How MLB aims to stop steroid abuse, starting with Dominican prospects
The MLB has launched new programs to protect Dominican prospects from the lure of performance-boosting drugs. No other country has such a poor reputation for drug abuse among players.
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In part, this tiny Caribbean nation of 9 million people is being singled out because no country outside the US sends as many players to professional baseball. It may be America's pastime, but it's the Dominican Republic's obsession. President Leonel Fernandez attends groundbreakings for training complexes as readily as 14-year-old boys don cleats and gloves in hopes of catching a scout's attention. The nation supplied 10 percent of this year's big leaguers.Skip to next paragraph
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No other country also has such a poor reputation for drug abuse among players. While the percentage of Dominicans in MLB testing positive for drug use fell from 3.3 percent in 2008 to 2.1 percent last year, that's still markedly higher than the 0.82 percent rate across the league, according to statistics supplied to the Monitor.
To tackle the scourge, MLB has beefed up a Dominican-based investigations unit and held symposiums bringing together street agents – known here as buscones – government officials, and baseball authorities to discuss ways to improve education and stop drug use. Locally televised games recently began carrying public-service spots urging players to avoid drugs.
"We think that the steps we've taken have had an effect," Mr. Teevan says.
How much that is resonating with players is another question. In a country where the average annual wage is $8,600, temptations are especially great for impoverished Dominicans vying for a ticket out of poverty. Last year, a pro contract included a signing bonus worth an average of $180,000 for top prospects.
Like many of the players, shortstop Ramon lives away from his family so he can train in the capital. He is now weighing offers from MLB franchises. "Right now, we have four offers," he says. "I think I should get a [signing] bonus of between $225,000 and $250,000. We'll see. I'm leaving it up to my agent."
The first thing he'll do with the money is buy his mom a house, he says. "We live in a place that, well, it's not very good. It's a bad place to live."
The country has sent so many players to MLB franchises – 468 to the major leagues and thousands more to the minors – that Dominicans consider baseball more of a career path than a dream. Signing means moving from a rented shack to a private home, from taking the bus to driving your own car.
At the Mets' training facility, professional scouts, identifiable by the cap of their major league franchise, gripped radar guns and stopwatches and took notes as pitchers and hitters – the game's future stars – paraded before them as part of a weekly scouting event organized by the Dominican Prospect League, which was cofounded by Brian Mejia.
"Most of these kids ... will play in the minors for a few years and that's it," says Mr. Mejia, an agent who has helped 90 Dominican players sign contracts worth a total of $20 million. "For them, the contract is the goal. And they'll do anything to get it."