SPORTS

Opinion: Manny Ramirez Retirement Doesn't Close the Book on Latinos and Steroids

Manny Ramírez’s career was defined as much by his unconventional actions as his impressive hitting performances, but his sudden retirement last week came as a shock to most people in baseball.

The news was immediately followed by word that the outfielder had failed a second drug test, setting him up for a 100-game suspension.

Just as abruptly, Ramírez’s retirement served as a reminder that this whole Mitchell-Report-José-Canseco-tell-all-asterisk era is not completely behind us. Make no mistake, Ramírez testing positive is not simply “Manny being Manny,” the kind of action you can brush off as a lone impulsive move by the always entertaining, sometimes controversial slugger.

At a time when Barry Bonds is back in the headlines, the Ramírez news made it clear that the issue of PEDs in baseball is far from resolved.

Is the game cleaner than it was a decade ago? Undoubtedly. But one would be naive to think the motives that drove athletes to experiment with performance-enhancing drugs before baseball’s massive, and commendable, crackdown have dramatically changed.

Roughly 10 percent of minor league players make it to the big leagues, if for only a single pitch. For the hundreds of Latino players, most from the baseball powerhouses of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, that number is even smaller.

Latino players account for a quarter of major league players, but represent more than half of PED suspensions in the Show. In 2010, two major leaguers were suspended for failing MLB’s drug test. 

Both hailed from the Dominican Republic.

Given that virtually every person in America – professional baseball player or not – is aware of MLB’s zero tolerance policy, feeling sympathetic toward anyone failing a drug test at the game’s highest level is difficult.  But when the same pattern emerges at levels throughout the baseball’s development system, some questions have to be raised. 

While steroid and other banned substance use has declined at the top, they still remain an issue at the minor league levels. Eighty minor leaguers were suspended last season, and more than a dozen already have been suspended in 2011. 

Players at the Dominican minor league level also have tested positive at disproportionate levels. On a single day in March, five pitching prospects in the Dominican Summer League received 50-game suspensions after testing positive for steroids. It wasn’t an isolated incident.

According to MLB.com, the league conducted 2,500 drug tests in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela last year alone. That’s up 33 percent from just a year prior and 67 percent from 2005. As a general rule, a larger number of tests will yield a larger number of positive tests.

Attempts to get official comment from Major League Baseball on its efforts were unsuccessful, but the league has ramped up its awareness and education initiatives in stride. MLB provides materials in Spanish regarding its banned substance policy (including information on supplements) and drug-testing policy. The league also employs drug education staff in the Dominican Republic. 

Still, supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the United States, and have even less quality control abroad. Banned substances are sold over the counter stateside, and many more are easily available abroad.

There is no doubt that today’s players are better educated, the rules stricter and better enforced. However, the underlying reason for taking steroids – to get a physical edge in a highly competitive atmosphere – has not changed. 

All players are susceptible to such temptations, but for Latin American players who might have no other alternative quick fixes, the reward, regardless of the risk, can seem especially appealing. (In the Dominican Republic, more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.)

The era of unawareness, claiming “but I didn’t know,” is over. That doesn’t mean the problem is solved. Systematic troubles take much longer to fix.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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