The Dominican Republic sandlots that produce some of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars have become the No. 1 headache to its anti-doping enforcers.
Players from the Caribbean nation, homeland of three starters in this season’s All-Star Game, committed 53 percent of the sport’s performance-enhancing drug offenses since the Mitchell Report recommended stricter enforcement in December 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
The Dominican Republic, where baseball is seen as one of the few ways to escape the poverty that grips the country of 10 million, is gaining greater scrutiny because of its number of positive tests. Even as MLB wrestles with the case of Alex Rodriguez, who is of Dominican descent, baseball officials say they’re working on eradicating the abuse in the 34-team summer league it operates there for promising young athletes.
“On a per-player basis we spend far more in the Dominican Republic on education than we do anywhere else,” said Rob Manfred, baseball’s chief operating officer. “We’ve gotten beyond our employee population into the trainer group in an effort to make sure that we do everything possible to get those numbers in line with the rest of our playing population.”
Not counting Rodriguez’s Aug. 5 ban that is under appeal, MLB has issued 435 performance-enhancing substance suspensions - - 33 in its major league drug program and 402 in the minors -- resulting in 21,745 games lost since the Mitchell Report, according to a list provided by the sport. Dominicans account for 229 cases, or 53 percent.
About 37 percent of the suspensions, or 163, have come out of the Dominican Summer League, where all 30 major league organizations field at least one team. Among 856 players on opening-day 25-man rosters and inactive lists in the major leagues this season, 89, or 10 percent, were from the Dominican Republic, the most of any country outside the U.S.
Baseball’s highest-profile current drug case has roots in the country. Rodriguez, born in New York of Dominican parents, is appealing a 211-game doping ban, the longest drug suspension in the sport’s history. It’s a sore point in the Dominican Republic, said Charles Farrell, a San Pedro de Macoris-based sports and education activist.
“There are those who feel it’s a personal reflection on their country and they feel very hurt by this,” Farrell said. “When one of their heroes is disgraced, there’s a sense that all of the Dominican Republic feels that disgrace.”
On Aug. 5, New York Yankees third baseman Rodriguez and 12 other major leaguers were suspended for their ties to a defunct anti-aging clinic in Miami called Biogenesis of America LLC. None had failed any drug tests.
Twelve of the players, eight of them Dominican, accepted 50-game suspensions. Rodriguez was banned through the 2014 season by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who said the three-time American League Most Valuable Player and active career home-run leader used testosterone and human growth hormone over “multiple years” and tried to “obstruct and frustrate” baseball’s investigation. Rodriguez has since sued Selig, claiming he is the victim of a “witch hunt,” which the commissioner and MLB deny.
Rodriguez’s appeal will resume Oct. 15.
In 2009, the third baseman said he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03, after Sports Illustrated reported that he failed a drug test in 2003. He said his cousin injected him with an over-the-counter substance from the Dominican Republic to increase his energy during that time, while he played for the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez said he didn’t think he was taking steroids, while acknowledging he knew “we weren’t taking Tic Tacs.”
Rodriguez wasn’t banned because baseball had no policy in place at the time of his use. He said he stopped using the drugs in 2003 after the players voted for drug testing.
Farrell, who operates an education-focused baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, first toured baseball academies there in 2000 in a group sponsored by MLB. He said there are differences in how teams educate their players on doping.
“Within some of the academies, there is better vigilance with what these kids are doing in their spare time, what they’re doing to build their bodies naturally,” Farrell, 62, said in a telephone interview.
His non-profit Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy opened in January with the goal of developing college athletes who can use baseball skills to gain an education rather than just produce pro players. The academy, which teaches English through immersion, financial basics, life skills and baseball, has 15 students 13-16 years old, and one or two might get consideration from a professional team’s academy at the upper age limit, he said.
A job as a major league ballplayer, which paid an average of $3.2 million in 2012 according to the players union, is especially appealing in the Dominican Republic. More than 40 percent of its residents were living in poverty in 2011, according to data from the World Bank in Washington. About 3.5 million, or 35 percent, were getting by on less than $4 a day in 2010. It was the fourth-poorest Caribbean country last year, according to World Bank data tracking gross domestic product per capita in the region.
Promising players who are signed by MLB clubs can get a bonus ranging from $5,000 to millions, said Rafael Perez, MLB’s director of Dominican operations. The average is $100,000.
The desire to escape the conditions give rise to unlicensed street agents, so-called buscones, who train young players then tout them to major league organizations, Perez said.
“For the most part they do a great job, they work hard, they get these kids ready, they do an excellent job in getting the kids’ skills up for the evaluation of our scouts,” he said. “However they’re not regulated, and we can’t regulate them.”
The buscones who cheat give rise to clusters of doping within baseball’s academies, Farrell said.
“It’s like a clique within a high school,” Farrell said.
His observations are borne out by academic research, according to Joshua Murray, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “You have one and then it spreads from there and snowballs.”
Murray, co-author of the study, “Why They Juice: The Role of Social Forces in Performance Enhancing Drug Use by Professional Athletes,” looked at major leaguers between 1985 and 2007 who were either named in the report produced by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell or admitted to doping. It found that players who came from teams free of infractions who moved to teams where there were dopers were 7.3 times more likely to begin drug use.
“That’s suggestive of a social contagiousness-type spread, where players are actually influencing each other,” Murray said in a telephone interview. “If you have a set of players and some are more likely to use than others, the spark that gets them to use is that normative culture in their clubhouse of other players having used.”
Research also suggests that performance-enhancing drug use spreads within ethnic or linguistic networks, Murray said.
In findings from unpublished, separate research, Murray said, Latinos were 3.3 times more likely to begin doping if they played on a team with at least one other Latin player who was a drug user. An American player was 6.6 times more likely to begin doping if he played on a team with at least one other U.S.-born user. Latinos were no more likely to begin using if they played with U.S.-born users, the research showed.
The studies suggest that general managers who discover doping within their organizations should be particularly concerned, and perhaps motivated, by the likelihood that the usage might not be isolated to one “bad guy” looking to cheat the system, according to Murray.
John Hart, an MLB Network analyst who managed in the Dominican Republic in the late 1980s and later was general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Rangers, said he believes GMs share equal concern about doping within their organizations due to the possibility of spending money on fraudulent players and a worry of losing key assets to suspension while in contention for a title.
“These players are their own corporation,” Hart said in a telephone interview, noting the influence of family, friends, and advisers such as buscones. “You can only emphasize the policies, inundate these guys with information, pamphlets and guest speakers. That’s as far as you can go.”
The Bloomberg analysis also shows that the Chicago Cubs had the most doping bans in their organization, 24, followed by the Philadelphia Phillies with 23 and the Yankees and New York Mets with 22 each. The least-punished team was the Boston Red Sox, with five.
Only the Red Sox among those teams reached the playoffs this season.
The Cubs have had more success avoiding doping bans since Theo Epstein joined the franchise in November 2011 as president of baseball operations, leaving his post as the Red Sox’s GM. Chicago’s five suspensions since then, all in the Dominican Summer League, are tied with two other clubs for the sixth-most among major league organizations.
The Cubs declined to comment on the drug cases, team spokesman Peter Chase said in an e-mail. The Mets also declined to comment, team spokesman Jay Horwitz said in an e-mail. Telephone and e-mail messages left for Kevin Gregg, a spokesman for the Red Sox, weren’t returned. E-mails sent to Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo and Greg Casterioto, a Phillies spokesman, weren’t returned.
MLB, which oversees the education of all players on doping, has made progress in curbing Dominican drug use while continuing to strengthen enforcement, according to Manfred. Its studies haven’t discovered why some franchises are better than others at staying clean, he said.
“The vast, vast majority of education that gets done is done centrally through the commissioner’s office, so people are getting the same education,” Manfred said in a telephone interview.
MLB spends about $3 million on its minor-league drug education program and on the 10,000 drug tests given throughout the lower levels of the sport each season, about 20 percent in the Dominican Republic.
Baseball’s efforts appear to be paying off. Fourteen Dominican Summer League players have been suspended this year, down from 15 in 2012, 18 in 2011 and 38 in 2010.
The sport’s drug troubles aren’t exclusively Dominican, according to the statistics. Americans have had 119 violations, about a quarter of the list.
While 7.6 percent of the violations have come out of the major league drug program, 25 of the minor leaguers banned, an additional 5.7 percent, either later played in the majors or were trying to get back there.
While Manfred declined to discuss the Rodriguez case, he said baseball has to use evidence beyond drug tests to enforce the rules.
“Your biggest concern is something you usually don’t know about today,” Manfred said. “Tests are one form of deterrence, but the risk that I might catch you even if you don’t fail a test, that’s a huge part of the puzzle from our perspective.”