By Manuel Jimenez
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic (Reuters) - The crack of bat on ball rings out as lithe young men dart around a baseball field hoping to catch the eye of Major League scouts looking for the next multi-million-dollar prospect.
When it comes to talent on the baseball diamond, there is nowhere like the Dominican Republic, which accounts for almost 40 percent of all foreign-born players in the U.S. major leagues.
The Caribbean nation is a powerhouse in world baseball, winning the World Classic championship this year.
Yet, for all its success, there is a dark side: doping.
Thirteen major league baseball players were hit with suspensions for doping last month because of ties to a Miami-based anti-aging clinic, and eight were from the Dominican Republic. A ninth player, New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, grew up in Miami the son of Dominican parents.
Twelve of the players accepted 50-game suspensions in the case, while Rodriguez has appealed a 211-game suspension and denied any wrongdoing.
"I worry about our image in the big leagues because of steroids. We have to avoid that. It's so common now in baseball," said Felipe Betemit, 21, a young infield prospect training with the Baltimore Orioles baseball academy at Boca Chica, a popular tourist resort on the southern coast.
To be sure, the latest MLB doping scandal is centered on the activities of a Miami clinic, and has no apparent ties to doping in the Dominican Republic.
But the island nation of 9 million has been the main focus of a drive by the MLB in recent years to crack down on abuse of performance-enhancing drugs by young players.
After years of lax controls, MLB began implementing a series of recommendations in 2010 to improve its operations in the Dominican Republic, as well as Venezuela, including drug testing for signed players.
As a result MLB has made "great progress," a league spokesman said, noting that the positive test rate for drug abuse in the Dominican Republic has decreased from 11 percent in 2004 to 1.4 percent in 2012, and 0.6 percent in 2013.
But experts say there is still more to be done.
Almost every MLB team now operates an "academy" in the Dominican Republic where hundreds of players aged 16 to 20 are signed every year, although only a handful achieve their goal of fame and fortune.
Despite its tourist beaches and luxury golf resorts, the Dominican Republic is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with more than 41 percent of the population living in poverty, according to official statistics. Many young Dominicans see baseball as the only ticket out of that poverty.
"This sport is such a big thing here because it gives the players an opportunity to become a millionaire," said Carlos Valderrama, manager of the San Francisco Giants academy team near Boca Chica.
Young players, keen to catch the eye of professional MLB scouts, often fall under the wing of unregulated local scouts, known as "buscones," (Spanish for "prospectors") who operate as independent trainers. MLB has itself identified the buscones as a concern, with reports that some resort to doping child athletes with a variety of drugs available locally over the counter, including steroids and super-concentrated proteins used by bodybuilders to add muscle mass.
At the same time, MLB has repeatedly said that buscones are an essential part of the baseball industry.
"They are the real estate agents of the game. Some are great guys; others not so much," said one club consultant familiar with the Dominican Republic who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak on the matter.
NEED FOR REFORM
In 2009, MLB commissioned a report by New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson on the Dominican academies that highlighted the role of buscones in "facilitating drug use by players," and concluded that major reforms were needed, while recognizing their importance.
The report found the MLB teams were "hesitant to confront these buscones" out of a concern they would lose access to top Dominican prospects. Some corrupt club employees were taking kickbacks from buscones, it also found, and it proposed background checks for all club personnel.
Enrique Constante, supervisor of scouts for the Baltimore Orioles, said he had hundreds of mobile phone numbers for buscones, noting that the great majority are careful to observe MLB rules.
"It's a profession that has become a national industry in the Dominican Republic," he said.
The academies have created mechanisms to prevent situations where young people recruited by buscones "slip in without first undergoing an examination to show that they are free from doping," Constante said.
"Often out of ignorance the buscones give the guys proteins that are not permitted," he said.
MLB has faced criticism for not doing enough to prevent the buscones from corrupting the scouting system, either by lying about players ages and identities, or encouraging use of performance enhancing drugs or other nutritional supplements that may be legal but potentially unhealthy for children.
"We have put a lot of pressure on MLB to improve the facilities and the policies," said Arturo Marcano, a Venezuelan-born sports management expert and co-author of the 2002 book "Stealing Lives" about the abuse of young Latin American baseball players.
The MLB's Alderson report recommended "creating significant penalties" for buscones and expanding programs to educate players in the Dominican Republic about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs, as well as "actively investigating allegations that buscones are facilitating the use of drugs by players" by interviewing "every player who tests positive ... to determine the source of the steroids."
All academy players are now tested for drugs and also educated about the dangers of steroid use, as well as the professional penalties.
Marcano credited MLB with making a serious effort to improve its operations, but said the buscones remained a problem.
"There are still things they could so better, to monitor that the rules are being observed. There are still loopholes," he said, especially concerning players before they reach the academies.
ROUTE OUT OF POVERTY
Betemit, the young Orioles third base prospect, said baseball had transformed his family's fortunes. He began playing at the age of 8, influenced by three of his seven brothers, two of whom were signed by major league teams.
He hopes to join his brother Wilson Betemit, a third baseman earning $2 million with the Orioles this year.
"When the first of my brothers signed, they gave him good money and our family situation began to change," he said, describing how he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo.
According to official statistics, 56 percent of Dominican wage earners make less than $260 a month. Most young baseball prospects fail to complete basic schooling, and hardly any enter university.
That is what most troubles Charles Farrell, co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy in San Pedro de Macoris. The town is the cradle of Dominican baseball and home of former Chicago Cubs hitter Sammy Sosa, the only player to have hit 60 or more home runs in a single season three times.
Farrell, 62, has worked with MLB to try to improve the academies, including putting greater emphasis on encouraging young players to complete their high school education.
"We have to change this mentality in poor, young Dominican players that baseball is their only chance of success," Farrell said.
Many young players drop out of school at age 12 to train with the buscones, even though 98 percent will never fulfill their major league dreams, he said.
"If there were better educated kids they would make better decisions," Farell said. "If they don't make it to the major leagues they think they are a failure. That's a very sad position for a kid to be in."
It's also what drives them to steroid abuse. "They think, 'If I take this pill, I'll be a better player, and I'll have a better chance of making it,'" he said.
Signing bonuses have rocketed in recent years, adding to the financial incentive for buscones. "All they see are the dollar signs. Some of them don't care about the health of the kids," said Erick Almonte, 35, a former New York Yankees infielder from Santo Domingo who signed in 1996 for only $4,500.
A good prospect can now earn a signing bonus of $200,000, with buscones getting their cut, sometimes as much as 50 percent, he said.
One 16-year-old Dominican was signed last month for $1.8 million by the Texas Rangers.
So far only one of MLB's 30 Dominican academies has a mandatory education program, launched by the Pittsburgh Pirates two years ago, although other teams also promote education for players.
MLB says it will be launching in the near future an initiative to provide "increased educational opportunities" for all players, including prospects and released players.
"We do not want young Dominican prospects leaving school to play baseball full time with the hope of signing a contract," MLB said in a statement.
(Writing and additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Bill Trott)