On a humid, overcast day, some of the Dominican Republic's best amateur baseball players gathered on a manicured field at a New York Mets training facility that sits off a crumbling road in Boca Chica, roughly 20 miles east of the capital, Santo Domingo.
The catcher's mitt popped with 90-mile-per-hour fastballs. Wooden bats cracked as lanky teenagers sent balls whistling into the outfield. Scouts huddled around a picnic table behind home plate.
As Ramon Jayde Antonio, age 17, wheeled his sinewy frame and took off to steal second base, a scout glanced at his stopwatch, nodded, and jotted down a few numbers.
Afterward, Ramon smiled widely: "I had two hits, stole two bases, and I think I played pretty good in the field."
But in a country where performance-enhancing drugs are widely accepted as a way to stand out, the question inevitably turns to whether he has ever taken steroids or other drugs. Quickly looking up while changing out of his cleats, he snaps: "No, because they test your blood. And if they catch you, that's it. Everybody's afraid of that."
The global expansion of Major League Baseball (MLB) has not come without consequences. While the league that once barred blacks now boasts players from 14 foreign countries or territories, the Dominican Republic serves as an example of how the lure of the game's riches can corrupt a poor country.
When, for the first time ever, MLB last year tested top Dominican amateur prospects for drug use, 13 of 40 tested positive. The league plans to test Dominicans this year with the penalty of suspensions.
The results were startling, but they put the Dominican Republic at the forefront of attempts to combat drug use in the sport. As baseball season kicks off in the United States, MLB is concurrently launching efforts to crack down on drug use and educate amateurs regarding the health dangers that result from performance-enhancers such as steroids.
"The Dominican Republic is a special place for baseball and ... our leadership is dedicated to eliminating any abuses that occur there," says MLB spokesman Michael Teevan.
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.
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."