For some Dominican players, steroids worth risk

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic (AP) - A monument to baseball greets visitors to this city known as "the cradle of shortstops." Children in San Pedro de Macoris grow up playing ball behind tin shanties and on fields cut from sugar plantations.

Bernardino Jimenez was one of those kids. He became a victim of his own dream.

Desperate to lift his family out of poverty, the lanky infielder put himself in the hands of an agent who had him injected with a mixture both say they thought was legal vitamins. They were wrong.

After being signed to the Arizona Diamondbacks' training squad last year, Jimenez tested positive for Boldenone, an anabolic steroid used in horses, and was slapped with a career-stalling 50-game suspension.

"They said I would get to travel to the United States and play there. Because of this I held myself back," the 19-year-old Jimenez says, taking a break from batting practice near the metal-roofed shack he shares with six siblings, two nieces, his mother and an aunt - a home that sits under the belching smoke stacks of a sugar refinery.

Jimenez's case is just one example of a disturbing trend in this hotbed of baseball talent.

Of the 69 minor leaguers suspended for using banned substances in 2008, nearly two thirds - 42 - came from the Dominican Summer League, a developmental program for Latin American players housed in secluded palm tree-lined campuses owned by big-league teams. This year, 31 of the 71 minor leaguers suspended for using banned substances came from the DSL.

In the major leagues, where performance-enhancing substances have been a divisive issue for more than a decade, players with Dominican roots have also been at the center of several high-profile drug cases.

Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez have been accused in stories by The New York Times of being on a list of more than 100 players alleged to have tested positive during an initial drug survey of MLB players six years ago. David Ortiz has acknowledged the union told him he was on the list, and slugger Alex Rodriguez, following a February report in Sports Illustrated, said he used steroids while with Seattle from 2001-03. Rodriguez said a cousin obtained a substance he knew as "boli" in the Dominican Republic.

If Dominican players are overrepresented in substance use scandals, it's partly because they also are overrepresented in the game. Eighty-one of 818 players on major league opening-day rosters and disabled lists were born in the Spanish-speaking republic - second only to the United States.

And while some young U.S. players use performance-enhancing drugs, they generally have more options besides baseball than their Caribbean neighbors do.

For up-and-coming Dominican players, the lure of drugs is simple: all the money baseball can provide. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is a nation where a quarter of the 9.7 million people live under the poverty line. Steroids, growth hormones, amphetamines and other performance-enhancing substances banned by baseball cause health problems - from infertility and depression to heart disease - but such long-term issues can easily get ignored in the face of daily hardship.

Many people take much bigger risks in the near-term, like the thousands who chance death each year aboard overloaded, illegal boats bound for Miami or Puerto Rico. Their goal is just to find a minimum-wage job.

Baseball, meanwhile, is a ticket to untold riches. Superstars such as Pedro Martinez come home to ramshackle neighborhoods each winter in Dolce & Gabana suits and luxury SUVs, and even the president scrambles to get a picture with them.

On signing day, Jimenez landed a $55,000 bonus with Arizona. Even after his trainer's cut, Jimenez reaped what it would take his mother at least 14 years to earn sewing clothes in a factory for U.S. export.

"Here the only way to get out of poverty is baseball," said Leandro Sepulveda, a San Pedro de Macoris businessman who was formerly Jimenez's agent and trainer. "That's why people are willing to do anything."

One problem is availability. Steroids and other substances are sold in neighborhood pharmacies and rural veterinary shops without a prescription, though increased scrutiny in recent months has made some stores less willing to stock them. League officials say some also unwittingly self-medicate with banned substances to fight colds or aches in the offseason.

"We have no control over the young guys as a league. We try to help and we try to give them the necessary education, but they live in someone else's house," said Dominican Summer League chief Orlando Diaz.

The league is trying to crack down. Since 2003, educators armed with videos, testimonials and power-point presentations have been giving biweekly anti-drug talks, and players are subjected to three random urine tests a season. The 50-game suspensions have been in place since 2007 and, to hear players throughout the league talk, the deterrent message is starting to get through.

"If a player tests positive down here, he knows that his career might be in jeopardy," says Pablo Peguero, the San Francisco Giants' chief scout for Latin America.

MLB realizes performance-enhancing substances are far more easily available in the Dominican Republic than the United States, where regulations have been toughened and many supplements became prescription-only starting in January 2005.

"We think it would be helpful if the legal framework in the Dominican Republic were similar to ours in terms the regulation of performance-enhancing drugs," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations.

It is hard to overstate the power baseball holds over the Dominican Republic.

The game was brought here by Cuban war refugees in the mid-19th century. When U.S. Marines invaded in the early 20th, they found professional local baseball teams already good enough to beat them. Dominican players broke into the majors about a decade after baseball's color line was shattered, with Ozzie Virgil in 1956, and within a few short decades they were among the best in the game.

In the balmy winter, fans pack raucous stadiums, rum and empanadas in hand, to cheer local teams with current major leaguers on the rosters. Images of Ortiz and others are used to sell everything from soft drinks to Viagra knock-offs. A major bank bills itself as "the official sponsor of the dream of making the major leagues."

In summer, the big-league academies go into full swing, with the 33 teams of the Dominican Summer League facing off with the same uniforms and equipment as their parent clubs.

Jimenez's hometown of San Pedro de Macoris alone has sent at least 73 players to the majors, including Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Tony Fernandez and Robinson Cano.

Everything around young hopefuls trumpets the rewards of a baseball career.

Jimenez, a lean, muscular prospect with close-cropped hair, grew up outside town in a batey, one of the scores of worker camps for Haitian and Dominican sugar cane cutters that dot the countryside and are known for deep poverty and high rates of AIDS and other diseases. It was there he learned to field grounders on the rough dirt, and word spread outside the batey that he had "the tools."

Before long, Jimenez was drawing the attention of buscones - blends of trainers, scouts, language coaches, guardians and agents who often are the only link between illiterate families and major league clubs. Some are former players with tightly organized camps that drill in Santo Domingo parks, others are untrained opportunists, but all have one goal: a percentage, sometimes more than half, of signing bonuses that can range into the millions of dollars.

Jimenez ended up with Sepulveda, a smooth-talking entrepreneur only eight years his senior who sports his own set of rippling muscles and is partial to tight polo shirts. He had no playing experience of his own, but offered something even better to an impoverished mother looking out for her son - free room and three meals a day in a new, concrete house.

"I am a civil engineer and I work in construction. But four years ago, I realized baseball was giving out money, so I got into this," said the trainer, who also represented recent Houston Astros pitching signee Miguel Cedano.

There the stories diverge. Jimenez says that Sepulveda's cousin, a nurse, injected him every other day with a serum to improve his play. Though Sepulveda told him it was Vitamin B Complex, the prospect now believes the shots contained the steroids that triggered his suspension.

"I did not know what they were putting in me," Jimenez says, brushing off his gray Diamondbacks practice T-shirt and black mesh Diamondbacks practice shorts.

Sepulveda denies breaking any rules, saying he gave clients vitamins and the protein supplement MegaMax but that everything was legal according to baseball's list of banned substances. But he was also quick to say that other buscones take shortcuts, including lying about players' ages, to get more money on signing day.

"In this country people have to pull some tricks to get anything. Look at the politicians," he said.

After the positive test and the suspension, the two stopped talking. Jimenez was suspended for 50 games over the end of the 2008 season and the beginning of 2009, losing more than $1,000 in pay and, more importantly, valuable time he could have spent developing his game and impressing the scouts.

Now, Jimenez said, he is taking no chances. With the season over, he said he is practicing five days a week with friends in the neighborhood, substance-free. In fact, his play improved after his suspension ended, his batting average rising from .165 to .238 and fielding percentage from .855 at shortstop last year to .955 this year at second.

Shirtless boys surround him as he talks, and Jimenez fumbles with a bat, watching a rickety truck rumble by on the dirt road.

"The first thing I am going to do (when I make the majors) is take my sister out of here," he said. "I still have a lot of hope."

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