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ON BASEBALL

Youth is swerved on island

Ortiz deeply troubled by Dominican report

CLEVELAND -- Young baseball players dying in his country because in their desperation to grow stronger faster, they injected veterinary concoctions intended to speed the recovery of sick animals? Other kids, hoping to find a shortcut from poverty to the big leagues, agreeing to pay as much as 40 percent of their signing bonuses to talent hunters known as buscones, some of whom encourage their young clients to falsify birth certificates?

Between playing games, taking late-night plane flights, and trying to grab snippets of sleep whenever he can, David Ortiz hasn't been able to watch "Dominican Gold Crush," the shocking report delivered by Tom Farrey, the brilliant investigative reporter for ESPN, on the network's "Outside the Lines" show in the past week. But the Red Sox DH is aware of what is happening in his native Dominican Republic, and he is deeply troubled.

"It's terrible," he said, nodding his knowledge that at least two Dominican players died after ingesting veterinary medications (as originally reported by Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post). Dominican kids are buying the substances in pet stores, then shooting themselves up.

"They're putting people in danger for money," Ortiz said. "That's not right. It's not fair what they're doing with those kids.

"I don't blame the players, I blame the buscones. They're the ones who know that the guys will get paid if they show a good body, show some talent, and then they'll make some money. When you're young like that, you're stupid. So anybody comes up to you and tells you, `You've got to look good in front of these guys [scouts], here, take this and work out,' they listen.

"If anybody ever gave me something like that and my dad found out, he'd kill people. My dad was more worried about my health than anything else."

One young Dominican player quoted in the report estimated that at least 80 percent of teen-aged Dominican players are using steroids or some other substance they believe will spur growth.

George Bell, the former big league star, told Farrey: "If we go another five or six years like this, you're not going to find any baseball players. You're going to find junkies."

As the money has gotten bigger -- a total of $14 million was distributed last year to 442 Dominican prospects, Farrey reports -- the buscones have become more plentiful, and the players more willing to do whatever it takes. The money wasn't like that when the generation of players that included Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez signed. It wasn't there for Ortiz, either.

"I signed for $7,500," he said, still a handsome sum in a country where the average annual salary is $6,300. "As soon as I cashed that check, I put the money on my bed [in front of my family] and it was gone. That made me feel good, let me tell you."

Ortiz had a buscone, but said he was with him for just a couple of weeks before he signed and gave him only a nominal sum. But a buscone's reach can extend deep into a player's career. Mario Guerrero, the former Red Sox shortstop-turned-buscone, has sued Pirates outfielder Raul Mondesi, claiming Mondesi promised him 1 percent of his future earnings for some advice Guerrero allegedly dispensed early in Mondesi's career. The men agreed that there's nothing in writing to prove such an arrangement, but nonetheless a Dominican judge ruled in Guerrero's favor, saying Mondesi owed him $640,000. The Pirates are withholding Mondesi's 2004 salary until an appeal is heard next month.

"Easy money," Ortiz said with disgust. "You mean, [Guerrero] taught Mondesi to swing the bat. OK, the guy helps you out a little, you can give him a present. But now Mondesi's money is stuck in the bank. [Guerrero] was a baseball player. He should know better."

During spring training in Fort Myers, Ortiz said, he and Manny Ramirez went to the hotel where the Sox' Dominican prospects were staying.

"Me and Manny, we talked to them. We let them know the best way was to work your butt off. I told them [steroids], that's not where they want to be at."

Being desperately poor, he said, is not justification to abuse your body.

"I was poor, you know, but I worked my way up without using that," he said. "I come from nothing. Basically, all I had were good parents to teach me how to do everything right, who taught me that going to school would be good for me in the future.

"It's not like my parents had money or anything. I was just like those kids. But I just worked hard, tried to eat the best I could, work at the gym, follow the program everybody wanted to teach me. That's it. Why can't they do it the same way? Just because there's more money out there, and somebody behind their ear, telling them what to do?"

The report drew an immediate response from Major League Baseball, which announced that all players in the Dominican Summer League will be tested for steroids beginning this season. There is also a move afoot in the island nation to create legislation that would require players to pass drug tests before their contracts with big league teams are validated.

Ortiz approves of the measures.

"What Major League Baseball is doing down there is good for baseball, and good for my country," he said. "When people know they'll be tested for something, they'll be careful. People won't get away with stuff."

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