A Whole Different Ballgame
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 the buscone 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.
CP: Lately there's been a great fuss in this country about steroids in major league baseball. Has that been accompanied by any efforts to get more serious about enforcement in Latin America?
Marcano: If you ask MLB, they will say they are doing a great job in Latin America. But if you go there, you don't see it. You don't see any kind of educational materials. Major league baseball should be implementing the drug-testing program in the Venezuelan Summer League and the Dominican Summer League, which are considered rookie leagues, the same as the ones in Florida. But as far as I know, they aren't. They only do the drug testing when players get to the United States.
CP: There's been a controversy in the American media over why the Latino players have been disproportionately represented among players testing positive for steroids. Some say it's a language issue in part, and others that it's a reflection of the system they came out of, in which there's a lot of desperation and a will to do anything to get ahead. What do you think?
Marcano: I think it's a combination of both. I think many of these players have been through a lot in the process of getting to the major leagues, or even the minor leagues, and basically their motivation is to make it. Many of these players are using steroids knowingly; they're willing to take chances. That has to be a factor with some of the players.
In other instances the language is a big problem. Many people in the media really have no idea how uneducated these players are. These players, especially the ones from the Dominican Republic, have never even gone to high school. They have no education at all. The way baseball works in Latin America, these players need to be playing baseball full-time from the time they are 12 or 13. They have no chance to go to school even if they want to go to school, and even if their families have the money to send them to school. They have to give up everything for baseball.
Honestly, many of these players have trouble speaking Spanish. I've had numerous conversations with major league baseball players in which it was difficult for me to understand what they were saying, even though I was speaking Spanish with them. When people talk about language being a problem with these players, they assume the players have an education similar to that of players in the US, but in reality that's not the case. Many have no education and have never gone to school. They are left dependent on other people. They have to trust other people. I can also clearly see players just taking things that are given to them without knowing anything about baseball rules or steroid policies, because they will do anything for a chance and they don't know better.
CP: Have the governments in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic tried to regulate baseball's activities there?
Marcano: They try from time to time. In the Dominican Republic, they passed a regulation to prohibit MLB from operating its baseball academies during school hours, so that players could go to school. But teams just didn't follow the rules. In the Dominican Republic, the government's not going to do anything to hurt the possibility of players making it to the major leagues, even though it means they have to accept abuses. It's ironic, but it's the way the system works.
In Venezuela, the Congress has been analyzing for the past two years a baseball law. What this law would do is to regulate some of the activities of the academies, and the scouts. As far as I know, MLB is not willing to follow the proposed rules. There have been discussions with the Venezuelan Congress. I don't know which politician would take the chance of doing something to scare major league baseball teams. I don't know anybody right now who's really willing to do that. In the DR, baseball is so powerful in the culture that I don't know how they can regulate it. In the end, major league baseball has all the power in that relationship.
Marcano: They're completely on the same page with the owners. Their main argument is that they do not represent minor league players. That's the official reason the players' association is not involved in these issues. Every time we have raised these problems to the MLBPA, including Donald Fehr, their only answer is, We cannot do anything. They would have to invest money in Latin America to do something, and I don't think they're willing to do that.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.