Highlighting the problem of steroids in a country that produces more baseball talent than any foreign nation, players in the Dominican Summer League tested positive for the banned substance last year at a rate six times that of their peers in the U.S. minor leagues.
Major League Baseball, under pressure to extend its minor league testing program to its Dominican-based farm clubs, found that 11 percent of players were using the banned muscle-building substance. Out of 894 tests given during the season, 97 were positive for steroids or related substances.
The results of the first-ever tests were released to ESPN.com by Rob Manfred, who as MLB executive vice president oversees all drug-testing programs for the commissioner's office.
"Our decision to extend testing to the Dominican league shows how serious we are about cleaning up this problem," Manfred said. "Dominican players are a long way from Major League Baseball. Testing is expensive, especially offshore, but we made an investment in that."
Manfred noted that the same percentage of players tested positive for steroids in the first year (2001) that U.S.-based minor leaguers were screened. With education and penalties that discourage the use of such drugs, that rate fell to 1.7 percent by last year.
The Dominican results and MLB's commitment to addressing the problem were immediately disparaged as misleading by Fernando Mateo, a prominent Dominican-American activist. His meeting last year with officials from the commissioner's office secured the first-ever testing program in that Caribbean nation, where baseball is widely seen as a way out of poverty, and steroids can be obtained at loosely regulated pharmacies.
"Major League Baseball is still playing softball with the players," said Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America.
He expressed disappointment that baseball tested players only during the short Dominican league season, and only once on average for each player. Baseball officials had promised his organization that it would test each player twice a year, and that a signed prospect could join the club only if he passed a drug test, he said.
"The 11 percent figure might be high for baseball in general but it's low for the reality of what's happening with kids in the Dominican," Mateo said. "They only tested kids who are under contract. Can you imagine what it's like for players who are not yet under contract?"
Most Dominican players begin their professional careers at so-called baseball academies operated by major league clubs. Players can be signed at age 16 as free agents often with bonuses of more than $100,000 and live for most of the year at their team's academy. After a year or two, the best advance to the U.S. minor-league system.
The lure of big money and a better life has led some Dominican players to put just about anything in their bodies that they believe will help them attract major league scouts. Unable to afford steroids, some turn to cheap veterinary preparations that can be more dangerous than steroids. Some have died after injecting a souped-up vitamin compound called Diamino, which is designed for sick livestock and sold out of pet stores.
MLB did not test for Diamino, contrary to the expectations of Mateo. Dominican-based players were screened for the same set of banned drugs as their U.S.-based minor leaguers. Instead, Manfred said, MLB addressed the Diamino problem by hiring Dominican doctors to educate players on the risks of the substance.
There is one significant difference in the drug policy for Dominican-based players: No penalties. None of the 97 players who tested positive were suspended, unlike first-time offenders in the U.S. minor leagues. Manfred said his understanding of Dominican law is that employers are not allowed to suspend employees who fail drug tests.
Nonsense, Mateo said. "The Dominican government cannot impose themselves on a contract between an individual and a corporation," he said. "When these kids sign on a dotted line, they are under contract with their firm."
Dominican-based players who fail drug screens are subject to extra testing, but for penalty purposes their record is wiped clean if they advance to the U.S. minor leagues, Manfred said. So, a positive test in the Dominican does not count against them under baseball's progressive-penalty structure, another feature Mateo calls a double standard for Dominicans.
Still, Manfred said he is hopeful that baseball can reduce the number of steroid users from the present 11 percent.
"We're going to work hard to get that number down, under the restrictions of Dominican law," he said. "Hopefully players will understand that they will face consequences down the road if they continue this behavior."
MLB announced last week it had suspended 38 U.S.-based minor leaguers who tested positive for steroids or related substances during spring training at Arizona camps. Half of them were from Latin American countries, led by the Dominican Republic with nine players. Venezuela was next, with eight.
In the Dominican-based testing last year, only one player tested positive for anything other than steroids or a related substance; it was for amphetamines. Players were also screened for street drugs, but everyone passed.
"Makes sense," Mateo said. "They take what they think the major leaguers are using."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.