SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — One scandal followed another until Major League Baseball committed nearly 10 years ago to crack down on teams wrongly exploiting the player development system in this impoverished Caribbean nation. But progress has dragged, and young prospects like Steven Reyes remain exposed to improprieties and dangerous health risks as they chase the dream of big league stardom, a Globe review found.
Reyes is just 16, with high hopes for himself and a clear eye on the sport. Despite the “Say No to Syringes’’ posters that MLB has distributed to baseball facilities throughout the country, Reyes said he has witnessed adolescent teammates inject potentially deadly chemicals to make themselves look bigger and stronger to major league scouts.
“From what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure it’s happening everywhere,’’ Reyes said, wearing a Red Sox jersey at a baseball training facility in Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital.
Reyes is one of thousands of Dominican youths trying to make their way in a feeder system for Major League Baseball that has long been rife with exploitation and plagued by wrongdoing, much of it committed by MLB teams, including the Red Sox.
Reyes said he wants to be the next David Ortiz so badly that he dropped out of school after the eighth grade and entrusted his future to a series of Dominican talent brokers. If tradition holds, one or more of the brokers will take lots of Reyes’s money if he achieves his dream. If he doesn’t, they will discard him.
If Reyes is especially fortunate, major league scouts won’t encourage him to falsify his age and identity, steal some of his signing bonus, or turn a blind eye should he begin doping, as has occurred for decades with other Dominican prospects, according to interviews, court records, and former US senator George Mitchell’s landmark 2007 report on illegal steroids in baseball. Twelve years after publication, the report remains sadly relevant, as the treatment of young prospects has improved in some respects but remains a black eye for baseball.
Despite MLB’s nearly decadelong campaign to curb abuses in its lucrative Dominican pipeline, misconduct persists, some allegedly so serious that a federal grand jury in Washington is reportedly weighing evidence against team operatives.
The ongoing shame, some youth advocates here said, is that Major League Baseball, a multibillion-dollar enterprise with ties to the developing nation’s government, could do more to protect the Dominican boys it relies on to help stock its rosters.
“MLB could do wonders in this country if it worked harder to make things better,’’ said Homero LaJara, a buscone, or trainer, who runs a Dominican baseball academy for young boys competing for professional contracts. “It would be a win for MLB and the United States of America because they would be getting players who are educated, who aren’t changing their birth dates and identities, and who aren’t pumped up with steroids.’’
Since 2010, when then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig responded to Mitchell’s report by dispatching a top executive to try to fix things in the Dominican Republic, advances have been incremental.
“We have made good strides there,’’ an MLB spokesman said, while acknowledging challenges remain.
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ONE MAJOR STEP has been enlisting dozens of Dominican baseball trainers in a partnership program aimed at cleaning up improprieties. The trainers have more than 1,000 youths under their control, and MLB is permitted under the partnership to test any player age 13 or older for banned performance enhancers.
The impact of the crackdown has been considerable, but the task is far from complete. Since 2012, the rate of positive steroid tests in MLB’s Dominican Summer League has dropped by 50 percent, but even now it’s more than three times higher than the rate for minor leaguers in the United States, according to documents provided by MLB.
Cases of age and identity fraud have also been sharply reduced under revised MLB protocols. In addition, MLB and most of its teams — all 30 operate academies for young Dominican players — have expanded their education programs.
Ramon Genao, one of the top youth trainers in Santo Domingo, said Major League Baseball had not acted aggressively enough in the past to improve the system, despite its influence in the country.
While Genao remains concerned about MLB’s drug testing program, he credited commissioner Rob Manfred with promoting more rapid and positive change. He said the improvements reflect MLB’s understanding that “if you want to fix your house, you can’t just clean up the outside.’’
But the ongoing grand jury investigation could expose further predatory practices by MLB teams competing to sign the most gifted Dominican prospects. One burgeoning problem is teams verbally agreeing with impressionable boys as young as 13 to sign with them when they become eligible at 16, according to those familiar with the system.
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NICK FRANCONA, a former Los Angeles Dodgers front office staffer, said in an interview that he became so disgusted by the alleged abuses he witnessed that he reported them to the FBI.
Francona, a Marine combat veteran, is the son of former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who now manages the Cleveland Indians.
“The international side of Major League Baseball is a cesspool,’’ said Nick Francona, who was fired by the Dodgers in 2016 and the New York Mets in 2018 over disputes about team policies and practices, some involving Dominican operations.
Notable in the documents Francona supplied to the FBI are surveys indicating that three Dodgers executives in 2015 rated the “level of egregious behavior’’ by the team’s international scouts.
One document purports to show that Gabe Kapler, then LA’s director of player development, assessed the behavior of three Dodgers scouts as “criminal.’’
Kapler’s front office colleagues — former Red Sox executives David Finley and Galen Carr — each rated the behavior of the same three scouts as well as an additional Dodgers scout as “criminal,” according to the documents, which Francona shared with the Globe.
The documents do not specify what constitutes criminal behavior, but Francona said there were suspicions of misconduct such as scouts improperly benefiting from international signings, among other issues. In an e-mail to Francona and other Dodgers staffers, one team executive allegedly wrote of a Dodgers scout, “I am more worried about him getting caught in customs with $100,000 in cash strapped to his body.’’
Kapler, who won a World Series ring as a Red Sox outfielder in 2004, left the Dodgers in 2017 to manage the Philadelphia Phillies. Through a team spokeswoman, he declined to comment.
Finley and Carr remain with the Dodgers. A Dodgers spokesman did not respond to requests for comment from the two, or for the team to comment on the purported e-mail that Francona shared.
The four Dodgers scouts are among many former MLB staffers who have allegedly engaged in misconduct in the Dominican development system.
In 2013, three Chicago White Sox scouting officials went to prison for taking more than $400,000 in kickbacks from the contracts of young prospects, mostly Dominicans.
In 2017, the Atlanta Braves general manager was banned for life by MLB and his special assistant was suspended for a year for scouting and signing improprieties involving 13 young prospects, more than half of them Dominicans.
Numerous other teams, including the Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Washington Nationals, have fired executives or scouts amid allegations they took kickbacks or sanctioned age and identity fraud by Dominican boys. The Red Sox dismissed their Dominican scouting supervisor, Pablo Lantigua, over alleged kickbacks. Lantigua, in a 2008 Globe interview, denied knowingly doing anything wrong. He was, he said, just caught following a longstanding and accepted practice in Dominican youth baseball.
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YET THE LARGELY LAWLESS Dominican system endures, with boys as young as 10 leaving school and turning to coaches and talent hunters, some of them unscrupulous, for help securing professional contracts.
The process churns in plain sight, as the Globe observed last month at the sprawling Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center in Santo Domingo. On the fringes of poorly maintained dirt fields, influential coaches oversaw boys preparing for their big day, the July 2 after their 16th birthdays, when they become eligible to sign with MLB teams.
More than a dozen young prospects, idling in the tropical heat, snapped to attention when Genao, one of the region’s best known trainers, rolled up in his luxury BMW SUV. Genao said the vehicle was a gift from Starling Marte, a boy he trained on these fields, who has earned more than $30 million since he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 for $85,000.
Genao, who goes by the nickname Papiro, described growing up poor in a barrio, “with nothing.’’ Now he lives in a fine penthouse, he said, funded by the money he has made off boys he helped to become MLB multimillionaires, including Marte, Melky Cabrera, Pedro Alvarez, and Antonio Alfonseca.
Like many trainers, Genao generally has taken about 35 percent of his players’ signing bonuses. He could take more: There’s no limit because the Dominican government has never regulated such transactions and Major League Baseball has never effectively pushed for changes, even as MLB money flowing into the island country has swelled from a trickle to a torrent.
In 1988, the Dodgers signed 16-year-old Pedro Martinez, now a Hall of Famer, for all of $6,500. Ortiz, one of the greatest clutch hitters in baseball history, signed with the Seattle Mariners four years later at the age of 16 for only $10,000.
Over time, competition for the nation’s best talent intensified, and on July 2, 2008, the Oakland Athletics signed a 16-year-old pitcher, Michael Ynoa, for $4.2 million, then a record for Dominican prospects. A year later, the Red Sox made a July 2 splash by signing 16-year-old shortstop Jose Vinicio for $1.95 million.
In the decade since, the Red Sox have joined many other MLB teams in making millionaires of Dominican 16-year-olds, including their star third baseman, Rafael Devers, in 2013, and a minor league pitcher, Christopher Acosta, in 2014. Both received $1.5 million bonuses.
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BUT THE RICH KIDS are rare exceptions. Every year, thousands of Dominican teenagers exhaust their baseball ambitions and begin seeking other work. Few are educated, and jobs are scarce, with the youth unemployment rate in double digits.
MLB has addressed the problem in part by providing scholarships to attend universities and technical schools in the Dominican Republic since 2012 to more than 200 players who have been released by MLB teams.
But there is no similar program for the thousands who never even get that far — sent packing before they ever sign a professional contract. Some of these abruptly unemployed drift into trouble.
“All of these kids see baseball as their only way out,’’ LaJara said, surrounded by unsigned prospects. “When that ends, some of them go in different directions, and the crime rate goes up.’’
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ONE OF GENAO’S former players, Jesus Gomez, is among the relative few who have managed to sign contracts after they were passed over at age 16. Gomez’s father, Francisco, said Jesus was able to sign with the Chicago Cubs in 2018, at age 19, thanks largely to physical conditioning he received from another prominent figure at the Olympic Center, Angel Presinal.
“The best physical trainer in the country,’’ Francisco Gomez said.
Presinal, however, is banned from Major League Baseball because he was suspected in 2001 of transporting steroids into the United States for then-Cleveland Indians slugger Juan Gonzalez. Presinal denied it, and no one was charged in the incident.
Presinal came under scrutiny again in 2009 amid allegations he was traveling the baseball circuit with admitted steroid user Alex Rodriguez. Presinal again denied any wrongdoing, but Major League Baseball banned him also from the World Baseball Classic.
At the Olympic Center, Presinal presides over a squat concrete building outfitted with antiquated strength and conditioning equipment. He emerged from a massage room abutting his office, the walls adorned with photos of him with his star clients, including Ortiz, Martinez, and another former Red Sox great, Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez was twice suspended by Major League Baseball for using performance-enhancing drugs. He and Ortiz reportedly tested positive for performance enhancers in 2003, though both denied knowingly ingesting anything improper. Martinez has never been accused of any wrongdoing involving steroids.
At Presinal’s facility, dozens of boys lingered about the grounds as he professed his innocence in MLB’s decades-long steroid scandal.
“When you’ve never done it and they accuse you, you feel backed up against a wall,’’ he said. “It has been very, very, very difficult for me, for my life, for my family.’’
Presinal, like LaJara and Genao, profits from boys at the Olympic Center who land professional contracts. When Jesus Gomez signed with the Cubs — for $10,000, according to Baseball America — Genao took 35 percent and Presinal 5 percent, his father said.
The elder Gomez praised Presinal but said he is worried about the scourge of steroid use among Dominican prospects, perhaps for good reason.
Seated in Presinal’s office was Steven Reyes, the 16-year-old hopeful, who discussed trying to avoid chemical enhancers. Beside him sat his father, Elvis Reyes, who once embodied the longtime practice of age and identity fraud among Dominican prospects.
The elder Reyes said he was 20 when an MLB scout advised him a generation ago to pass himself off as someone younger because he lacked the proper paperwork to sign under his real name. Elvis Reyes said he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers as 17-year-old David Pena, and though he never made it off the island, playing only two seasons for Milwaukee’s team in the Dominican Summer League, MLB never detected his ruse, he said.
Reyes said he brought his son to Presinal to rehab knee and elbow injuries. Steven, a 6-foot-4-inch outfielder, has trained in various academies run by buscones. He said he does school work on Saturdays.
His big day comes next July 2, when he will first be eligible to sign an MLB contract.
“God willing,’’ he said. “That’s my dream.’’
Steven Reyes said he knows he might be disadvantaged by staying steroid-free, while others cheat. He described feeling helpless when he witnessed boys injecting the drugs, which are readily available in the Dominican Republic.
“It’s not fair, but I have to keep my mouth shut,’’ he said. “If I say anything, the people who run the academy would probably accuse me.’’
Reyes declined to identify the baseball program he was involved with when he saw players injecting performance enhancers, other than to say it was not his current independent academy.
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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL successfully lobbied the Dominican government to amend a labor law that prevented MLB from disciplining players who tested positive for steroids beyond referring them to counseling; the law now allows MLB to suspend players who test positive. In addition, the players’ union agreed to permit MLB to test the country’s top prospects for steroids before they are signed.
But the problem remains palpable at the Olympic Center, a training ground for many players who tested positive for performance enhancers after they signed MLB contracts. They include two of Genao’s top prodigies: Marte and Cabrera.
Some of the best amateurs at the Olympic Center one day will compete in MLB’s Dominican Summer League, whose ranks have been thinned since Jan. 1, 2018, by the suspensions of 23 players for steroid use. Three of those disciplined were Jesus Gomez’s teammates at the Cubs academy.
During the same period, 28 other minor leaguers, 11 of them Dominicans, have been suspended for using performance enhancers. An additional 18 major leaguers have been disciplined, nine Dominicans among them, including Minnesota shortstop Jorge Polanco, a 2019 All-Star.
Genao, who enlisted last year in MLB’s trainer partnership program, said he sees inequities and discrimination in the screening system.
“If Dominicans are using needles, so are the Americans,’’ he said. “I lived in the United States. I saw all those kids doping up. What I want to know is why Dominicans test positive, but Americans don’t.”
Major League Baseball denies there are any irregularities or bias in the system.
But the problem runs deeper, Genao said. MLB’s relationship with the Dominican government makes it “hard to stand up to the powerful,” he said. “There are things that people don’t touch for their own good.”
Abuses often go unpunished, several trainers said, while those who protest may find themselves at risk.
As LaJara put it, “This country can be dirty. Over here, you’ve got to be careful.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.