Shot of B-12 a boost or bust?

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- When Rafael Palmeiro failed a drug test in the spring of 2005 -- scant weeks after boldly telling a congressional committee he had "never used steroids, period" -- he blamed a tainted vitamin B-12 shot.

Palmeiro surmised the stuff was contaminated with steroids, and identified fellow Baltimore Oriole Miguel Tejada as his clubhouse supplier. Tejada, a Dominican Republic favorite, later provided other vials that tested clean, but the precious B-12 had become the shot heard 'round the world.

These days, a bad shot of B-12 is a favorite explanation for busted Latino ballplayers. And there are reasons why, some legitimate and others not so. Many people in Latin America believe B-12 to be a source of energy -- a giddyup -- and an aid in strengthening muscles, so twice-a-month injections are hugely popular with players grinding through a long baseball season.

Tejada told of having received B-12 injections since he was "5 or 6 years of age" in the Dominican, either at a clinic or at the hand of his father. A Baltimore teammate said he gave Tejada more than 70 B-12 injections during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

But since quality controls in Latin America don't always meet U.S. pharmaceutical standards, Latino and baseball officials point to the increased odds of finding a trace of a banned substance in a B-12 vial purchased in, say, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.

"There is a custom in Latin countries that B-12 will help you to have energy," said Ronaldo Peralta, manager of Major League Baseball's office in the Dominican Republic. "And sometimes they go and they buy what they think is B-12. And what happens is that the pharmaceutical company that produced that in the Latin country, if they were running a batch before that of steroids and didn't clean the machines very well or somehow the machines got mixed or the company is intentionally [adding] steroids to give some kind of higher effect, then the kids are taking that without knowledge of that."

Not so innocently, though, B-12 is also known to sometimes be purposely mixed with steroids. Congress heard this, among other things, from Milton Pinedo, president of the Dominican Federation of Sports Medicine.

Vitamin B-12 is not illegal in either the D.R. or U.S., so that isn't the issue.

"It is that [ballplayers] use the vitamin to cut the stuff like you use things to cut cocaine," said Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, told ESPN.com. "You use the vitamin to mix it with the amino and with the steroids, and that basically gives you like a bigger boost. Like a power pack."

An agent with several Dominican prospects told ESPN.com of witnessing three of his players -- now former clients -- taking turns injecting one another in the buttock with what they said was B-12.

"They told me it wasn't steroids, but I had another one admit later on that he was on steroids," the agent said. "I saw him go from being thin to really buffed."

Vials of B-12 that can be injected are readily available for over-the-counter purchase in Dominican pharmacies. At a pharmacy near the airport in Santo Domingo, a 10-ml bottle of injectible Complejo B -- the product of a laboratory in Pondicherry, India -- costs less than $2.

You can't walk into a U.S. pharmacy and purchase a bottle of B-12, because it's a regulated drug requiring a doctor's prescription. So Tejada and other Latino players have been known to lug a supply from home to spring training.

Outfielder Jose Guillen counts himself among the B-12 believers, acknowledging he can't get through a season without it. The difference is in the wake of the Tejada-Palmeiro dustup he's careful to ask the team doctor to sign off on his B-12.

"That is something that gives you a lot of energy and stuff," said Guillen, who signed as a free agent with the Seattle Mariners after playing last season with the Washington Nationals. "And when I bring it from here I always make sure I give it to the doctor, 'Check this out.' They send it out. They say, 'It is OK.' But I don't know what other kind of B-12 that is there that people [have] been complaining so much about."

Guillen said he's used it the past three seasons, often once a week and sometimes getting as many as two injections a week.

"This year playing in Seattle and a lot of traveling, I'll bring all my vitamins stuff and all my B-12," he said. "You can buy it in states, too. In Washington [D.C.], the doctor there had B-12. Fine, I don't have to bring it from the Dominican. It is more safe. If you get it from the doctor there and get in trouble, it's his fault.

"Who knows what the pharmacies do here [in the Dominican]. Who knows what chemical they put in there trying to make the stuff better."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. ESPNdeportes.com's Enrique Rojas also contributed to this report.