Monday, August 20, 2012

Scratching the Surface on Steroids

Plenty of people are asking one question in the wake of the Melky Cabrera steroid suspension: "How could he?"

The answer's pretty simple: because he comes from a culture where this sort of thing happens all the time.

A better question: "How do the people who want to get the drugs out of sports deal with the fact that so many of their players come from a place where they'll do anything to get ahead?"

Melky Cabrera may someday be seen as a cautionary tale. Or, and I fear more likely, he'll just be a more-visible-than-most example of a dirty system that most American baseball fans have no idea even exists.

Cabrera was born in the Dominican Republic, an impoverished nation that provided 11% of the players on Major League Baseball's Opening Day rosters this year, making it the biggest foreign supplier of MLB labor. He signed his first pro contract with the Yankees at age 17. His $175,000 signing bonus was 36 times the average Dominican annual income (for comparison's sake, an American player would need a $1.5 million bonus to get the same income multiple).

Cabrera's first appearance as a professional ballplayer came the following summer in the Dominican Summer League, a place where performance-enhancing drugs are either exceedingly common or the players are exceedingly clumsy in their doping efforts--or both. I counted at least 14 DSL players who were hit with 50-game suspensions for using steroids in 2011, and the beat goes on: when I clicked on the 2012 DSL website, the only items showing in the "League News" section were more drug suspensions.

The news that a man named Juan Nunez, working on Cabrera's behalf, tried to flim-flam MLB officials with a fake website touting a supplement that supposedly caused the positive drug test is very revealing. Cabrera's agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, apparently used Nunez as a go-between for their Dominican clients. The Levinsons are emphatic in painting Nunez as a lone wolf, saying that he was not a salaried employee and doesn't even have a company phone. In other words: plausible deniability.

The Levinsons' agency ACES represents a number of MLB players, including New York Mets star David Wright. They stood to reap a healthy payday if Cabrera's drug use had gone undetected and he signed the expected fat free agent deal after this season. Who knows? Maybe they still will.

Even if they don't, the Levinsons remain a part of a system that is all too happy to scoop up the poor, young and desperate of the Dominican Republic, offer them a lottery-ticket way out, and watch as a disproportionate number of these players end up trying to secure their future with performance-enhancing drugs. As the fine documentary film "Ballplayer: Pelotero" showed, this business of scouting and signing poor, uneducated teenagers is not a pretty thing.

Melky Cabrera entered this system 11 years ago. It's since paid him more than $6 million (or, in Dominican terms, 123 times the average annual income for that timeframe). This is a man who, though he first played ball in the US 9 years ago, still speaks almost no English. This is a man who has fathered three children by three different women, who left home to play baseball at an age where American kids are sweating out their driver's license exam.

Please don't read this as an excuse for cheating. Please do read this as a request that all of us who love baseball spend a little time thinking about the broader issues here. Melky Cabrera's name was already widely known when he got caught. Bet you'd never heard of Amalio Reyes, or Marcos Coca, or Eliseo Batista, or any of the numerous other Dominican players who tested positive. But they all saw baseball as a way out and, sadly, it appears they were all willing to do anything to succeed.

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