A Whole Different Ballgame

Baseball, steroids, and MLB's Latin plantations

Last month, when Twins pitcher Juan Rincon became the second active major league player suspended for presumed steroid use this season, he also became a footnote to a growing controversy in baseball circles: Why have Latino players been testing positive at a disproportionately high rate in the early going?

In the suspensions handed out to date, both of the active major leaguers (Rincon and Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez) and slightly over half of the minor league players sanctioned--30 of 59--have been Latino foreign nationals. (As a matter of proportion, Latino players of foreign birth constitute 25 to 30 percent of players on current major league rosters; minor league figures are harder to come by.)

Some suspended players and their advocates have pled language difficulties as the source of misunderstandings about banned substances. And it's true that major league baseball makes very poor allowances for the language gap many Latino players face--it was only in the summer of 2001, and under duress, that MLB finally translated its standard minor league player contract into Spanish. But the language barrier is hardly the only factor that drives players from the wholly unregulated Latino baseball world to take chances for the sake of their futures.

Last week I phoned Arturo Marcano to talk about MLB, steroids, and Latin America. Marcano, who was born in Venezuela and now lives in Toronto, is the international legal adviser to the Venezuelan Baseball Players Association and the co-author of Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz (Indiana University Press, 2002), which traces the story of the Latin baseball factories through the rise and fall of one Chicago Cubs prospect.

 

City Pages:You point out that the way major league baseball scouts, trains, and signs Latin players differs radically from the rules that apply to US and Asian amateurs. Can you describe the outlines of how the Latin system works?

Arturo Marcano: In order to sign Latin players, MLB just has to follow one rule, which is the 17-year-old rule. That basically says you can only sign players when they reach 17, except for a couple of circumstances when they're 16 and can be signed. There is nothing else in major league baseball rules or anywhere else that limits the activities of the major league teams in Latin America.

In Asia, there is a completely different system. The Japanese professional league and the Korean professional league have agreements with major league baseball. Baseball cannot go to Japan or Korea and sign players freely. The only location in the world where major league baseball can go and sign players freely is in Latin America.

When you think of Latin players being free agents, you might think that's great for the players, because they can negotiate with several teams and get good deals. In theory, the free agency system in Latin America makes sense for the players, but in practice what really has been happening for the last 10 or 15 years is that teams have been very smart in the way they signed the players. They identify the players in very poor cities or areas of the countries, and on many occasions they deny the players access to help, such as agents--they tell players that agents are not good for them. They basically hide these players in their academies, or they give some money to the parents of the player to build loyalty. Then they are able to sign them for really small amounts. The average signing bonus for Latin players is around $3,000 to $5,000. Most of them are very poor and this seems like a lot of money to them.

CP:You've written about thebuscone system that operates there--the talent scouts who sell players to major league teams. Tell me how it works.

Marcano: In Latin America there's no regulation at all for agents. The buscones aren't really equipped to negotiate contracts. In many cases they're just former players. What they normally do is to identify 14- or 15-year-old kids and train them and then sell them to the teams. Sometimes in addition to the fee they're charging the teams, they also get a percentage of the signing bonus the players receive. Often the percentage is really high--many players don't even see one dollar of their signing bonus. But it works very well for the teams, because in the end they are signing these players for a very small amount of money.

Because buscones get the money out of these transactions, they really put pressure on the players, and one way they do that is providing these players with steroids and other substances to allow them to develop faster and become better players. It helps buscones sell them for higher prices to the teams. The buscones and the steroid situation are very related.

CP:And these are often markedly inferior chemicals that are being given to players, aren't they?

Marcano: Completely. Many of these players are getting steroids and medications designed for horses, not for human beings. And they don't know how to control the dosage. Often they start taking more than they should, and some of these players have died. Others have developed serious illnesses.

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