Baseball Seeks To Fix Dominican Troubles

Major League Baseball named former executive Sandy Alderson to lead efforts to reform operations in the Dominican Republic. A hotbed of talent, Dominican baseball is also known for performance-enhancing drug use, the signing of underage players and skimming players' pay.

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Major League Baseball and the Dominican Republic have a special relationship. The tiny impoverished Caribbean nation feeds a steady stream of players to the Majors, including some of the games biggest stars. But there are problems, including rampant fraud and performance-enhancing drug use. This week Major League Baseball embarked on its most significant effort yet to fix those problems.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: It was a busy week for Sandy Alderson, the 62-year-old Harvard law grad, Vietnam War vet and longtime baseball executive was in the Dominican Republic. He was making the rounds after being appointed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig as - well, Alderson wasn't quite sure.

Mr. SANDY ALDERSON (Executive, Major League Baseball): I don't have a new actual title, no. Is it appointee? Maybe when they make me cards I'll find out what the title is.

GOLDMAN: His new business cards should say Dominican clean up guy. In the 20 to 25 years Alderson's been traveling to the Dominican Republic, the need for reform has grown. And it's not hard to see why. In a country where grinding poverty is a way of life for many, baseball delivers eye-popping riches, says Alderson.

Mr. ALDERSON: In the aggregate Major League Baseball spends roughly $50 million a year in signing bonuses on (technical difficulty) players.

GOLDMAN: The desperate quest to get a piece of that has created a tangled Web. Talented, yet often vulnerable teenage players mixing with the so-called buscones, who act as trainers/agents and who do the players' bidding for a big cut of the signing bonus, and the Major League clubs themselves, who drive the feverish competition and whose personnel at times have been involved in the fraud that goes on: Illegal payoffs, skimming signing bonuses, age and identity manipulation of players. And then there's the problem that's gotten most of the attention.

Mr. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (Professional Baseball Player): In the 2001, 2002, 2003, I experimented with a banned substance that eventually triggered a positive test.

GOLDMAN: From the penthouse of the Major Leagues, with stars like Alex Rodriguez to the shacks on the island itself, Dominican ballplayers have been linked disproportionately to banned performance-enhancing drugs. According to the Associated Press, nearly the two thirds of Minor Leaguers suspended for doping in 2008 came from the Dominican Republic - last year, nearly half.

Fernando Mateo, president of the New York-based group Hispanics Across America, says Alderson and baseball need to address the doping problem by testing young Dominican players before they're in the system and not after they sign and get the bonus money.

Mr. FERNANDO MATEO (President, Hispanics Across America): If a clear message is given to them letting them know that if you come for tryouts you better be clean, because if you're not we will not sign you. We will not reward you. You will not be compensated.

GOLDMAN: Sandy Alderson says the problems from doping to fraud can't necessarily be eradicated, instead managed, he says, as chronic issues.

Mr. ALDERSON: To the point where the perception of the Dominican Republic and baseball in this country as a cowboy environment is eliminated.

GOLDMAN: An indication of the job ahead: This week as Alderson toured the island, four players from the Dominican Summer League were suspended 50 games each after testing positive for steroids.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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