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Dominican Players And PED Use: Coincidence?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll talk about the curious case of Nidal Hasan, the Army major who has now admitted his role in the Fort Hood shooting spree in 2009; that he has, essentially, asked to be put to death. We're interested in whether this is a case of ideology or mental illness. We'll talk about that later in the program.

First, though, we want to start with another story that's been dominating the national headlines this week: the major-league baseball suspensions of 13 players. The fact that one of the game's highest profile players, Alex Rodriguez, has been slapped with a potentially career-ending penalty has grabbed most of the attention.

But one other story, that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, is the fact that more than half of the players suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs are from the Dominican Republic. And that's a country known as a pipeline for American baseball teams, but it's also a place where you can buy performance-enhancing drugs at the corner pharmacy.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined now by Patrick Madden. He's a reporter with the NPR member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., and he did a major reporting project on baseball in the Dominican Republic. Also with us is Charles Farrell; he's co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy. That's a training and education nonprofit just outside Santo Domingo. And they're both with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

CHARLES FARRELL: Thank you for inviting me to join you.

MARTIN: So Patrick Madden, let me start with you, and I want to make it clear that major league baseball has not connected the performance-enhancing drug use issue to the Dominican Republic, but it's hard to miss that eight out of the 13 suspended players are from the Dominican Republic, and I wanted to ask, when you saw that news, what came to mind for you?

MADDEN: Well, it wasn't shocking for me because I spent some time down in the Dominican Republic, sort of looking at this issue of baseball, and it's hard to separate baseball from the issue of steroid abuse down there because of just how popular the game is, and the incentives to become a major league baseball player.

And the incentives are so great down there, it's one of those things where you just have to follow the money. I mean, the average signing bonus for a Dominican prospect is $100,000 - the average income for a Dominican family is $25,000. So to make it in baseball - it's a way to really succeed, and that means that the incentives to cheat are high.

MARTIN: The incentives to do whatever you can do to enhance your opportunities is really very high. So how widespread is the use of performance-enhancing drugs among players? I mean, we generally associate this with aging players - people who need an edge later in life to kind of maintain their performance. We don't generally associate this with younger players, and since the Dominican Republic tends to be the place that players kind of are groomed, is it a widespread issue there?

MADDEN: I would imagine that it's more widespread among younger players than it is the older players, because they have more to gain. When you talk about the system in the Dominican Republic, you're signed at the age of 16, and so you are basically training your entire life for that five-minute tryout you have when you're 16 years old to make it - to be signed by a major league baseball team and the other part of the system is the street agents down there, who sort of scour the country looking for these baseball players at a really young age.

They take them in, they train them, and they're often the ones that are responsible for providing these drugs. And when I was down there, I spoke with one of these guys who said, you know, I would have conversations with even the family members and say, it may not be healthy, but it's a way for you to get signed.

MARTIN: Charles Farrell, what about that? I mean, is that - how common is it?

FARRELL: I think it's very common. Again, I think as Patrick mentioned, the accessibility is one thing, and this "succeed at all cost" mentality - baseball is more than just a game here. It's the national passion. Little boys, when they are born, the first gift they get are a little bat, a little ball, and the expectation is that they'll grow up to be major league players and take their families to riches.

And it is a common belief among every young boy that you will talk to. I am going to play in the big leagues. And obviously, not every player has the physical size or speed or strength, and if they can see a way to say, I can be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, then I'm going to do it.

MARTIN: Do most academies test players regularly?

FARRELL: Yes. All of the academies test now on a regular basis. All the academies provide drug education on the consequences, not only physically abusing steroids to a young person, but also what will happen if you get caught. There are constantly suspensions for the use of steroids, but we just don't read about them or hear about them, because most of them involve either unknown minor-league players or these 16, 17-year-olds who are prospects here who nobody hears of.

The 13 who were suspended the other day, obviously they're well-known names, the most famous being Alex Rodriguez, but there were several All-Stars on that list as well. So I think the fact that you're hearing about these stars involved in steroid use is indicative of the use further down the chain, and I think it is widespread, but you'll see the numbers here in the Dominican Republic of those testing positive higher, because they are being more tested.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the performance-enhancing drug scandal. We're talking about the large number of Dominican ballplayers who were involved in this, in these recent major league baseball suspensions. I'm speaking with Charles Farrell, he's the cofounder of the Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy. That's outside of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Also with us is reporter Patrick Madden, who's reported on this issue extensively. Patrick, from your reporting on this, which was mainly in 2010, I remember that you told us that if you look at the minors, maybe a quarter of the players are Dominican - or two-thirds of the players who tested positive were from the Dominican Republic. Why would that be? I mean, the steroids - these drugs - a lot of these drugs are legal in other places too, like in Nicaragua and Venezuela, so why is that?

MADDEN: Personally, I think it gets back to the system, we're talking about how players are sort of discovered and how they are recruited on the island. It's at such a young age, and these street agents play such a role. Like, for example, they take sometimes a 40 percent cut of the signing bonus. So there is a great incentive, not only just for the players and their families to sort of do whatever it takes to get signed - that sort of one shot they have - but also these street agents who are the ones that can go in - and this is the guy I talked to, he went into the pharmacy, picked up the, you know, veterinary horse steroids, gave it to the players. So it's not just the players, it's the whole system, I think. I think Charlie can talk about it, but these street agents do play a role in this.

MARTIN: Charlie, what do you think about this? Why is it that the disproportionate number of these players - Dominican players are the ones who are getting ensnared in this. What's your take on it?

FARRELL: I think that, again, part of it is this overwhelming desire to succeed. These baseball players think that the only opportunity they have for success is hitting a baseball, throwing a ball and therefore they are willing to do anything to succeed at this dream. And I also think there's part of it I call "la buena mentira" - the good lie, if the end justifies the means, what is wrong? Baseball wants a good baseball player, I want to be a good baseball player, the steroid helps me to be a better baseball player. I get what I want, they get what they want. What's the harm? And I think that that's a mentality that has to be addressed in order to curb steroid taking.

MARTIN: How is it possible though that - I mean, I'm assuming that players from Nicaragua and Venezuela also want to succeed, too. So is it just that the system isn't as organized there or the networks aren't as organized?

FARRELL: No. A larger effort has been put into the Dominican Republic to develop players. All 30 teams have academies down here. Now it's interesting that, besides Alex Rodriguez, a Nicaraguan and three Venezuelans - well, most of the Venezuelans who are trained in baseball, and many of the Nicaraguans, they bring them to the Dominican Republic. So I think that they're exposed to the same sort of system and the same sort of pressures to succeed. So I think it is systemic of prospects in Latin America, in general. I think that the - again, that overwhelming desire to succeed in baseball manifests itself in the willingness to do anything, and the epicenter of that development of baseball and that mentality is the Dominican Republic.

You know, the odds are overwhelming that a player is not going to succeed. But thousands and thousands of kids get out there every day, and you have to remember, again, that you're dealing with a 16-year-old child. That's what people forget. These are huge, physical specimens - 6-foot-3, 225, 230 pounds - but they are children and they are listening to advice, and so many times now, the wrong advice. But I do think what happened in major league baseball, and those 13 players, and the other person who was suspended previously, that they are sending a very, very clear message that you can be the highest paid player in major league baseball, but if you use performance-enhancing drugs, there are consequences. One, we will catch you. And two, we will punish you.

MARTIN: What are you telling your kids in the wake of this?

FARRELL: We've always said to our kids, look, first of all, these are dangerous drugs that need to be used under a physician's care - a physician's direction - because they can have devastating consequences on your body. And that's the first thing that we tell them. And the second thing that we tell them is, baseball has sophisticated testing now, you will not get away with this. And what you will do is damage your slim chances of succeeding in baseball.

And then the third and most important is, that there are ways that you can develop your body. It's going to take you longer. It's going to take more dedication, but you can at least take your body to its maximum potential through diet and exercise. So those are three of the things that we tell our kids to be the best that they can be.

MARTIN: Patrick, you wanted to add something. I mean, do you feel that the league is now serious, for want of a better word, about discouraging the use of these drugs? Because there's two issues here. One is there - what Charlie called the "buena mentira" - there's the turning a blind eye. But there's also, as you pointed out, the economic incentives. If a kid can radically change his life and his family's life, I mean, the incentives seem to be overwhelming.

MADDEN: And that's, at the end of the day, I mean, the incentive - if I have my tryout and I can throw an 85 mph fastball or a 90 mph fastball, and that's the difference between a million dollars and not getting signed, and you're living, you know, in poverty and you want to lift your family out. What are you going to do?

MARTIN: Patrick Madden is a reporter for NPR member station WAMU. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Charles Farrell is cofounder of the Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy. He was with us from his offices, which is just outside Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Charles Farrell, Patrick Madden, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MADDEN: Thank you.

FARRELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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