SAN JOSE, Calif. – In a country as impoverished as the Dominican Republic, sporting equipment is hard to come by. Young ballplayers often resort to using milk cartons for gloves, broomsticks for bats and wrapped rocks as baseballs.

The same creativity extends to the way teenagers approach performance-enhancing drugs. Aspiring major leaguers, without enough money to pay for the sophisticated stuff, stock up at pet stores, where they can breeze to the counter and purchase steroids intended for horses or cows, no questions asked.

It’s as dangerous as it sounds: In 2001, a Philadelphia Phillies catching prospect named Lino Ortiz died at 19 after injecting himself with Diamino, a veterinary supplement designed to aid the recovery of sick horses and cows. That same year, William Felix, 18, died after taking drugs intended for animals.

Both deaths occurred in the Dominican.

While some players were scared off Diamino, many simply turned to other veterinary drugs such as Nabolic and Nabolin, respective brand names for the anabolic steroids stanozolol and methandrostenolone. The boys’ deaths also helped spark a change in the way Major League Baseball handles its drug-testing policy abroad. In 2004, the first year of testing in the Dominican Republic Summer League, 11 percent of 894 players tested positive for banned substances.

What was their punishment?

Nothing. Dominican laws prevent players from being suspended without pay, and Major League Baseball has no desire to foot the bill. Players who tested positive were subjected to more training and testing, but their identities remained anonymous.

Without teeth in the testing, argues one advocacy group, there is no deterrent for players to stop using banned substances while overseas. Testing might catch the players later in their careers – they are tested once they get to Class A or higher – but by then players from places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have accomplished at least one of their dreams: a signing bonus and a ticket out of their poverty-stricken homeland.

Fernando Mateo, president of New York-based Hispanics Across America, said that major league officials engage in what he called “willful blindness” regarding drug use in Latin America.

Mateo has worked on the issue with Robert Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, and lauded some of MLB’s early steps. But the sides remain far apart on key issues.

Mateo wants MLB to require a drug screening before a player can sign his first contract.

“If you send a message that you have to be clean to sign a contract, I guarantee you that the percentage of positive tests will drop to zero,” Mateo said. “No one wants to get caught and miss out on that bonus.”

Baseball is reluctant to do so in part because of the cost (the Washington Post estimated that each test is about $125) and because it would need cooperation from the Dominican Republic. Last year, a proposed law banning performance-enhancing substances and penalizing those who supply them was quashed by the Dominican senate after a debate about which government branch would pay to oversee it.

Richard Levin, an MLB spokesman, said Manfred is aware of Mateo’s proposal about pre-screening prospects and added that it was under advisement. He also said, “The fact that we’re testing there now shows that we’re making good progress. We recognize that it’s a problem area, and we’re trying to take care of it.”

Levin also noted that Major League Baseball now has an office in the Dominican Republic, which allows it to be more responsive to local issues. On opening day, 11 percent of the 829 players on big league rosters were Dominican.

Determining how widespread the use of performance-enhancing drugs is among young Latin players is difficult, but many estimates say it’s at least 50 percent. Geoff Baker, a sportswriter for the Toronto Star, visited the Dominican last winter and wrote of “empty needle packets littering ballparks.” The paper quoted pitcher Pedro Soto, 22, estimating that 90 percent of players use performance enhancers.

Mateo said players are desperate enough to risk their lives in a country where the per-capita income is about $2,000. “They do it out of the desire to get out of a country that has nothing to offer them,” he said.

(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-19-05 1929EDT

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