The Dominican Republic Loves Baseball, but Steroid problems run deep
By James Wagner
Whenever he hears about another baseball player from the Dominican Republic testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, an all-too-common occurrence among his countrymen, Jenrry Mejia feels sadness and empathy.
Once a promising young closer for the New York Mets, Mejia, 33, can speak from experience. Since Major League Baseball and the MLB players’ union agreed on suspensions for first-time offenders beginning in 2005, no player has been disciplined more than he has: His third positive test, which came in 2016, triggered a lifetime ban.
Mejia, then in his mid-20s, reacted rashly and accused MLB of engaging in a conspiracy against him. The lifetime ban was reversed two years later, after Mejia apologized to Commissioner Rob Manfred, although he has yet to make it back to the majors.
Since then, Mejia has spoken frequently to younger players about the dangers of steroids and how they derailed his career. 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 give 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. “He needs someone to talk to him and say that it’ll be OK. Everyone knows the situation is bad. But show your face, admit the mistake and keep going.”
Tatis’ positive test — a jarring event because of his status as an emerging superstar — is just the latest example of a distressing phenomenon among players from the Dominican Republic. According to MLB, of the 30,000 drug tests it conducts around the world each season, 0.2% are positive for performance-enhancing substances, half of which are from players from the Dominican Republic.
For every Robinson Canó, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colón who tested positive, many more Dominican minor leaguers have been caught. And the most common banned substances in use are old-fashioned anabolic steroids that were prevalent in other sports decades ago.
Dominicans play at all levels of baseball, with eight in this year’s World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. But the percentage of Dominicans testing positive for banned substances is out of proportion with their representation in the game. Of the 975 players on teams’ Opening Day 28-man rosters and inactive lists this season, 99 — just over 10% — were from the Dominican Republic. The percentage was believed to be greater in the minor leagues.
“It’s lamentable,” Junior Noboa, a former major leaguer and the country’s national baseball commissioner, said. “It’s lamentable that after all of the talks and everything that is done that they keep making these mistakes.”
Baseball officials, players, doctors and doping experts offered a variety 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 private trainer who began working with Mejia when he was 15 and said he runs a drug-free program. “So with a kid at 12 years old, you have to start getting him to compete and doing things that shouldn’t be done. It’s the system that sometimes carries people away.”
Mena is not exaggerating about the ages of the players involved. International amateurs can sign as free agents with MLB clubs as young as 16. But teams often reach verbal agreements with players several years younger than that, creating a frenzied market that critics argue breeds corruption and steroid use. Because even a modest signing bonus can be life-changing for a Dominican family, children often put school aside to focus on baseball training.
“In the United States, the player is basically made in a school, in a program where there is protection and safeguards, and there is a draft,” Mejia said. But in the Dominican Republic, when players aren’t throwing hard enough as teenagers and getting the attention of scouts, Mejia said, they, their parents and their trainers sometimes get desperate.
“You look for something to take, thinking that the banned substance can supposedly help, but really it can make the situation worse,” he said, adding later, “Anyone can go to pharmacy or veterinarian and they’ll sell it to you.”
There is a popular thought in the Dominican Republic that banned substances are a quick fix, said Milton Pinedo, a doctor and president of Fedomede, the Dominican Federation of Sports Medicine.
“That affects trainers and parents,” Pinedo continued, “who have that belief that using banned substances will be a path out of poverty and the youngsters 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 main factors why professional Dominican players end up testing positive more often. He pointed to the lower education levels in the country, particularly among baseball players. As a result, he said, people “cannot discern or differentiate what’s true and what’s not” about steroids.
The third factor, Pinedo said, was perhaps the biggest: the country’s loose controls on banned substances, which can be bought “liberally in the pharmacies and don’t require prescriptions.” Even antibiotics can be bought without a doctor’s order. Older anabolic steroids like stanozolol and boldenone, he said, are popular because they are easily accessible.
Noboa, who is working to reform the player development system in the country, said his office was hoping to receive legislative approval for more resources and power to tackle the doping problem at a young age, from working with parents to better educating players to punishing trainers to testing at independent academies.
“We have to start with the kids from when they’re playing Little League,” Noboa said. “That’s where we have to focus primarily so that when they reach an age when they’re aware, they know that if anyone offers something — ‘This is only for a little bit of time and will help with an injury’ — they say, ‘No, none of that and nothing that’s not on the approved list.’”
Mejia said he would continue preaching to children and praying for a second chance at the major 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 ERA.
“I’d love to return to the United States, even for one day,” he said, “so I can say that I fell, I persevered and I returned to the big leagues.”