Culture gap draws attention
High proportion of Latinos caught in the web of drugs, steroids
Jorge L. Ortiz, Chronicle Staff Writer (San Francisco Chronicle)
Friday, May 6, 2005
Steroids in Sports
Going into his seventh minor-league season, Francis Gomez felt he had to make a drastic move.
The Dominican shortstop was coming off his only year above Class-A ball, having spent most of last summer in Double-A and briefly getting a taste of Triple-A. But after hitting a combined .232 he found himself back in Class-A this spring, assigned to the Stockton Ports, the A's affiliate in the California League.
Gomez had seen a number of former teammates move up and leave him behind. Now 23 and approaching his free-agent year, his major-league dream was increasingly distant. Then a friend of his who's not a professional player had boasted how steroids made him feel stronger and improved his play for weeks at a time.
"I thought, 'This is my last year. I need to make a splash any way I can. I'm going to try steroids or whatever,' '' Gomez said. "I told a guy whose wife lives in Mexico, 'Buy me a shot in Mexico.' But then I said, 'No, forget it.' I talked to my brother (Marlins reliever Antonio Alfonseca) and he told me not to try that stuff.''
Many others, including a large number of Latinos, went ahead and tried.
Of the 47 minor-leaguers who have tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in the first year that Major League Baseball is announcing the results, 24 were born in Latin American countries.
Eleven hail from Venezuela, 10 from the Dominican Republic, two from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico. In addition, Cuban outfielder Alex Sanchez, Dominican pitcher Agustin Montero and Venezuelan pitcher Juan Rincon are among the five major-leaguers who have tested positive.
The large proportion of Hispanics is not entirely startling considering they made up 25 percent of the major-league rosters (including disabled lists) on Opening Day. In the minors, the figure swells to 41.6 percent.
But the numbers have caught the attention of baseball people. The Red Sox's David Ortiz, a Dominican native, spoke out on the topic last week and suggested many Latin players have taken substances they didn't know were banned. He also called for baseball to reveal the substances in positive tests, which so far have been kept secret, to remove suspicion.
The high percentage of Hispanic players among those testing positive also raises several questions about the factors that might lead to such results.
Is it economic desperation? A cultural disconnect? A desire to compete at any cost? Easy availability of steroids in Latin countries? Ignorance of the rules? A communication breakdown?
Interviews with more than a dozen Latin-born minor-leaguers point to all of the above.
"Throughout the years the Latin players have tried to even their chances when competing with the Americans,'' said Giants manager Felipe Alou, a native of the Dominican Republic.
"How? Different ways: taking off years (using fake birth certificates), exposing their lives in boats to cross not just the Florida strait but also from the Dominican trying to reach Puerto Rico. ... And now you have steroids.''
And even in that area, some Hispanic players believe they're at a disadvantage, because most don't have access to the more sophisticated designer steroids that are harder to detect.
Latinos work harder
One point raised in all The Chronicle interviews is Latin players feel they have to outperform their American counterparts by a wide margin to advance.
That contention is supported in part by the disparity in the number of Latinos in the majors and minors, as well as the economic reality that teams are more likely to stick with players in whom they have a larger investment, as is usually the case with American prospects.
"Latin players have to work a lot harder than white players, because we're coming from elsewhere to take their jobs,'' said Eliezer Alfonzo, a Venezuelan catcher with the Class-A San Jose Giants. "When they do something, we have to do it three times as well.''
That might lead them to experiment with substances that are exponentially more dangerous.
In 2001 two Dominican prospects in their late teens died after injecting themselves with veterinary products, which are frequently used in that impoverished country as cheaper alternatives to anabolic steroids.
Gomez said fellow players back home have offered him Diamino, an animal dietary supplement, but he was afraid to use it.
"I've seen the vial and it's got a buffalo on the label,'' Gomez said. "How are you going to take that? And then they abuse it. An animal might get 1 cc a week. They inject 2 and 3 cc a week.''
While Gomez has a wealthy brother in Alfonseca, who has the means to help the family financially, most of his countrymen are not as fortunate.
It's not uncommon for an entire household to depend on a young prospect's performance for its support. In addition, most Latin players send money back home when they come play stateside.
Dr. Larry Westreich, a consultant on drug issues to Commissioner Bud Selig and also a member of baseball's Health Policy Advisory Committee, said 11 percent of the more than 800 Dominican players tested at academies last year registered positive for steroids or steroids precursors.
A significant reason for this, he said, is the easy accessibility to drugs without a prescription.
"Individuals are able to get anabolic steroids, anabolic steroid precursors and other performance-enhancing drugs at the local pharmacy, veterinary supply stores and from unscrupulous unofficial 'scouts,' '' Westreich said via e-mail.
His assessment falls in line with statements made by several Latin players, especially those from Venezuela, which produces the second-largest number of foreign-born major-leaguers, with 46 this season. The Dominican Republic is the runaway leader with 91, or 11 percent of the total of 829 players on big-league rosters.
"In Venezuela, the ballplayers who want to take steroids can get them by simply going to the drug store,'' Alvin Colina, a catcher with the Class-A Modesto Nuts, said about his home country. "They can buy growth hormone, Winstrol (a popular steroid), many things, because you don't need a prescription.''
A's infielder Marco Scutaro, a fellow Venezuelan, said many of his countrymen use products that are legal at home to help them recover from injuries or get an energy boost. He believes some of the positive tests might have been triggered by ingredients in those products.
Four of the five A's minor-leaguers who tested positive come from Latin America, three from Venezuela. None of the Giants' prospects failed a drug test.
Westreich said baseball has intensified its educational efforts and made a point of reaching Latin players in their native language, producing a video that was shown during spring training and putting up advisory posters, both in Spanish. Players have also been lectured about the dangers of steroids and given wallet cards listing the banned substances, in Spanish as well.
And indeed, some of the message seems to have sunk in, as several minor-leaguers expressed fear of steroids based on the information they had received during meetings with baseball representatives.
"According to the seminar we had, they harm your body and, even though you can add bulk, they damage your muscles,'' said Danielin Acevedo, a Dominican right-hander who pitches for the Stockton Ports. "You can break down easily.''
Sal Artiaga, the Phillies' director of Latin American operations, recently returned from a trip to Venezuela and the Dominican, where the infamous "buscones'' (talent-seekers who act as street agents) are known to administer performance-enhancing drugs to youngsters about to try out for a big-league club.
Artiaga has heard plenty of stories about teenage pitchers who get juiced up on some substance, blow away the scouts on a tryout, then never throw that well again.
As a bilingual Latino who has dedicated countless hours to helping Hispanic players bridge the cultural gap when they come to the States, Artiaga says players have to adapt to the tighter control of substances prevalent in America.
"It's part of the cultural adjustment,'' he said, "just like the timeliness factor and the language.''
Artiaga said he has noticed a propensity among Hispanic players to take vitamins, perhaps in an effort to make up for years of malnutrition, or maybe to give themselves a psychological boost.
He points out they're often competing against older, more physically developed players who have had the benefit of weight-training programs.
The large majority of the drafted players who sign contracts with major-league organizations come from college or junior college, and that number has risen from 71.6 percent in 2000 to 81.7 percent last year.
The desire to compete with them on an even field while demonstrating the physical maturation clubs want to see makes for a powerful incentive for some Latin players to try steroids.
Even older players who can't quite break through must ponder whether they should try performance-enhancing drugs.
Right-hander Victor Moreno, who will be 26 next month and is in his first full season with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, admits to wondering what it will take to break into the bigs as he toils in his eighth year in the minors.
Moreno believes he has not received the chance he deserves, while others who were artificially enhanced have moved up. Still, he says that's not a compelling enough reason for him to try an illegal supplement, even if it could provide him a final push to get to the majors.
"The only push I need is luck, nothing else,'' he said. "I've put up numbers wherever I've been, and I have faith at some point my patience will be rewarded.''
The public and Congressional pressure put on baseball has yielded some rewards for those advocating stricter anti-doping controls.
Testing for banned substances in the U.S. minor leagues began in 2001, expanded to the Dominican minors in 2004 and is scheduled to reach the Venezuelan minor-league system this summer. Suspensions for first positive tests remain tougher than in the majors, 15 games compared to 10 days.
Just the same, advocacy groups such as the New York-based Hispanics Across America have intensified the call for action.
The organization commemorated the deaths of the two Dominican teenagers last month by delivering a casket to MLB headquarters, joining with New York politicians in protesting what they deemed baseball's lax anti-doping efforts in Latin America.
FAA president Fernando Mateo met on April 28 with Rob Manfred, Selig's point man on steroids, and Lou Melendez, vice president of international baseball operations.
As a result, Mateo said, baseball agreed to increase testing at academies in Latin American countries. He believes that will help dissuade potential steroids users.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle