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How a child-molesting trainer and teenage steroid use has come to define Latin American baseball

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Members of the baseball school called ‘Los Cachorros de la Italia’ conduct hitting practice with Victor Robles, right, watching. This was the school that Washington Nationals player Victor Robles was discovered in the Dominican Republic. (Getty Images)

Last summer, scouts from half a dozen Major League Baseball organizations traveled to Bani, a city on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, to see a group of teenage boys work out. This showcase looked the same as the thousands of others that feed baseball’s hundred-million-dollar international amateur machine. The only difference was that a convicted child molester had organized it.

When officials at MLB first heard that Enrique Soto was back to training kids, they were understandably alarmed. He was convicted in 2013 of raping two teenaged brothers at his baseball academy and sentenced to 10 years in prison. When the league investigated, it was told that as part of a work-release program, Soto had resumed the job that brought him riches and fame on the island of 10 million that produces a disproportionate amount of major league players.

Buscones – amalgamations of talent seekers, trainers, agents, power brokers and father figures who take often-usurious cuts of amateur players’ signing bonuses – play one of the most integral roles in Latin American baseball. About a quarter of the 1,186 major league players this season come from the system in which children as young as 10 or 11 drop out of school, join a buscon such as Soto and work toward signing a professional baseball contract at 16. MLB’s original sin of severe underpayment, treating the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American countries more like plantations than partners from the 1950s through the late 1990s, seeded a distrustful relationship between the parties that persists today in other, more complicated ways.

The dysfunction runs deep enough that Soto could organize a showcase attended by scouts and the commissioner’s office would only find out about it weeks later. Even as the money grew over the last 20 years and signing bonuses came closer to representing the free-market value of elite amateur talent, the system fractured in other ways, leaving Latin America in its blighted, confused present state, nearly two dozen league officials, front-office executives, scouts, agents, trainers and players told Yahoo Sports.

Most troubling is what multiple people familiar with the market called the “serial doping” of children. While performance-enhancing drug use has long been problematic among Latin American amateurs, the new collective-bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association created a perverse incentive for buscones to dope children at younger and younger ages.

Rather than accede to an international draft, which the league was pushing, the union preferred a system in which teams are given a fixed dollar amount to spend on international players. While 16 is the youngest age at which a player can join a team, a majority of top prospects on this year’s July 2, the international amateur signing day, had agreed to a contract with a team when he was 14, according to five sources familiar with the market. Thus, with teams letting trainers know they were willing to lock in seven-figure signing bonuses at 14, it enticed them to present physically mature, imposing pre-teens – many of whom did not know what they were taking.

“Kids from the age of 11, 12 are on steroids,” said one agent who represents Latin American teenagers and requested anonymity out of fear buscones no longer would want to work with him. “Trainers who can’t afford the good stuff giving horse steroids to kids. It’s a dirty business.”

It’s not just the buscones. Teams don’t exactly discourage the behavior. When one highly regarded 16-year-old tested positive for PEDs this year, two sources told Yahoo Sports, the team simply reduced his agreed-upon signing bonus – and still gave him well over $1 million. Multiple elite prospects from last week’s signing class tested positive, sources told Yahoo Sports, and at least a dozen players in all were caught having used PEDs. The full number is unknown as teams conducted PED tests themselves.

Beyond ignoring the rules, some teams flout them altogether. Atlanta general manager John Coppolella was banned from baseball for life last year after the Braves were caught packaging bonuses, a scheme in which teams trying to avoid $300,000-per-player limitations for exceeding the spending cap in previous years receive a high-end talent from a buscon and in exchange must give him the same $300,000 for lesser players he trains. The Braves also had struck a deal with Robert Puason, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic. He was 13.

Some of the league’s past problems with Latin America – particularly age and identity fraud, plus skimming in which team officials receive payment to consummate deals – aren’t nearly as rampant as they once were. The issues simply leapt from one dark path to another, and in 2017, when the Los Angeles Dodgers re-opened their academy, Campo Las Palmas, commissioner Rob Manfred used the opportunity to meet with Danilo Medina, the president of the Dominican Republic. The conversation led to no substantive change. Manfred’s position on how to clean up the D.R. publicly has been single-minded.

“There’s only one way that the vast majority of the problems in the Dominican Republic will be solved on a permanent basis,” Manfred told Yahoo Sports. “The transparency that accompanies a draft.”

While the draft casts a permanent shadow over all talks about change in Latin America, behind the scenes league officials have taken a far more holistic approach – one that sees the PED issue not strictly through a labor lens but one of moral obligation. And one that wants to build a successful, sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship between the parties. These are just words for now, words from an organization many see as a colonizer, words that need to be supported by action. Because too many in Latin America believe the true nature of change is an effort to reduce the money clubs spend on international amateur talent.

The cynicism is earned on both sides. One is tired of kids getting pumped with steroids and rapists holding showcases. And the other is tired of being blamed for it all.

***

When MLB sent a delegation of officials to the Dominican Republic recently, the hope was to change the tone of the conversation with the buscones who control baseball on the island. For all that they care to blame MLB, the influence peddlers of Latin American baseball backed themselves into their current unenviable position. The prospect of a draft frightened buscones who feared they would need to train their younger players until 18 instead of 16. The buscones pressured players to do anything but a draft – and that’s how the sport woke up with the bonus pools that have empowered clubs.

“There are things you can change about the Dominican market and things you can’t because they are cultural and rooted in a historically corrupt government in a very poor country,” said Jorge Arangure, a journalist who covered Latin American baseball for more than a decade. “The least you can ask is for teams to not exploit that situation with questionable behavior.”

Instead of placation, MLB told buscones it wanted to forge a real connection – particularly with the D.R. now the nerve center for nearly all Latin American baseball, as political and economic strife forced top Venezuelan talent to leave home and work with Dominican trainers. The league was starting what it would call a Partnership Program – an effort to tackle a number of problems, including PED use, early signings and lack of education, officials familiar with the initiative told Yahoo Sports.

“Even if it works 10 percent, it’s better than now,” one longtime official said. “Which is an absolute disgusting situation.”

Used baseballs are seen at the baseball academy of Astin Jacobo in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. (Chicago Tribune/TNS)

At the heart of the program, whose existence was first reported by Forbes, is a quid pro quo for buscones who sign up. In doing so, they allow MLB to run background checks on the owner and employees. Should they come up clean, they will be invited into the program, in which MLB can start testing players for PEDs as young as 13, provided their parents’ consent. The league intends to add education initiatives about the danger of PEDs and the scourge of domestic violence. So long as buscones train kids with clean drug screens – MLB plans to help program partners procure NSF-certified supplement – and aren’t caught engaging in bonus chicanery, they’ll reap the benefit of good standing.

Whereas most kids today choose a buscon because of proximity or familial loyalty, MLB hopes the Partnership Program speaks to parents concerned with the treatment of their children. And if moral and ethical concerns don’t convince them, perhaps preferential access to teams for showcases and events will. Part of the program, sources said, includes exclusive events in which high-ranking front-office officials have pledged to participate. The league already has started background checks on submitted applications and will take over the entire drug-testing apparatus in Latin America this summer.

Beyond the Partnership Program is a fairly drastic loosening of rules the league expects to implement in the coming months, according to sources. The intent, according to one source, is to address head-on some of the hypocrisies in the current rules that not only encourage but almost demand early commitments that are simply too prevalent for the league to police effectively.

With early commitments a reality – or at least a reality until the implementation of a draft – MLB plans on ending the charade that keeps players away from team facilities until they sign. While specifics are still being hammered out, sources said players who commit to sign at 14 will be able to participate in limited activities at the team’s academy. As July 2, the first day in which they can officially sign approaches, the players will be allowed more access to the team facilities, where they typically receive better food, nutrition, health care and education than with their buscones.

International scouting directors have encouraged the league to allow as much access as possible at early ages, hopeful that placing kids in academies in their early teens allows them to enter a well-honed player-development program. Multiple owners find the entire operation unseemly, particularly the agreements with 14-year-olds who often lack even a basic elementary education, according to sources. With a significant failure rate for international amateurs, hundreds of players a year end their baseball careers with limited prospects for their futures.

The hope is that new policies will professionalize the slipshod operation throughout Latin America. With just shy of $150 million spent on international amateurs from June 2, 2017 to June 15, 2018, the imperative to clean up the operation and stop stigmatizing is strong. Early agreements, bringing in kids to academies – they’re pragmatic approaches, ones that should work. But then again, the Dominican Republic is a different world, with different principles, different motivations, different expectations.

A world in which Enrique Soto can train kids.

***

For years, Enrique Soto was the self-styled king of the Dominican buscones. In 1999, a Soto-trained prospect named Willy Aybar signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $1.4 million. A $490,000 initial payment was deposited into a bank account of Soto’s, according to a 2001 Washington Post story. Amid charges from Aybar and his family that he had stolen the money, Soto kept $430,000.

“I’m like Jesus Christ,” he told the Post. “I’ve got the truth in the palm of my hand.”

This was not the last time Soto would draw a parallel between himself and Jesus. Ten years later, a Dominican investigative reporter named Alicia Ortega ran a television story alleging that Soto had sexually assaulted brothers who trained with him in 2003 when they were 16 and 17 years old as well as another player. Two weeks before the story ran on July 4, 2011, the third player, Yunior Pena Peguero, was stabbed to death in Bani. Soto denied involvement in all of the crimes.

The hope is that new policies will professionalize the slipshod operation throughout Latin America. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“In the case of Jesus Christ – I don’t want to compare myself to him,” Soto said in a TV interview addressing the allegations, “but he was a victim of power.”

Soto’s denials did not absolve him. In February 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The buscon who compared himself in that TV interview to Nelson Mandela – who had the temerity to once tell ESPN: “If not for us, these kids could turn into bad people; getting rid of the system we have here would create more people like Osama bin Laden” – had no place in baseball anymore.

And then he did. While the Dominican market had churned on without him, new trainers filling the vacuum, new kids rising through the ranks, the venality of the operation lurid as ever, Soto found a welcome-enough return. The forcefulness of his proclamations of innocence resonated enough that Soto was able to schedule at least two showcases, according to sources.

When MLB found out, sources said, it felt handcuffed. The moral obligation was clear. The legal responsibility, the league believed, was more complicated. The argument against banning Soto was that even though MLB operates in the D.R., as a business it cannot undertake activities to protect the citizenry. That responsibility, the argument went, is the Dominican Republic government’s.

At the same time, Soto’s rekindled baseball business appeared to fizzle around the time MLB looked into it. Two sources who regularly operate in the D.R. said they have not heard anything about Soto putting on showcases. Another source familiar with Soto said: “Enrique is no longer doing this.” Attempts by Yahoo Sports to reach Soto in the Dominican Republic were unsuccessful.

His legacy endures in sadly appropriate fashion. Soto’s greatest trainee was Miguel Tejada, the former American League MVP and one of the best players ever from the D.R. Today, he runs the Miguel Tejada Baseball Academy, where his son, Miguel Jr., was training. He was slated to sign July 2 with the Chicago White Sox. It did not happen.

Why? According to El Nuevo Diario newspaper, the 15-year-old Tejada Jr. tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.

***

A great wave of Latin American prospects is descending on Major League Baseball, and it shows no signs of ending. Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees and Ronald Acuña of the Atlanta Braves are stars in the making. Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals is off to the sort of start baseball hasn’t seen in nearly 100 years. The only other 19-year-old in history with an on-base-plus-slugging of greater than .900, like Soto’s, is Hall of Famer Mel Ott in 1928. The minor leagues are loaded, too, from precocious legacies like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. to outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Victor Robles, both of whom are overmatching AAA pitching.

Each is the product of this system with so many flaws, idiosyncrasies, suboptimal outcomes – a system that nonetheless endures, its incarnations conflicting but its core unchanging. At the center are the buscones and Major League Baseball, and for all of the consternation between the two, the graduation of top prospects creates a mood of détente.

A great wave of Latin American prospects is descending on Major League Baseball, like 19-year-old Nationals rookie Juan Soto. (AP)

Perhaps not for long. Even with the hope that the Partnership Program will catch the Enrique Sotos and stop trainers from systematically doping kids, MLB’s ultimate desire is to restructure the system from the bottom up via a draft. Every time a kid tests positive for PEDs, every time a rogue trainer slips through the cracks, every time a team like the Braves or Boston Red Sox get caught trying to package bonuses – those are simply more data points in Manfred’s favor as he tries to push it through.

Whatever his intentions, whatever their nobility, Manfred understands that simply presenting the draft as a foil to the problems in Latin America builds support for it. Perhaps it would end the doping of the youngest kids, though that has as much to do with the buscones playing the role of classic abusive adult authority figure as anything. And if the Partnership Program really does test kids regularly and does hold accountable those whose trainees come up positive, the objective could be achieved without a draft.

The union’s opposition has not changed, and its fears are understandable. The idea that MLB wants to tamp down money given to all amateurs is real. In the year before the capped system was implemented, clubs spent more than $200 million on international amateurs. With the new rules hard-capping spending, that number was cut by more than 25 percent in the most recent international amateur period. Bonus pools for 2018-19 are higher, with the smallest-market and lowest-revenue teams getting more than $6 million to spend, but the skepticism of union officials toward a draft remains significant.

“The infrastructure set up to provide whatever opportunities or leverage are not the same internationally as they are here,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said. “What some would argue is a system that works well here, taking the same system and dropping it somewhere else when the infrastructure isn’t set up the same way is a very dangerous proposition.”

At the same time, the possibility of a draft would allow baseball to hit the reset button on a system both sides agree needs significant changes. It’s ripe enough that Scott Boras – the agent who made his name raging against the restrictiveness of the MLB draft – is compelled to dream up ideas how to make a draft potentially feasible to the union.

“We need a complete cleansing,” Boras said. “This is what you do with the infrastructure that exists and how you do it. Each club is given, from [MLB], annually, roughly $5 million. At the age of 16, they give 50 $100,000-a-year contracts to players to bring them into their team. That player at 16 then will play for a year. If he’s renewed, he gets $250,000 for the second year in the Dominican Summer League. Then, at the age of 18, in September, we have a draft. You have to have played in the DSL for two years to be eligible for the draft. Those players have been scouted. They have a right to representation. And then you have a draft that flows from that. All players internationally are given this money free of buscones, free of developmental people. All these labor camps and illegality are senseless because teams give these guys these contracts.

“They’re tested. They’re getting proper nutrition. They’re housed. They’re certified. And by the time they become 18, we’ve had two years to evaluate them. And the investments you make in international baseball are much sounder and more precise. From the player point of view, they have a chance to be educated. They enter the game with a maturity level and understanding, and they’re not impoverished.”

It’s a classic Boras plan, bold in nature, audacious in scope and with players getting paid multiple times. Teams would fight the outlay, the union would fight the market restriction and often from positions in which neither side is entirely happy do the best deals emerge. Any incentive for Latin American players to feel empowered is a step forward, especially when team complicity is not an isolated incident.

“It all goes so much deeper than any American who doesn’t do business regularly in the Dominican can fathom,” the first agent said, and he meant everything: the drug use, the abuse, the teams’ willingness to disregard rules. It’s all there, all on this tiny island where low-level buscones give training rights for a player to a bigger-name buscon in exchange for a percentage of his bonus – and other fractions are sold off without the child’s knowledge. Where players in one organization had such substandard accommodations at a complex that they slept on towels on the floor. Where this place that produces so much talent, that brings so much substance and style to Major League Baseball, truly does want to rid the corruption that after all these years defines it as much as it defiles it.

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