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Injecting Hope -- and Risk
Dominican Prospects Turn to Supplements Designed for Animals
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2003; Page A01
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic -- The afternoon before his tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies, 19-year-old Lino Ortiz walked over to his friend Jose Manuel Avila's house with a 3-peso needle and a small brown bottle containing a substance normally injected into horses or fighting cocks.
Ortiz, a strapping 6-foot-2 catcher, was a devout Christian, but after two failed major league tryouts he was looking for more than faith to give him strength. He borrowed a liquid vitamin from Avila, his friend recalls, mixed it with the veterinary substance and injected a 2-milliliter dose into his left shoulder.
The substance was either Diamino, an animal dietary supplement, or Caballin, a bootleg horse steroid. Even now it's unclear. What is clear is that Ortiz blew his tryout. Then his arm swelled up and he began to vomit. Within three days he had slipped into shock and was dead.
"You're so strong, why would you want to do such a thing?" Lino's father, Marino Ortiz, a hotel bartender, asked his son as he lay near death in a Santo Domingo hospital.
Ortiz didn't respond.
"He just lowered his head," said his father in an interview in his home here.
Muscle-building drugs and dietary supplements, a growing concern for baseball in the United States, have spread to the Dominican Republic, the source of nearly a quarter of all players signed by major league teams. But there is a disturbing twist to the use of these performance-enhancing substances: Poor and uneducated Dominican prospects are increasingly turning to versions designed for animals, according to dozens of interviews with players, coaches, veterinarians and major league scouts.
The substances range from liquid vitamin compounds to anabolic steroids designed for cattle and sheep. Sold over the counter in pet stores, passed around by teammates and friends, they serve as cheaper -- but far riskier -- alternatives to human steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs favored by some professional ballplayers in the United States.
Use of veterinary products has increased despite growing concerns about their risks, according to current and former players. Three months before Lino Ortiz's death, on July 10, 2001, another prospect, 18-year-old first baseman William Felix, died of an apparent heart attack in La Romana, a remote baseball hotbed on the southeastern coast. Felix, according to his half-brother, had injected himself daily during the preceding three months with a veterinary substance that he hoped would increase his chances to sign with a major league team.
It is impossible to know whether the two deaths in La Romana and the use of animal drugs were directly linked. No autopsy was performed in either case, medical records were unavailable and confusion remains over the type of veterinary substance the two players were injecting. Doctors and veterinarians in the Dominican Republic and the United States who were presented with the circumstances of the deaths speculated that they were caused by a reaction to the substance, contamination, infection from a dirty needle or something unrelated.
Baseball officials say they first heard reports that a player had died after injecting a veterinary substance last fall. Last month, after The Washington Post confirmed those reports, Rafael Perez, who manages baseball's Dominican office, issued a warning about the growing use of veterinary substances at an annual meeting of Latin American scouts for major league teams held in Santo Domingo.
The deaths seemed to underscore the desperation that is the context for baseball in the Dominican Republic, where a major league contract holds the prospect of almost unimaginable riches for a teenaged boy in a small Caribbean nation with a monthly per-capita income of $503. "It's where poverty and the opportunity for huge wealth meet face to face, with all the consequences that can bring," said John H. Seibel, an adviser to Major League Baseball who has lived in the Dominican Republic for three decades.
In recent years, Dominican players such as Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Albert Pujols have become stars in the major leagues. But the system that produced them is rife with corruption and exploitation, according to baseball officials and scouts. It is dominated by a growing army of street-level entrepreneurs known as buscones, or finders, who groom prospects from puberty before bringing them to market. The street agents extract a portion of the player's signing bonus -- at times as much as 50 percent -- and often an additional payment from the team, even though such payments violate major league rules.
Major league teams draw from "the poorest of the poor," said Seibel. Many teams employ dentists to repair the rotted teeth of players who grow up subsisting largely on sugar cane. Because many prospects are malnourished, street agents often provide supplements such as protein powders that promote rapid weight gain. The growing use of veterinary substances is an extension of this practice, according to scouts and coaches.
"There are a lot of people out there that are injecting this stuff into these kids," said Yuly Pozo, who trains prospects in San Pedro de Macoris, a port city famous for churning out major leaguers, including Sosa. "They want some kid to throw hard, and they don't care if they destroy him as long they get their cut. If you're a person with any kind of conscience, how can you put something like this into a human being when you know the consequences it can bring? These are veterinary products, for animals."
In many cases, it is the players and their families who seek out the substances, which can cost a fifth of conventional steroids and are easily obtainable from most vets. "Sometimes you go to the [player's] father and the father says, 'Hey, you got to give my kid something so he can get strong and they can sign him,' " said Juan Polemil, a street agent in La Romana. "The father, he doesn't have any money, so it's 'Do whatever you gotta do to sign him.' What they don't know is they're damaging the kid."
Robert D. Manfred Jr., who oversees drug policy for Major League Baseball, said he is "aware of this phenomenon, but it is very difficult to control." Baseball banned 27 kinds of steroids and implemented trial testing of all major league players this season after Sports Illustrated reported last year that steroid use in the majors is rampant. Most minor leaguers have been tested for steroids since 2001. But Manfred said extending the program to the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues, minor league systems operated by Major League Baseball, would be too expensive and complex.
Seibel, however, said baseball should use its resources to address the problem. "If this is widespread practice, it's our responsibility, along with the government, to stop it. One way is education -- education of scouts, education of players -- but the other thing we can do is enforcement."
Intra-muscular injections of anabolic steroids infuse the body with a synthetic form of testosterone, increasing muscle mass and strength, particularly when combined with weight training. Studies have shown that possible side effects include strokes, heart and liver damage and mood swings. Numerous legal and illegal dietary supplements contain metabolic precursors of steroids and can replicate their effect.
Veterinary substances have long been part of the menu of illicit performance-enhancing drugs, particularly among bodybuilders. Steroids and dietary supplements are usually administered to animals when they are sick, weak or injured. In some cases, the veterinary drugs are identical to those used on humans, but the quality and concentrations can vary widely, said Scott Stanley, an equine chemist at the University of California, Davis. In addition, a cottage industry of unregulated drugs has emerged in the veterinary pharmaceutical market that are erratic in quality and more likely to be contaminated.
Many Dominican players appear to have little idea what they are injecting -- only that it can make them stronger. Lino Ortiz, for example, told his father just before he died that he had injected a drug called Caballin into his left arm, though family and friends believe he was referring to the substance's street name and really meant Diamino.
Diamino is manufactured in Mexico by Fort Dodge Animal Health, a Kansas-based division of Wyeth, the global pharmaceutical company. It is not sold in the United States. In an e-mail exchange, Luis Andrade, managing director of Latin America/global poultry for Fort Dodge, wrote that Diamino is a vitamin and mineral supplement developed for livestock and pets. The substance contains no steroids and was designed to spur growth and speed recovery in sick animals, Andrade wrote. He added that Fort Dodge was unaware of Diamino's widespread use among Dominican ballplayers and could not assess its risks because it had never been tested on humans.
Caballin appears to be an unlicensed knock-off of an existing horse steroid, said Carlos Jose Lizardo, chief veterinarian for the Santo Domingo racetrack. The substance is unrelated to Diamino, Lizardo said, even though ballplayers seek out both substances and often use the names interchangeably.
William Felix, the first baseman who died three months before Ortiz, injected Diamino, according to his half-brother, Alexander Veriguete. Veriguete said Felix, like Ortiz, mixed the substance with liquid vitamin B. He injected it in 2 milliliter doses every day for "two or three months" before his death. Veriguete, who lived with his half-brother, said he thought Felix was aware that Diamino and Caballin were distinct.
Another player, pitcher Antonio Bautista, said he knew that Diamino and Caballin were "two different things." Two years ago, he said in an interview, he combined 1.5 milliliters of Diamino with 0.5 milliliters of Caballin and injected the mixture into his buttocks. Bautista, now 17, said within 30 minutes his heart began to pound. He said he felt severe chest pains and finally blacked out. He spent four days in the hospital, he said.
Bautista said he knew little about the substances he injected except that they were usually given to horses. "I thought it would make me throw harder," he said. "I had used it a few times and it gave me a jolt. But I used too much. If you use 1 cc it won't really hurt you but if you use more it can kill you."
Avila, who signed this year with the Boston Red Sox for $80,000, estimated that "70 percent" of Dominican prospects are injecting animal dietary supplements or steroids. Another player, a catcher recently released by the Cincinnati Reds' organization, put the estimate higher. "Put down 99.9999 percent," said the player, who asked not to be identified because he was trying to catch on with another team. "It's almost everybody."
Over a three-year period, the player said, he and three teammates playing for the Reds' Dominican affiliate took turns injecting each other in the buttocks with homemade "shakes" consisting of Diamino, vitamin B, liver extract and Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory. The players administered the injections every other day in the team clubhouse after the coaches had left. And they worked, said the player. He gained 25 pounds and rarely got tired. "The bat felt like feather," he said.
Juan R. Silfa, a La Romana veterinarian, said he frequently turns away baseball players who come to his store to buy animal drugs. Those products, he said, include Ganabol and Dimetabol, drugs marketed for cattle, sheep and fighting cocks. Ganabol and Dimetabol contain boldenone and nandrolone, respectively, anabolic steroids banned by Major League Baseball.
"It really saddens me," said Silfa. "The kids get angry with me because I won't sell it to them. But I usually can tell who they are. You can tell by their size and their physique that they're ballplayers. Most are about 16, 15 years old. You can tell they're not training birds. What concerns me as a veterinarian is people coming in here and using medicines for purposes that they're not designed for."
Silfa said demand for the drugs has increased over the past two years. "They've gotten it into their heads that if they don't inject these medications they won't make it as ballplayers," he said. "They come here because it's cheaper, and because the dosage is much stronger, the concentration much higher."
Baseball officials and major league scouts in the Dominican Republic have monitored the use of veterinary drugs with growing alarm. Patrick Guerrero, head of Dominican scouting for the Seattle Mariners, said he became aware of the problem two years ago when he began to notice implausible improvements in the strength and speed of teenagers he was trying out.
"When you see a guy who runs 7.4" in the 60-yard dash "and he comes back three months later and runs 6.7, you know the guy's got to be using something," Guerrero said.
Guerrero said he made inquiries among players, street agents and coaches. "That's when I began to find out that they were buying steroids," he said. "But for animals."
Louie Eljajua, the Red Sox' director of International operations, said: "I've been coming here for 10 years, and velocities of pitchers have just been going up and up. It used to be you'd sign a kid who was throwing 83, 85 (mph). Now there are kids throwing 90 who we're turning away. That's where you see it. If a 16-year-old kid is throwing 90, he's either older than he says he is or he's on something."
Guerrero said the Mariners intend to test all players who receive signing bonuses of $300,000 or higher. "There's too much money on the line," he said.
Lost, Then Gone
Lino Ortiz trained in La Romana under William Rodriguez, an agent-coach who lived down the street from him. After he did badly in tryouts with the Phillies and Montreal Expos, Rodriguez said, Ortiz became disenchanted with his training. He bolted across town to train with another agent-coach, Francisco "Suri" Santana, a former minor leaguer, who gave Ortiz hope that he could still land a contract. The relationship soured after six months, however, and Ortiz returned to Rodriguez.
"When he came back, he had that stuff on his mind, that Diamino," said Rodriguez, referring to the animal dietary supplement. "He was injecting."
Asked if he believed Santana had recommended or provided the supplement, Rodriguez said: "I can't directly accuse him, because I didn't see it. You have to know how these kids are. They take whatever information they hear. One kid says to another kid, 'Hey, I'm injecting this stuff. You should inject it. It'll make you strong.' And then everybody starts using it."
Santana said he was unaware that Ortiz was injecting anything. "He was only with us a few months and I never really knew him that well," he said. Santana said he often provides players with over-the-counter protein powders such as Gain Fast and Mega Mass. Pointing to a sample of Diamino a reporter had brought with him, Santana said: "I know that if you inject this it increases strength by 100 percent. But if you inject a kid and he loses his life, you're not going to make any money. It doesn't interest me to kill a kid to make money. What interests me is developing them."
After Ortiz returned from training with Santana, in July 2001, "he had more power," said Rodriguez, who arranged another tryout with the Phillies. The day before the tryout, said Avila, Ortiz came by his house looking for a sample of vitamin B to mix with a vial of Diamino he had already obtained from a friend.
Avila gave him the vitamin B, never thinking that mixing the substances would be dangerous. Avila himself said he had injected Diamino in the past. "Everybody was using it," he said.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company