In this world of bigger muscles, bigger records and bigger contracts, the temptation to use illegal and dangerous body-modifying substances is always creeping into the minds of athletes. For most who follow the news, the ongoing debate about the use of Human Growth Hormones (HGH) and steroids has been sparked by the revelation that many of our most beloved athletes, at some point in their careers, and for a myriad of reasons, have consumed steroids. The continued acceptance of the drugs and the almost movie-like performances that follow an athlete’s foray into the world of steroids only leaves spectators wondering about the positives and rarely do we hear of, or consider the realities and negatives of introducing dangerous substances into our bodies. But who cares, right? The point of it all is to get as big as you can now, so you can get as much money as you can later. But beyond the glitz and glamour of the international sports world is the reality that steroids and alternative body-modifying substances are readily available in the DR and that most athletes and non-athletes alike are not aware of the dangers associated with consuming these substances.
The steroid subculture has grown considerably in the DR over the last decade with baseball prodigies looking to gain the advantage that will catapult him to the multi-million dollar deal. But look further down and you will also notice that the trend also includes average “Joes” who want to bulk up a bit so they can look good at the beach. It might sound a bit ridiculous to some, the idea of mortgaging your future health for vanity, but the reality exists. What’s even more scary is the accessibility factor of steroids in the DR, how misinformed are those who consume the substances and the fact that these substances aren’t viewed in the same negative light as in the US or Europe.
Baseball players have always been notorious for looking for the slightest edge to get them over the hump. The stories of Vaseline on the hat to give a slider a bit more movement or the pine tar a bit below the bat line are part of baseball culture. But in recent years performance-enhancing substances have become the answer du jour for ball players looking to get a bit more resistance, a bit more power or simply recovery from a minor injury. The prevalence of these substances in baseball came to light after the 1996 season when Brady Anderson hit 50 homeruns and admitted to using over-the-counter performance-enhancing supplements. While not illegal, it marked the start of a new era. In 1998 baseball also became of interest when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on a season to be remembered. Both Sosa and McGwire had been known to be power hitters before their magical season, but 1998 was a season that no one had expected.
The season started off as any other. Both sluggers were doing relatively well in the homerun category but eventually the race picked up with McGwire finishing the season with 70, while Sosa finished with 66. After the season McGwire admitted to using an over-the-counter substance, Androstenedione, a precursor to steroids. At the time the substance was sold over the counter and was legal, but what cast a shadow of doubt over McGwire was that it had already been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the NFL and the International Olympic Committee. This was a sign of things to come. Eventually Sosa was also linked with performance-enhancers, as were other big- name ball players like Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens.
Dominicans in Baseball
Dominicans make up 10.7% of the 750 baseball players on the Major League Baseball rosters. A total of 79 Dominicans are on the rosters, but there are several more on the injured list. This means that 90 Dominicans or more are playing in MLB at the time of writing of this article. Of the group, 39 are pitchers and two are catchers. The Kansas City Royals is the team with the largest number of Dominicans on their roster, with six. Boston is second with five, and there are four Dominicans players on the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, making these the most popular teams for local fans. The volume of Dominican players in MLB is a reflection of their overall monetary value. The 92 Dominican players in Major League Baseball will earn a total of US$337,499,784 million in salaries in 2008. The top paying teams are the Boston Red Sox, which pays Dominicans US$45.4 million, the New York Mets - US$33.2 million, the New York Yankees - US$32.6 million, and the Chicago Cubs - US$30 million. The best paid Dominican players are Alex Rodriguez with US$28 million (Yankees), Manny Ramirez with US$18.9 million (Red Sox), Rafael Furcal, US$15.7 million (Dodgers), Vladimir Guerrero US$15.5 (Anaheim Angels), Aramis Ramirez with US$15.2 million (Cubs), Miguel Tejada US$14.8 million (Houston Astros), Alfonso Soriano with US$14 million (Cubs) and Albert Pujols, US$13.8 (St. Louis Cardinals).
Dominican Baseball and Steroids
Though it is difficult to ascertain exactly when the boom of steroid use among Dominican players began, steroid use amongst ballplayers from the Dominican Republic has been a major issue within Major League Baseball. According to a report by writer Tom Fish, over half of all players (57%) who tested positive for steroid usage were from the Dominican Republic. Accordingly, the DR leads the baseball world in suspended performance-enhancing drug users. Fish writes that “more than half of all pro baseball players who tested positive since the start of the 2005 season -- 169 of 289, or 58.5 percent -- hail from the Dominican Republic, and that includes major and minor leagues, as well as those who play in the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues.” Fish continues by explaining that of the 157 players suspended during this time, 37 (close to one-quarter) are from the Dominican Republic. And approximately 132 others have tested positive since 2005 in the 32-team Dominican Summer League, which generally features players just starting out in pro ball. They can't be suspended because of the country's labor laws.
Reasons for use
Why do these young athletes take the risks involved with taking performance-enhancing drugs? The reasons are plentiful. The most obvious is poverty. Many of these young ball players come from the poorest sectors of the Dominican Republic and they see baseball as their way out. Unfortunately for these young athletes, the quality of baseball in the country is so high that only the best of the best are scouted and signed to minor league contracts, so these athletes are looking for a leg up on the competition and looking for that one thing that will get them over the hump. According to Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, a New York-based advocacy group that lobbies Major League Baseball on Latino issues, "Dominicans have an easy explanation for their collective shrug whenever the subject of steroids arises. They argue that just as stealing bread is not a crime when a man is starving, taking performance-enhancing drugs is acceptable when a player is desperate to get off an island where the poverty rate hovers around 40%”. Mateo continues by saying that “what’s wrong in the US isn't so wrong there” and that “for baseball, fighting steroid use in the Dominican Republic has been like throwing punches underwater. The country that produced nearly 12% of the major leaguers on last year's Opening Day rosters and more than 20% of the All-Star starters last July, also produced one-third of the positive tests in the major and minor leagues in 2007."
The ‘buscon’ is another part of the steroids issue in the DR. Buscones, or finders, are people who try and find the next best prospects. These “street agents” are known to guide the careers of young athletes, introduce them to scouts and agents, enroll them in baseball academies and will take a cut from the young athlete if he is ever to sign with a major league team. Buscones have also been known to influence the dietary habits of these athletes and start them on steroids at a very young age in order to increase their viability on the scout market.
Others might argue the lack of education about performance enhancers might be part of the reason why these kids take drugs. Many have no idea what they are ingesting and take the recommendations of family or friends. Recently Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, in an interview in the Boston Herald, admitted that he was not sure if he had in fact taken performance-enhancing drugs. Said Ortiz, “I used to buy a protein shake in my country. I don’t do that anymore because they don’t have the approval for that here, so I know that, so I’m off buying things at the GNC back in the Dominican (Republic). But it can happen anytime, it can happen. I don’t know. I don’t know if I drank something in my youth, not knowing it.”
What they use
Ball players have been known to use a variety of substances to help them get an edge. The most common of these substances are amphetamines, which are known to give users an “up,” or more energy. Amphetamines are readily available and are used to combat the wear of a lengthy baseball season. Ephedra or ephedrine is also readily available in the DR and is very popular, as athletes believe it will give them an edge. Though banned in the US, and by the IOC and most major league sports, the substance is commonly found in the DR, especially in health and supplement stores. Most athletes are not aware of the dangers of these drugs or the fact that they have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the US.
Stanazolol (Winstrol) is a synthetic anabolic steroid developed from testosterone. It is a more expensive steroid and requires precision when using. The substance is known to increase strength without increasing body fat, but must be used in combination with other steroid substances.
Dimetabol has become very popular in recent years among athletes. Dimetabol is a mixture of vitamins and the steroid Nandrolone. Some say this mix is very popular because the vitamins are meant to mask the steroid agent. It is also popular because users can say they thought they were taking a vitamin shot if they are ever caught during doping tests. This particular substance is manufactured by a Mexican veterinary supply company and is intended for use on cattle and horses during periods of stress or after birth to aid recovery and weight gain.
Diamino is also a very popular drug among Dominican baseball players because it is cheap and readily available. This steroid is intended for use on cattle, but for poor children looking to keep up with the pack this is the best alternative they have.
At the gym
Gyms have long been a Holy Grail for those curious souls looking for that magic potion that will get them over the edge. Usually, the conversation about steroids and other substances is a quiet hush affair in locker rooms, but this is not the case in DR. It can be said that the conversation is quite the contrary, out in the open, rarely informative and more like life a fairy tale. Walking through the weight areas around Santo Domingo’s gyms you hear the murmurs and jokes that some individual has ventured into the world of steroids, but that comment is usually followed by the comment “un chin de puya, eso no es nada.” According to a man nicknamed Mack, a cycle on a steroid isn’t a bad thing. His sentiments are echoed by one of the three trainers at this particular gym. As the conversation continues, Mack, a short stocky lifter in his forties, discusses the virtues of injecting yourself with Stanazolol (Winstrol.) As the older gentleman continues his sales pitch as to why any man should inject himself with steroids, he dismisses rumors that steroids have harmful side effects and says that in his life he has never experienced or seen anything bad happen to anyone who has taken steroids.
Things are changing
According to figures provided by MLB, in 2004, the inaugural year of drug testing in the Dominican Summer League, 11 percent of teenage prospects signed by major league clubs tested positive. By last summer, that percentage had declined to 3.5. Fernando Mateo explained “though the summer and winter leagues have tested for steroids since 2004, the country's labor laws prohibited teams from suspending players who tested positive; violators were instead referred to counseling. But after intense lobbying by Major League Baseball, the Dominican government reinterpreted its laws. Starting this summer, players who test positive will face the same escalating 50-game, 100-game and permanent suspensions doled out by MLB."
Steroid use is now a reality among the thousands of young athletes who see baseball as their meal ticket. The competitiveness of the game, coupled with the poverty in the DR, the million-dollar contracts, lack of education and the idea that introducing illegal and dangerous substances into the body is the best way to increase productivity will continue driving these young kids into dangerous patterns of behavior. The cycle will not change until the forces at the top realize that there are legitimate health issues to consider. But the downside is that the increased competitiveness is increasing quality of talent and increased revenues for the Major League teams that are here. The double-edged sword is sharp with the young talented hopefuls standing close to the razor sharp blades.