Steroid problem reaches critical mass in the D.R.

BOCA DE NIGUA, Dominican Republic -- Waner Mateo was a time zone and a culture removed from his tropical homeland, an aspiring major league pitcher hunkered down in a Florida training camp, when he bungled his foray into performance-enhancing drugs. And so last March, in need of help for his bum right shoulder, the 21-year-old Mateo chose not to seek out a New York Mets trainer, for fear it might earn him a ticket back home to the Dominican Republic.

"I didn't want them to know I was hurt," he said.

Instead, Mateo claims a teammate, another pitcher, told him he had just the thing: a shot of vitamin B-12. So he took a needle in his buttock.

And on April 11, while he was pitching for the Mets' Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md., Mateo's name appeared on the list of players suspended 50 days for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. A week later, the teammate, too, was suspended for testing positive for Dimetabol, a mixture of vitamins and the steroid Nandrolone. The performance-enhancer is manufactured by a Mexican veterinary supply company and is intended for use on cattle and horses during periods of stress or after birth to aid in recovery and weight gain.

It isn't meant for sore-armed pitchers.

In a way, Mateo is fortunate. His once-tender arm is fine now. And with minor league spring training just around the corner again, he was among 40 or so Dominican players bunking at the Mets Baseball Academy here in preparation for another departure for Port St. Lucie, Fla.

After a recent workout, Mateo, dressed in khaki shorts and a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt, lowered his 6-foot-5, 175-pound frame onto a couch inside the academy's cinder-block offices. He sounded contrite, sorry for the pain he caused his family and the Mets, and glad to be given a second chance.

"I didn't know what I was taking," Mateo said through an interpreter, Juan Henderson, who is administrator of the Mets' academy. "Last year in the spring, my shoulder was hurt a little bit. I asked one of the players, 'Do you have anything for pain, because my shoulder is hurting?' The player gave me something. I thought it was B complex, B-12. I thought that was it. I didn't know I was taking steroids.

"One day I pitched; and the next day after the game, they called me to the office [in Hagerstown]. They told me what happened. I was surprised because I didn't know I was taking steroids. But I didn't see any difference. It was just one time."

Is he angry with the teammate?

"Yeah," he said, shaking his head.

It is impossible to know if Mateo's tale of innocence is legitimate, and ESPN.com wasn't able to reach the teammate Mateo claims gave him the substance to inject. But this much is true: The Dominican Republic leads the baseball world in suspended performance-enhancing drug users.

The numbers reveal a troubling story. According to Major League Baseball, more than half of all pro baseball players who tested positive since the start of the 2005 season -- 169 of 289, or 58.5 percent -- hail from the Dominican Republic, and that includes major and minor leagues, as well as those who play in the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues.

Of the 157 players suspended during this time, 37 (close to one-quarter) are from the Dominican Republic. And approximately 132 others have tested positive since 2005 in the 32-team Dominican Summer League, which generally features players just starting out in pro ball. They can't be suspended because of the country's labor laws.

How to explain it? Should we blame it on the "buscones" (pronounced boo-SCONE-ehs), baseball street agents, some of whom are suspected of starting teenage prospects on steroids to improve their ability to sell them to pro scouts? On tainted supplements and a government that allows banned drugs to be bought over the counter? On a lack of education about doping rules?

All of the above?

Money, no doubt, plays an important role. The annual per-capita income in the Dominican Republic hovers around $2,500, so the lure of a big pro contract is strong. It's the golden ticket off this steamy, sun-baked island. Kids grow up dreaming of becoming the next Vladimir Guerrero, the next Albert Pujols, the next David Ortiz.

When Pedro Martinez eases into the Mets' complex of meticulously groomed diamonds while driving his racy orange Dodge Charger one afternoon, his arrival has the feel of a papal visit. Julio Franco reaches inside Martinez's car and grabs a wad of U.S. dollar bills, and tosses them to the delirious crowd. Just outside the idyllic compound, though, is the real life of a dirt road lined with single-room tin shacks, with chickens and scrawny dogs roaming the shoulder and kids in their underwear playing in mud from a late-morning downpour.

Amid that poverty, big-league ballplayers are the country's pride. They live in a tantalizing world of palatial estates, Land Rovers and Mercedes. They're able to take care of family, friends and neighbors. Even the younger prospects, the ones with modest signing bonuses who haven't yet made it big, live with the obligation to lift up extended families.

Recalling his positive drug test, Mateo said: "It affected me a lot and affected my family, too. They worried about what would happen. I definitely thought I was going to be released. A lot of things were going through my mind."

"The Latin player thinks it's going to improve their peformance; but in the end, it is going to affect you. Never in my life am I going to see an injection anymore."
-- Mets prospect Waner Mateo

Except for the potential the Mets see in both Mateo and the other pitcher, they likely would have been sent packing. Both are still under contract to the team, although the other pitcher wasn't in camp this day.

"They like them both," acknowledged Henderson, the camp administrator. "That's probably why they didn't get released."

For his part, Mateo promises never again to rub shoulders with the steroid scene, even unintentionally.

"The Latin player thinks it's going to improve their performance; but in the end, it is going to affect you," he said. "Never in my life am I going to see an injection anymore."

Alberto Hall, a young New York-born-and-bred middle infielder, isn't among the long line of outstanding shortstops who learned their craft in this country, which is barely the size of South Carolina. But Hall's contacts run as deep as his family's rich Dominican blood; so for the past three summers, he says he has bunked at the Arizona Diamondbacks Academy in Boca Chica, a dusty beach town up the coast from Santo Domingo that is home to many MLB team complexes.

Hall, now a freshman at SUNY/Old Westbury, says he spent his mornings working with the players, mostly teenagers either signed by the D-Backs for their Dominican Summer League team or brought in for an evaluation. From summer to summer, he saw familiar faces, familiar physiques, bulking up. Away from the watchful eyes of camp officials, he says he witnessed players being injected, and claims to have been offered steroids himself.

"At nighttime, a lot of the players would inject themselves with steroids," Hall told ESPN.com. "I was amazed, because the kids that were doing it weren't just older kids. There were kids 16 years old doing it. I personally never used it, but they offered me. 'Come on, it's only for two, three, four weeks.' I never did it, but I've seen them do it almost every night, every other night.

"Some of the guys injected themselves. Others used to do it in groups. It is amazing what goes on over there. And believe me, I think it went on in all the [major league] complexes."

When he returned home last summer, Hall gave a firsthand account to Fernando Mateo (no relation to Waner Mateo), president of Hispanics Across America, a New York-based advocacy group that has taken up the cause of young Latino ballplayers.

"He was always much bigger than the kids that he played with, much bigger," Mateo said about the 18-year-old Hall. "And all of a sudden, he went down last summer and these kids were huge. He called me because he knows that I have been working on this. He said, 'Fernando, what they told me was, you've got to shoot up in order to be looked at. If you don't shoot up, you're not looked at. If you're not big and strong and fast ... you're not looked at.'"

Junior Noboa, who manages the Diamondbacks' camp in the Dominican, initially told ESPN.com that he didn't remember Hall, and then said Hall was only at the academy for several weeks, at most.

And Noboa says Hall never mentioned to anyone in a position of authority at the academy that he'd seen players using steroids.

"He wasn't there for three years," Noboa says. "He was there for two to three weeks that I remember. I [didn't] have that kid for three years . . . I remember we were closing the academy when he came. That makes me sick if they say that. He was only there for three weeks. And if he saw something over there, that is strange. He was supposed to tell me if he saw something at nighttime like he says. That is really sad. They are not true when they say [he] came down for three summers. That is not right. That is not right [for] people that wanted [me] to do a favor."

Hall says isn't sure about the source of the drugs, but he suspects the players bring them from their towns. He's not sure of the specific steroids being used, either, but he's fairly confident they're being used without the knowledge of Noboa and the rest of the Diamondbacks staff.

"I don't know if maybe they've seen it and turned their heads, but I know [players] are tested," Hall said. "It takes a certain amount of time to get out of your system; so they would all take it so that when they do take the test, it would come out negative."

Juan Uribe, the Chicago White Sox shortstop, is a product of Juan Baron, a tiny rural town 30 miles southwest of Santo Domingo. He lives just down a narrow two-lane road from Vladimir Guerrero's home.

On this day, as he welcomed a handful of reporters into his three-story cinder-block house, his mother, sisters and brothers, cousins and infant nephews and nieces were mingling about. The Uribe home is a sleek diamond in the rough located just beyond the right-field corner of Juan Baron Stadium, where Uribe played as a kid and where he still works out in the mornings to ready for spring training.

The $4 million-plus per season Uribe earns in the majors helps his extended family live well beyond the means of the locals. Next to them, Uribe lives like royalty.

From a third-floor pool room, Uribe, 27, pointed across the field beyond the centerfield fence to his soon-to-be new place, a magnificent pink structure rising from the ground. His luxury SUVs -- a black Land Rover and white Cadillac Escalade, loaded with a $20,000 sound system -- were parked along the pothole-riddled street. His sleek black Mercedes sports coupe was inside a garage that doubles as a playroom for the toddlers.

He changed shirts three times during the course of the afternoon, ending in his black No. 5 White Sox jersey.

This day, Uribe spent most of his time with the media trying to explain away an allegation that he had fired a pistol at a local man -- he has a court date on Feb. 21 that will keep him from reporting to the White Sox on time. But when a reporter turned the subject to steroids, Uribe cocked his head sideways with a slightly menacing glance. Never used them, he said. Nobody ever approached him. Some players dabble, sure. And when they do, they're taking a risk, he said.

He was considerably more conversant about the pressures that weigh on Dominican players, especially those struggling to make it or stick in the big leagues.

"The players are really hungry," Uribe said through interpreter Enrique Rojas, an ESPNdeportes.com reporter. "They are hungry for success. Maybe they take stuff in the street. Not in baseball, but outside. They take stuff because they think it is better to improve fast.

"The American guys don't have this pressure for having food for their family, maybe 20 people to support. Think about that: four brothers and four sisters. Lots of cousins, nephews. I support my brothers' kids, sisters' kids. And parents. Some uncles. Every Dominican player is the same."

In some ways, Ronaldo Peralta is the Bud Selig of Dominican baseball. From MLB's office in an upscale, gated residential neighborhood of Santo Domingo, Peralta serves as the eyes and ears of baseball in Latin America. He manages baseball's only operations office outside the United States.

In a country where the game is an industry worth nearly $100 million annually, according to an economic impact study done by the Dominican government, Peralta deals with the routine stuff: agents, scouting issues, the multitude of baseball academies, rookie summer leagues and drug testing. He is a friendly character who lives by the creed that the glass is half-full.

He sees progress on the doping front.

And he might have a point. According to numbers provided by MLB, in 2004, the inaugural year of drug testing in the Dominican Summer League, 11 percent of teenage prospects signed by major league clubs tested positive. By last summer, that percentage had declined to 3.5.

So Peralta says to give the game's drug-testing policies some time.

"What I can tell you is that obviously the main reason for Latins to be testing positive is the lack of information," Peralta said. "[Players] are not doing this intentionally. We have talked about this with the [major league] academy directors in the Dominican Republic. And when we've asked them about the main concern we should have, the answer is the lack of information and educating the Latin player.

"And what MLB has done over the last three years, not only have we brought the drug testing to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but we started an educational program talking with the academy directors and players. And we have now two permanent employees -- one in Venezuela and one in the Dominican Republic."

This spring, baseball will use White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for an infomercial aimed at educating prospects in Venezuela on the anti-doping program.

Cultural variances and a lack of sophistication about doping guidelines might be a factor for the decisions made by some teenage prospects, many of whom dropped out of school early and are away from home for the first time. Peralta is probably right: Some of them aren't intentionally doping.

But some of the Dominican's big-league veterans have grown tired of hearing what they consider to be excuses. They say the rules aren't foreign. And even when there is uncertainty about those rules, they point out that players have agents and medical officials to turn to with questions.

"People speak Spanish and explain very well all about the regulations, the test program," said reliever Rafael Soriano, acquired this offseason by the Atlanta Braves from the Seattle Mariners. "We know [the rules]. I don't put anything in my system, because I fear this system. I only take medicine from the trainer for the major league team."

Mariners outfielder Jose Guillen is more blunt, suggesting that players should follow the lead of Mets reliever Guillermo Mota, who admitted his screw-up after he tested positive last fall. In a statement after his 50-game suspension was announced in November, Mota said, "I have no one to blame but myself. I take full responsibility for my actions and accept MLB's suspension. I used extremely poor judgment and deserve to be held accountable." Mota is still with the Mets under a two-year, $5 million contract, but he won't be paid for the first 50 games this season.

"When you're putting something in your body, you're not going to tell me you don't know what you are putting in your body," said Guillen, a 10-year veteran. "We're all grown men. We're over 18 years old. I think everybody that gets caught has got to take full responsibility for what they are doing. There is no reason to be complaining and pointing fingers, saying this guy gave me this and that. You know it was a steroid on your own. So explain yourself."

Guillen said he was approached about using steroids earlier in his career.

"But that is something I never considered in my life," he said. "You're ruining your whole career. You're ruining your reputation. This really is hurting baseball right now, the image of the game.

"When some kid comes to me and asks why this guy got caught with steroids, what am I going say? It is hard stuff. I got two kids. That's what I always think about -- my kids."

Luis Polonia has been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things. He made it to the majors with the Oakland A's in the late 1980s, just when the Bash Brothers -- Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire -- hooked up in the Bay Area. A pint-sized outfielder blessed with speed, he played 12 big-league seasons for a half-dozen clubs. At 43, he still plays winter ball; and on the night he spoke with ESPN.com in Santo Domingo, he was in left field for the Aguilas Cibaenas, the eventual league championship team from Santiago.

When he isn't playing, Polonia is a speculator in raw baseball talent, running his Expo Baseball Academy in Santiago. From there, he keeps an eye on the steroid scene.

"It probably didn't get recognized as much as it has been the last couple years, but steroids and those types of things have always been there," Polonia said. "You could see the game had changed. It is easy to see the home run thing. The miles-per-hour for the pitcher. I mean, before, it used to be 90 or 93. Whoever threw 95 was the big guy. Now it's like everybody throws 97, 98. Even in Dominican [baseball], everybody goes 97 and over. Not to say it is because of that, but I guess some way or the other, everybody seems to be stronger.

"I see so many kids here that just turned [pro] and, all of a sudden, they tested and got steroids on them. Like, 'Damn! Where do you find them?' When I signed, it was a different situation. I didn't know anything about it. I was 120 pounds and skinny. I didn't have anything. I was 18. Now they find it. I say, 'Where do you find the stuff?' Normally, they don't talk. I guess they do know how important it is to keep the secret."

One factor driving the kids to steroids, Polonia said, is the lure of the money that comes with success. And they are often exposed to sometimes-unscrupulous characters trying to make a buck off their talent.

The wide-open amateur system in the country can create the potential for abuses. Unlike prospects from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, Dominican players still aren't subject to an orderly draft. Each July, any player who has turned 16½ is eligible to be signed by major league clubs. In recent years, 25 to 30 of these top prospects have been signing six-figure deals.

The investment in that teenage talent has grown to the point that MLB officials estimate the Dominican Republic is home to more than 6,000 independent baseball academies, each typically grooming a dozen or so players who may potentially sign pro contracts. They're fed and housed at the academies, then, once they're signed by teams, the people running the camps take a cut of the bonus.

The incentive to impress pro scouts is great.

"If you're 16 years old and throw 90, 95 miles an hour, which I see a lot here in the Dominican, you see what kind of bonus you're going to get," Polonia said. "If you're 16 and throw 85 or 86, you see the big difference. You know the Dominican is a poor country. I guess a lot of kids see an advantage of having a big bonus when they sign and be set for life, if they don't make it."

In his four years at the academy, Polonia has developed 24 players who signed pro contracts. None of them has tested positive, he said.

It's good business to keep it that way. He gets a chunk of each prospect's signing bonus, which can be cut if the player tests positive. So Polonia said he has his prospects tested himself at the first sign of serious interest by a scout.

"You don't want to have a kid there, develop the kid for a couple years, and then the kid gets signed and comes out a positive test," he said. "There are two things I have to watch. First, make sure that he is clean so when he gets his bonus, he doesn't go back. The other thing is my name. If they find some guy with steroids in my academy, what are they going to say? 'Oh yeah, Polonia provides steroids in his academy so he can make the kids stronger and make more money out of the signing bonus.'"

Polonia said he's heard of other academies, though, that don't fly so straight. He's heard of prospects testing positive and major league clubs subsequently pulling the deal or slashing the bonus.

"There are guys who run an academy, and all they care about is how much money they can get," he said, his voice rising. "And this kid throws 85 miles an hour and they know the guy's got a good body, good ability to play. And you know what? 'I am going to work with this guy; and in two or three months, this guy is throwing 95 miles an hour. And see how much money I am going to get with this guy.'

"They don't care what can happen to the kid. I'm not saying everybody is doing that, but there are some guys that do it. They don't care. This is a hungry country. People are looking for money everywhere you can get it."

TOMORROW: Fitness guru to the Dominican stars.

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.