SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Every time he hears about one other baseball player from the Dominican Republic testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, an all-too-common occurrence amongst his countrymen, Jenrry Mejia feels the identical intense emotions: sadness and empathy.
Once a promising young closer for the Mets, Mejia, 33, can speak from experience. Since Major League Baseball and the M.L.B. players’ union agreed on suspensions for first-time offenders starting in 2005, no player has been disciplined greater than he has: His third positive test, which got here in 2016, triggered a lifetime ban.
Mejia, then in his mid-20s, reacted rashly to the punishment and accused M.L.B. of engaging in a conspiracy against him. The lifetime ban was reversed two years later, after Mejia apologized to M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred for his actions, and he was conditionally reinstated, though he has yet to make it back to the majors.
Since then, Mejia has spoken regularly to younger players concerning the dangers of steroids and the way they derailed his profession. So after Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres got an 80-game suspension in August for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancer, Mejia said he wanted to provide the 23-year-old Tatis — or any suspended player — some unsolicited advice.
“What he doesn’t need is people throwing dirt on him,” Mejia said recently in Spanish. “He needs someone to consult with him and say that it’ll be OK. Everyone knows the situation is bad. But show your face, admit the error and keep going.”
Tatis’s positive test — a jarring event due to his status as an emerging superstar — is just the most recent example of a distressing phenomenon amongst players from the Dominican Republic. Since 2005, there have been 1,308 positive cases amongst major and minor league players. In keeping with M.L.B., of the 30,000 drug tests it conducts all over the world each season, 0.2 percent are positive for performance-enhancing substances, half of that are from players from the Dominican Republic.
For each Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colón who tested positive, many more Dominican minor leaguers have been caught. And essentially the most common banned substances in use are old-fashioned anabolic steroids that were prevalent in other sports many years ago.
Dominicans play in any respect levels of baseball, with eight on this yr’s World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. But the share of Dominicans testing positive for banned substances is out of proportion with their representation in the sport. Of the 975 players on teams’ Opening Day 28-man rosters and inactive lists this season, 99 — just over 10 percent — were from the Dominican Republic. The share was believed to be greater within the minor leagues.
“It’s lamentable,” Junior Noboa, a former major leaguer and the country’s national baseball commissioner, said in Spanish in a recent interview from his office in Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo. “It’s lamentable that in any case of the talks and the whole lot that is completed that they keep making these mistakes.”
Baseball officials, players, doctors and doping experts offered a wide range of explanations for the positive drug tests.
“A scout looks at your player and if he’s already 16 years old, he’s too old,” said Felix Mena, a non-public trainer who began working with Mejia when he was 15 and said he runs a drug-free program. “So with a child at 12 years old, you’ve to begin getting him to compete and doing things that shouldn’t be done. It’s the system that sometimes carries people away. And there’s poverty, so it’s something social. And you may buy quite a lot of stuff without prescriptions, like pills and injections. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Mena just isn’t exaggerating concerning the ages of the players involved. Unlike players in america or Canada, who’re drafted after highschool at 18, or after multiple years of faculty, international amateurs can sign as free agents with M.L.B. clubs as young as 16. But within the race to secure the following great talent, teams often reach verbal agreements with players several years younger than that, making a frenzied market that critics argue breeds corruption and steroid use.
Even after those players develop into professionals, Mena said the excel-at-all-costs mentality continues. “‘I would like to risk myself because another person got $20 million and I would like to get the $20 million,’ in order that they take a risk due to culture of chasing money.”
The gross national income per capita within the Dominican Republic was about $8,200 last yr, in line with the World Bank. Because even a modest signing bonus might be life-changing for a Dominican family, children often put secondary school aside to deal with baseball training. And once they do sign, players need to pay their trainers, who double as agents, as much as 50 percent.
“In america, the player is largely made in a college, in a program where there’s protection and safeguards, and there’s a draft,” Mejia said. But within the Dominican Republic, when players aren’t throwing hard enough as teenagers and getting the eye of scouts, Mejia said, they, their parents and their trainers sometimes get desperate.
“You search for something to take, pondering that the banned substance can supposedly help, but really it could possibly make the situation worse,” he said, adding later, “Anyone can go to pharmacy or veterinarian and so they’ll sell it to you.”
There’s a preferred thought within the Dominican Republic that banned substances are a fast fix, said Milton Pinedo, a physician and the president of Fedomede, the Dominican Federation of Sports Medicine, the body that runs the doping testing for the country’s Olympic programs, including the national baseball team.
“That affects trainers and oldsters,” Pinedo continued, “who’ve that belief that using banned substances can be a path out of poverty and the kids are going to perform and sign early. The abnormal belief in steroids gives them power that they really don’t have.”
Pinedo listed two other major aspects why skilled Dominican players find yourself testing positive more often. He pointed to the lower education levels within the country, particularly amongst baseball players. Consequently, he said, people “cannot discern or differentiate what’s true and what’s not” about steroids.
The third factor, Pinedo said, was perhaps the largest: the country’s loose controls on banned substances, which might be bought “liberally within the pharmacies and don’t require prescriptions.” Even antibiotics might be bought with no doctor’s order. Older anabolic steroids like stanozolol and boldenone, he said, are popular because they’re easily accessible.
“Those are medications which can be made within the ’80s and have medical uses,” he said. “Other steroids are designer steroids which can be dearer.”
Victor Conte Jr., the central figure within the BALCO steroids scandal that linked using P.E.D.s to a number of the country’s top skilled baseball, football and track and field athletes, said he believed some baseball players were still circumventing the testing program. But Dominican players using the older drugs are easier to catch.
“No one should ever use any kind of an anabolic steroid like that,” said Conte, who pleaded guilty to distributing steroids and money laundering in 2005. “And the explanation is because they’re so easily detectable as much as six months, if not a yr. And even within the cases of like nandrolone, there’s a case that 18 months after injection it was still detectable.”
Pinedo said skilled baseball players within the country tested positive at much higher rates than Olympians. He said essentially the most recent positive test amongst their international athletes got here in 2019 — and it was a baseball player participating within the Pan American Games.
“There is no such thing as a political willpower,” said Pinedo, who has called on the Dominican government to enact tougher restrictions on certain substances. “It’s controlled in lots of other places. What you’re promoting isn’t baseball, but damaging the health of youth. And the health of the youth is more essential.”
Noboa, who’s working to reform the player development system within the country, said his office hoped to receive legislative approval for more resources and power to tackle the doping problem at a young age, from working with parents to higher educating players to punishing trainers to testing at independent academies.
“We now have to begin with the children from once they’re playing Little League,” Noboa said. “That’s where we’ve got to focus primarily in order that once they reach an age once they’re aware, they know that if anyone offers something — ‘This is just for a bit little bit of time and can help with an injury’ — they are saying, ‘No, none of that and nothing that’s not on the approved list.’”
M.L.B. established a program within the Dominican Republic in 2018 during which trainers receive an M.L.B. stamp of approval so long as they permit the league to conduct regular unannounced drug tests of their players. This yr, M.L.B. was expected to conduct essentially the most tests ever within the minor leagues and within the Dominican Republic.
While the M.L.B. players’ union declined to comment on the difficulty, M.L.B. responded with an announcement: “The league has committed substantial resources, staffing and programming with the goal of PED deterrence across the minor leagues.”
It continued, “Consequently of those efforts, partly due to program’s transparency, the positive test rate amongst minor league players within the Dominican Republic has been lower than 1% for ten consecutive years, and is down 85% because the start of this system. We are going to proceed to boost and support our programs toward the goal of further deterrence and player safety.”
On a recent morning, Mejia met with Mena. In between playing within the Mexican skilled league in the course of the regular season and the Toros del Este within the Dominican winter league, Mejia played catch with the young players Mena is training now. Through the years, Mejia has gotten to know them and has warned them about P.E.D.s.
Mejia’s story is a cautionary tale. In April 2015, he was suspended 80 games for testing positive for stanozolol. Three months later, he was suspended 162 games for testing positive for stanozolol again but additionally boldenone. And in February 2016, he received the one everlasting ban within the antidoping program’s history when boldenone was again present in his system. He said that it was all from one usage — he claimed he didn’t know some B-12 vitamins he took while sick in 2015 had steroids — and easily stayed in his body that long. Once there, he said it didn’t help him throw harder.
Intentional or not, Mejia said the whole lot in his body was his responsibility, and thus it was his fault. While a prospect may turn to steroids to assist earn his first skilled contract or reach the majors, Mejia was already there. He said the explanations for using at that level are different. Tatis had already signed a 14-year, $340 million deal when he tested positive but he was working his way back from a wrist injury he suffered in a motorbike accident within the off-season.
“The temptations are like, for instance, you’ve some pain that you simply don’t need to admit,” Mejia said. “Or you must overcome it and you think that that is going to assist you. Or you must throw harder or you must show more. But that’s not the way in which. You’re sometimes not mature until you’re like 32 years old. You sometimes think like a baby. Why are you on the lookout for this whenever you’re already at the best level?”
Mena welcomed more scrutiny for trainers throughout the country and argued against what he called a “bad culture” of oldsters who see their children because the means to prosperity and forsake education.
“If the federal government of ours takes a concrete position of what should occur, and in the event you don’t follow the rules, you’re arrested or fined,” he said. “It doesn’t matter in the event you’re the parent. What responsibility does a 12-year-old kid have? The children aren’t on the lookout for steroids. It’s given to them. The federal government has to analyze and have a firm hand. Us trainers need be controlled and directed and be told that this shouldn’t occur and if it does, we’re held responsible.”
Nelson Cruz, the Washington Nationals designated hitter who’s widely viewed as a frontrunner amongst Dominican major leaguers, said it was encouraging that the speed at which his fellow countrymen have tested positive had decreased.
Cruz, 42, had his own experience with performance-enhancers: He was suspended 50 games in 2013 for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal in Southern Florida that ensnared greater than a dozen players, including Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. He commended the academic programs in place now that he said weren’t around when he was younger.
“M.L.B. is doing a terrific job giving talks and counseling about it, to stop what’s happening there,” he said recently, adding later: “It’s a process, like the whole lot in life, for it to be eradicated for good. It’s something that may take time. We, as Dominicans, need to face the truth and we’ve got to try to enhance this.”
Within the meantime, Mejia said he would proceed preaching to children and praying for a second likelihood at the foremost leagues. The closest he got to returning was spending the 2019 season with the Boston Red Sox’ Class AAA team, but he posted a 6.38 E.R.A.
“I’d like to return to america, even for at some point,” he said, “so I can say that I fell, I persevered and I returned to the large leagues.”