NEW YORK Players from Spanish-speaking countries are getting tripped up by baseball's steroids policy at a disproportionate rate, raising concerns that they don't understand the rules on banned substances including over-the-counter supplements bought back home.
More than half the players suspended for positive tests at both the major and minor league levels were born in Latin America, according to a review of their birth places by The Associated Press. By comparison, about a quarter of players on opening-day major league rosters were born in Spanish-speaking countries.
''I think it's just lack of communication,'' said Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Jose Valentin, who was born in Puerto Rico. ''You've got a lot of young Latin players who don't understand the language. They probably don't know what's going on and they're not into it, in terms of meetings and stuff like that. I mean, you get some papers in your locker during spring training and during the season, and they're in English.''
So what happens?
''They don't even read it,'' Valentin said. ''They just throw it away.''
Three of the five players suspended under the big league policy were born outside the United States: Minnesota reliever Juan Rincon (Venezuela), Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez (Cuba) and Texas pitcher Agustin Montero (Dominican Republic).
At the minor league level, 24 of the 47 players suspended this year (51.1 percent) were born in Latin America, with 11 from Venezuela, 10 from the Dominican Republic, two from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico.
According to statistics compiled by the commissioner's office, 23.5 percent of the 829 major league players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists were born in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, or Venezuela. While no minor league statistics are available for this year, as of April 2004 the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela accounted for 40.4 percent of the 6,117 players signed to minor league contracts.
''I talked to the union and said that you have to have a meeting for the Latin players in our language,'' said Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who is Dominican. ''You could have the meeting over the winter in the Dominican and have a lunch or dinner and tell them everything. My English isn't the best, but I read and write and understand what people say to me and I sometimes have trouble with this stuff, so you can imagine what it is like for the guys who don't understand English as well.''
Complicating the matter is that many substances now banned under baseball's program because they are controlled substances in the United States are obtainable over the counter in pharmacies in players' homelands.
They can walk into a drug store at home during the offseason, pop pills until they head to Florida and Arizona in February and then turn up positive at spring training.
''Are there people buying substances in countries where the substances are legal? Yes,'' said Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players' Association. ''It's hard. It's one of the great problems in this.''
Rob Manfred, executive vice president for labor relations in the commissioner's office, says baseball has educational programs on performance-enhancing drugs in both English and Spanish, and that there is a special program in the Dominican Republic rookie league program that provides individualized counseling from Dominicans for players who test positive there.
''The language barrier is not the only issue. If it was that simple, it would be easier to get at,'' he said. ''There are differences in regulation and differences in how readily available these substances are.''
Jaime Torres, an agent for many players, says he thinks it's possible that some players have tested positive for what they were told back home were vitamins.
He said clients have come to him asking what they can and cannot take, and that he told them the first step was to check with the team trainer.
''I don't think the agents have done a very good job of communicating to their clients the seriousness of the new policy,'' he said.
Porfirio Veras, the Dominican Republic's national baseball commissioner, attributes the problem to ''buscones,'' the middlemen who train players and then try to sign them with major league organizations, often for a cut of the money.
''Most of the time it's independent trainers who supply young players with medical substances, like steroids,'' Veras said. ''They use every means to make the kids stronger and more interesting when they show them to the scouts. I know of cases of trainers who injected kids with steroids only days before trying out for the major league scouts.''
Agent Scott Boras, who has a degree in pharmacology, says baseball should produce a list of products that are banned, not just the list of substances, which is filled with unfamiliar and long names.
''Who do we put the burden on of documenting what is in these products, and if what is in those products will in fact cause a positive test?'' he said. ''The onus of that should not be left on players.''
But New York Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran says players are ultimately responsible for protecting themselves.
''Before you put something in your system, you better make sure it's something you can take,'' Beltran said Wednesday. ''If you're not sure, then you have to call someone from the players' association or a trainer. Most of the guys that come from Latin America, it's hard for them to communicate with trainers or coaches. ... On every minor league team, there has to be a coach or two that speaks Spanish.''
Washington Nationals center fielder Jose Guillen, who was born in the Dominican Republic, doesn't believe the language barrier is a problem.
''You can trust me on this they all know what's going on and they're all aware,'' he said. ''They've been watching the TV. It's been in the Dominican. It's been all over the place in Spanish and in English.''
Associated Press Writer Enrique Rojas in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.
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