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Dominican baseball prospects frequently play fast and loose with the rules

In the winter of 2007, Major League Baseball was shaken to its core as Congress, armed with the Mitchell Report, examined the single greatest threat to the integrity of the game: steroids.

In the baseball-crazy Dominican Republic, home to one in 10 major league players, that threat collides with a harsh reality, because finding performance-enhancing drugs here is as easy as buying aspirin.

Take a stroll along the leafy Calle Independencia, a block from this capital’s bustling seafront highway, and at every intersection there are two or three pharmacies where steroids are sold openly.

At the brightly lighted Farmax, which shares a crowded strip mall with a cafeteria and a camera repair shop, powerful injectable steroids such as testosterone enanthate can be found behind the toothpaste and cough medicine.

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A block away at the Carol pharmacy -- open 24/7 with free delivery -- you can buy not only plush toys and school binders, but the young women in white lab coats at the back of the store will sell you Deca-Durabolin, the anabolic steroid taken by former American League most valuable player Jason Giambi.

In the provincial capital of San Cristobal, about 45 minutes west of here, scantily clad women near the checkout stand of a La Sirena supermarket pass out fliers for a dozen products banned under most drug-testing protocols.

One of the drugs highlighted in the Mitchell Report is the steroid Dianabol, which is available virtually everywhere here, over the counter, for 30 cents a tablet.

Drugs are not the only concern for MLB in a country that produces more baseball talent than any foreign nation.

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“Baseball in the Dominican Republic is in jeopardy,” says Charles Farrell, a former Washington Post journalist and co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy (DRSEA). “Just from the integrity issue. There’s no simple solution.”

Plenty of money is at stake, with 29 of the 30 major league teams operating elaborate training academies here, signing prospects for millions of dollars, and pouring an estimated $100 million annually into the crippled economy.

With stakes this high, cheating has become so prevalent there is a phrase for it here. La buena mentira. The good lie.

MLB and the FBI are investigating on three major fronts.

* Drugs. Over the last season and a half, 59% (81 of 137) of the minor league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs were from the Dominican, home to a quarter of all minor leaguers.

* Document fraud. In a bid to pass themselves off as younger, and thus better, prospects use fake birth certificates or other falsified documents even though hundreds of players have already been caught lying about their identity or age -- the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal and the Angels’ Ervin Santana among them.

* Skimming and kickbacks. MLB and FBI investigators since 2008 have found that employees from several MLB teams working in the U.S. and Latin America were involved in skimming tens of thousands of dollars from contract bonuses intended for Dominican and Venezuelan players.

Commissioner Bud Selig this last spring formed a committee to look into these abuses, and others, and chose Sandy Alderson, a former MLB executive vice president, to lead it. Dozens of people have been interviewed, from baseball scouts to officials from the Dominican government, the U.S. Embassy and MLB.

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“This is not just a Dominican problem,” said Alderson, who expects to file preliminary findings as early as next week.

“This is a baseball problem. So this kind of comprehensive review is intended to determine whether there are structural changes that baseball has to make in its own operations down there to ensure some of these issues are more fully addressed.”

Why drugs?

Amid crushing poverty, it is no surprise that the lure of easy baseball riches in the U.S. is at the center of many of MLB’s problems here and elsewhere in Latin America. Last year, the average signing bonus for a Dominican prospect topped $100,000 in a country where the average annual salary is less than $9,000.

It comes down to a choice. Cheat and get signed to a lucrative contract, lifting your family out of poverty. Don’t cheat and take a chance you will have to stay here, cutting sugar cane -- or worse. To many here, taking drugs or other shortcuts is competing, not cheating.

True, MLB forbids performance-enhancing drugs, but enforcing the policy here has been difficult. Until last summer, Dominican labor laws prevented baseball from suspending players in the 33-team Dominican Summer League -- or even notifying clubs when a player in the island-based minor league tested positive.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who grew up a Yankees fan in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, recognizes how important baseball is to his nation and that such abuses spiraling out of control could mean disaster.

“This is a country where baseball is a national passion. Why wouldn’t he be open?” said Eduardo Gamarra, an advisor to Fernandez. “My sense is that he would be very open. There’s clearly an interest in maintaining the industry alive and happy here.”

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MLB officials said the change in the law here last summer, allowing them to sanction players who test positive, has had a major impact. And Gamarra said the government now sees MLB’s testing program as a model for this country where, except for baseball, it still is illegal to sanction workers for failing a drug test.

“There is now a real concern about drug abuse here,” he says. “The last thing this country needs is for us to have the export of players with drug problems. The whole thing with steroids has had a backlash here. Especially with players that are national treasures.”

National treasures such as Dominican superstars Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and David Ortiz -- all publicly linked to positive drug tests in the last eight months.

Yet there appears to be little shame in that here. The portion of the Americas Highway near Santo Domingo’s international airport that was renamed Route 66 a decade ago in recognition of Sosa’s 66-home run season in 1998 still proudly carries his name.

“We certainly are aware that the Dominican has presented a unique challenge in terms of positive rates,” says Rob Manfred, Selig’s point man on drug testing. “We are operating in an entirely different legal framework. We go to the Dominican and do business, we have to accept the laws as we find them. Obviously, when you have substances that are legal and available, it’s a lot tougher.”

In some cases, the unrelenting push to cheat has had tragic consequences. In 2001, Lino Ortiz, 19, and William Felix, 18, died after injecting themselves with animal steroids and a dietary supplement meant for horses and cows.

“You have this skinny 14-, 15-, 16-year-old Dominican boy who is told you need to be bigger, stronger, faster,” Farrell says. “And the solution is a pill away. What do you do?”

Bad paper

Let’s say you have a prospect, but it is taking longer than you hoped to get him that lucrative contract. The next step is to rejuvenate his age, with the notion that younger is better, leading to document fraud.

“Identification is the No. 1 problem,” says Eddy Toledo, director of Dominican operations for the Tampa Bay Rays and a major league scout for nearly four decades who has worked with the Angels, Mets and now the Rays.

“You can control a little bit of the drug stuff,” he says. “Some kind of treatment, some kind of talking to the kids. But the identification? They need to make an effort to stop that.”

No team has escaped this ruse. Three years ago the Washington Nationals gave $1.4 million to a 16-year-old named Esmailyn Gonzalez, only to later learn his name was Carlos David Alvarez Lugo and he was four years older than he said.

Last year, the Cleveland Indians, after what they thought was a thorough check, paid $575,000 to sign 16-year-old Jose Ozoria, then found he was really 19-year-old Wally Bryan.

This summer, the Yankees got burned on a 16-year-old shortstop who said his name was Damian Arredondo. Shortly after he agreed to an $850,000 bonus with the Yankees, an MLB investigation voided the deal after determining that Damian Arredondo was neither 16 nor named Damian Arredondo. Then in early September, this same player, whose real name has not been made public by MLB, tested positive for metabolites of Stanozolol, a banned substance.

And now questions about the age of infielder Miguel Sano, seen as the top amateur in the Dominican, have delayed his signing.

“He’s a stud. I like him,” says Charlie Romero, who manages the Angels’ Dominican academy, located between an orphanage and a convent outside San Pedro de Macoris. “But you don’t want to invest money in a guy that, three months later, you find out probably he was on steroids or that that’s not his real age. It’s happened in the past, so we need to do something about it.”

The situation has led MLB investigators and many teams to ask players to undergo DNA and bone-marrow testing to prove their age and identity. Private investigators are also routinely hired to look into a player’s age.

Document fraud is hardly new, though. When the U.S. sought stricter document verification after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was revealed that 540 Dominican major league and minor league players had a different identity or were a different age, including Santana, who lowered his age by a year, and Furcal, who said he was 19 when he was really 21.

According to one published report, the number of such fraud cases has dropped to an average of 145 annually -- about a quarter of all signings -- and is expected to keep falling since MLB recently began handing out yearlong suspensions to any player caught using fraudulent documents.

Money off the top

While drugs and identity fraud are at the bottom of this triangle, the payoff comes off the top.

A recent MLB and FBI investigation implicated at least 10 people in the skimming of signing bonuses, including Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who resigned, and Clay Daniel, the Angels’ director of international operations, who was fired. Bowden and Daniel have denied wrongdoing.

Even some of the investigators hired on contract by MLB have been implicated. At least five were fired this year for a variety of reasons, including falsifying reports in exchange for money, MLB officials said.

One of those fired is the brother-in-law of Ronaldo Peralta, MLB’s manager for Latin American operations who heads baseball’s administrative office in the Dominican.

Peralta, who is now banned by MLB from speaking to the media, often has likened the unregulated baseball landscape in the Dominican to the lawless Old West.

But the money continues to flow. According to MLB, the amount major league clubs spend each year on signing international players has more than tripled in the last five years, to nearly $71 million. And more than half has been spent in the Dominican.

Last spring, the famously frugal Oakland Athletics gave $4.25 million, a record for a Dominican amateur, to 16-year-old pitcher Michael Ynoa, who spent this summer on the disabled list with a tender elbow.

This summer, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees spent $3.1 million and $3 million, respectively, to sign Dominican teenagers Wagner Mateo and Gary Sanchez. That’s nearly a thousand times what the Texas Rangers paid to sign Sammy Sosa in 1985. And it’s 1,500 times what Oakland paid seven years later for 2002 American League MVP Miguel Tejada.

Chasing the money begins when prospects sign with one of the many unregulated buscones operating here. Part talent scout and part trainer, buscones recruit boys as young as 11, five years before teams are allowed to talk with them.

Once a buscon gets a player ready to try out for a major league team, he then negotiates the signing bonus, frequently playing teams off one another because Dominicans -- unlike players from the U.S. and Canada -- are free agents not subject to the baseball draft. The contracts often call for the buscones to receive a third to a half of the bonuses as compensation.

Tampa Bay’s Toledo says he once signed a prospect for a $27,000 bonus, only to have three buscones threaten the player’s family with physical harm if he didn’t give them a share. When everyone was paid, the player was left with $2,000 and 200,000 Dominican pesos, worth about $5,500.

Toledo says that is why he is among those who have called for buscones to be regulated, including fines and suspensions for those who feed players steroids or try to get them signed by using fake documents. Currently only the players are subject to sanction.

“Their actions really antagonize the situation,” Toledo says. “They have to be penalized. They just care about the money. They don’t care about the kids. And that is a shame.”

Alderson agrees. But he cautions that some major league clubs have been guilty of wrongdoing as well.

“It’s very important that buscones involved in illegal conduct -- whether it’s promoting drug usage or identity fraud or whatever -- should be prosecuted. But we have to be equally fervent about dealing with our own employees.”

Faced with case after case of fraud in which money was the driving force, Alderson says an international draft -- something he has long advocated -- would rein in the amount spent on signing bonuses here.

Many Dominicans, however, say such a proposal would be seen as imperialist. Maybe so, but the spiral of escalating paydays and fraud has brought unwanted scrutiny that has left this island shell-shocked.

“Can it be fixed? I think so,” Farrell says. “Whether there’s the interest that’s strong enough to fix it, I don’t know. That’s the big question.”

Toledo says enough is enough. “We need to change the direction of what’s going on here,” he says. “Somebody has to do something. We need help. Because I don’t see us solving it ourselves.”

Then he adds, “What kind of world would we have without baseball?”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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