1980s and 1990s have since become recognized as steroids-central, the Ground Zero of the Steroids Era in MLB if you will. And Alderson was their GM from 1983 until 1997. When asked in 2005 about Canseco’s claims that he and McGwire took steroids while with the A’s, Alderson told USA Today: “If you go back 15 years, we were all less knowledgeable, less aware of these kinds of possibilities. That’s not an excuse, but we’re all much more aware today on what impact this kind of drug use can have.”
Alderson has also made numerous trips to the DR as an MLB front office member and isn’t just finding out about the buscones for the first time. He’s done business with them, after all, as have the GMs of just about every MLB team.
Alderson’s firsthand knowledge of the situation is why he’s been tabbed to clean it up.
But knowing his background, you can understand some cynicism. And believe me, it exists in the DR and comes through in the interviews done by Rather with buscones and others down there.
It’s part of the reason there’s such a reluctance to change the system. Many in the DR believe Alderson is just a “Trojan Horse” sent down by MLB to lay the groundwork for an international draft. Such a draft could clean up some of the abuses, but would also limit some of the money top Dominican prospects could receive in signing bonuses. It would also limit the earning power of the buscones themselves.
As you can see, it’s all a bit of a mess. One that MLB shares complicity in because of its willingness to look the other way for so long.
But you as fans don’t have to look the other way. Newspapers like the Washington Post have done great coverage of the Dominican buscones for the past decade. And now, thanks to Rather’s new piece, you can see the whole sad story in jarring footage.
Whatever you want to believe, MLB is a business. And for some Dominican teenagers, it’s a business that has destroyed lives through false hope, child abuse and exploitation. There really is no better way to put it. Now, according to Alderson, MLB is trying to clean up the mess it largely helped create.
Watch the show, and you’ll have no reason to remain uninformed.

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