In D.R., Presinal still stands tall

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- In the weeks since the Alex Rodriguez steroids scandal first sent convulsions through the world of baseball, aftershocks have been reverberating through the Dominican Republic, a tiny and mostly impoverished nation that shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

And nowhere has the rumbling been more intense than inside a small weight room tucked underneath the boxing and volleyball arena at the Centro Olimpico, a massive sports complex in the heart of the capital city of Santo Domingo. The complex houses more than a half-dozen baseball fields, a cycling hippodrome, swimming pools, a track and field stadium, tennis courts and even a makeshift BMX and skateboard park.

The nearly hidden gym, now the epicenter of the controversy in the D.R., is run by long-revered Dominican trainer Angel Presinal, who goes by the three-letter nickname "Nao." But Presinal has maintained a very low profile here since it was reported that he trained Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003, Rodriguez's admitted steroid years, and also as recently as 2007, when Presinal reportedly traveled and trained the slugger with the Yankees. The trainer didn't return repeated messages from ESPN seeking comment for this story.

Over the past two decades, Presinal, stocky and in his mid-50s, has trained several Cy Young Award winners, nearly a half-dozen Most Valuable Players, one Rookie of the Year and even a pair of Dominican Olympic medalists.

Photos of many of baseball's biggest stars of the past 20 years fill most of the space on the walls inside the gym: Presinal with Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Juan Gonzalez, Bartolo Colon, Pudge Rodriguez, Raul Mondesi and Alex Rodriguez, among others.

There's even a pair of photos of the Dominican's 2006 World Baseball Classic team, including Presinal, who was its head trainer during the last Classic.

Major League Baseball has ordered that he not accompany the squad for this year's event.

"To us baseball players, he's like, I want to say, God," said former major league ace Jose Rijo, who began training with Presinal at age 16 and eventually became the MVP of the 1990 World Series with Cincinnati. "He knows about training players, about treating players. Here in the Dominican, he might be the only one to have that knowledge. He works so hard with everybody. He gets the best and the most out of any athlete that I've seen working up there."

Rijo isn't alone in that assessment. It's shared by many former and current major leaguers. David Ortiz and Robinson Cano recently gave their full endorsement of Presinal. Each said he would continue working with the embattled trainer, even if Major League Baseball has banned him from private areas inside big league stadiums since 2001.

An incident that year involving Gonzalez and Presinal turned the trainer into a baseball pariah in the U.S., and a subject in the Mitchell report six years later. When Presinal, Gonzalez and the Cleveland Indians traveled to Canada during the '01 season, authorities found steroids in a bag they were told belonged to Presinal. He said the bag was Gonzalez's, which Gonzalez denied. No charges were filed, but MLB banned Presinal after the incident.

"People haven't turned their back on him here in the Dominican Republic," said Moises Alou, who as a Montreal Expos outfielder first trained with Presinal in 1993. "He's a great guy. He's a very enthusiastic guy and he loves to work with the players. I mean, the guy lives here [at the gym]. I don't know where he's at now, but this guy lives here."

These days, Presinal is rarely seen at his gym. But young players still flock to the gym for daily workouts they pray will transform them into the next generation of big leaguers to emerge from Presinal's tutelage.

"If they're big leaguers and they come here and I'm just a rookie, then I have to be here all the time," said 16-year-old Cristopher de Leon Pena, a tall, lanky pitcher who has been training with Presinal for eight years and hopes to catch the eye of a major league scout. "[The big leaguers who train here] are the primary inspiration for me to get up there. He truly is a very good person and has treated me like a father and has helped me in every way I've needed."

Presinal's allies go far in backing him, but they do so with a big caveat.

"It's hard for him now; he's in the spotlight and he doesn't know what to say," Rijo said. "I don't want to say he's guilty. I don't want to defend him if he is. But there's a lot of obvious reasons he doesn't say anything. Maybe he doesn't want to jeopardize anybody's career."

Said veteran pitcher Odalis Perez, who also trains at Presinal's gym: "If Nao doesn't have anything to hide, then just face the cameras, the media and come tell the truth. Whatever you have to say about the allegations of steroids, come tell the truth and face the media."

Even Alou, the first player to bring Presinal to the States back in 1993, won't throw his unconditional support behind him now.

"He needs to come out and clean himself up and defend himself," Alou said. "If he doesn't do that, I don't think he can go back to the U.S. and work with the players. If I'm Presinal, believe me, I'd face and tell the media. Whatever happened in past, face the media."

Presinal might not be allowed to travel and participate with the Dominican team during this year's World Baseball Classic, but that didn't stop him from supervising workouts for the squad during a recent minicamp. That camp was two days before Rodriguez was confronted by a Sports Illustrated reporter about having tested positive for steroids in 2003, when Presinal was overseeing Rodriguez's training.

Presinal worked with Rodriguez and approximately 20 other Dominican stars, including Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Ortiz, Perez and Alou, in early February in Boca Chica, a small town about 30 minutes from Santo Domingo. He ran the players through numerous drills and administered massages to several of them before and after the workouts.

A Dominican baseball official told ESPN the team had considered taking Presinal to the World Baseball Classic again. The decision to leave him behind was made before the Rodriguez story broke, the official said, because they had received the letter from Major League Baseball reminding them that Presinal was banned.

"I think that would be a distraction," said Alou, the Dominican team captain whose father, Felipe, will serve as manager. "Unfortunately, I don't think it would be good for the team now to have him on the team. But we love the guy. Unless he's proven guilty, we are going to support him."

Pedro Gomez is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at pgespn@aol.com.