SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic
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 consisted of 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 (DSL), 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 that the union told him he was on the list, and slugger Alex Rodriguez, after a February report in Sports Illustrated, said he used steroids while with Seattle from 2001 to 2003. 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 below 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 & Gabbana 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 DSL chief Orlando Diaz.
The league is trying to crack down. Since 2003, educators armed with videos, testimonials and slide 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.
Major League Baseball realizes that 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 passion for baseball in 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.
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 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 important, 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, and remaining substance-free.