In the spring of 2005, a group called Hispanics Across America staged a funeral procession to MLB headquarters on Park Avenue, delivering a makeshift coffin in memory of two teenage Dominican prospects, Lino Ortiz and William Felix. The pair reportedly died after injecting Diamino, a veterinary drug believed to mimic the effects of steroids. The organization wanted more comprehensive drug testing of young players in MLB feeder programs in Latin America.
The protest had the makings of good theater, dramatic props and a tragic story line likely to reel in coverage. But a month earlier, Capitol Hill had served up tastier media bait -- Mark McGwire "not talking about the past," Rafael Palmeiro wagging a finger in denial, Curt Schilling baring his claws at Jose Canseco. PED revelations became a celebrity scandal, loaded with easy punch lines.
This week's Biogenesis purge repeated the pattern. Alex Rodriguez's smarm stole the show. It swamped the stories of the 12 simultaneously banned Latino players. It gagged attendant questions about why baseball's PED crackdown keeps ensnaring a disproportionate number of athletes from Latin countries and whether this latest round of penalizing and shaming will end the trend.
No question, Rodriguez deserved to be the headliner. He's a three-time MVP, the highest-paid player in the history game, the slugger once destined to claim the all-time home run record from Barry Bonds and wipe it clean. But his "I'm fighting for my life'' should not have been parsed with such greater zeal than the vastly more compelling commentary from a tearful Everth Cabrera in San Diego.
The Padres shortstop described how an aide for the ACES Inc. sports agency had steered him to Tony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic. At one point or another, ACES Inc. represented all 12 players who accepted 50-game suspensions on Monday.
"To all the players who leave so much behind in their countries, who come to this country and you're ignorant about a lot of things, be careful with who you associate with," Cabrera, a Nicaragua native, said through an interpreter. "People who surround you that may be only interested in financial gains, who may not be interested in your personal well being."
The name of the aide, Juan Carlos Nunez, first surfaced in MLB's investigation last year into Melky Cabrera's efforts to blame a positive testosterone test on a fraudulent product he bought online. Nunez, who worked as an interpreter and personal assistant for the ACES agency's Spanish-speaking clients, concocted a scheme to buy a website and then pass it off as the one that sold the tainted substance.
The Nunez connection appears to explain the fact that 12 of the 14 players banned for their involvement with Biogenesis were Latino. But the disparity has been apparent since MLB started issuing suspensions in 2005. As of a year ago, 24 of the 39 big-league players ever suspended for doping had come from Latin America.
The numbers, of course, don't represent who is doping so much as who gets caught, now that MLB punishes the use of PEDs. It's hard to argue the worst of conspiracy theories, that MLB somehow hides the findings that incriminate U.S. players. For one thing, Ryan Braun, the telegenic star in Bud Selig's hometown, would have been one of the leading candidates for protection, and he became the first player to go down in the Biogenesis prosecutions. More to the point, when the Mitchell Report, commissioned by MLB, looked back at usage in the period before testing began, it cited 89 names of players connected to PEDs. Only 10 of them came from Latin countries.
Beating the tests -- which obviously happens, or else the Biogenesis investigation would have been rendered unnecessary by damning urine samples -- may be easier for players who can navigate U.S. cities comfortably, in search of clinics run by people smart enough not to stiff a partner who has access to vital documents. Options for finding the best chemists could also increase for players who attend college and live among an array of athletes from other sports.
In a poor country with entire extended families depending on a talented teenager, the options tend to shrink. A superior doctor or a safer drug -- or just the chance to see how far you can go purely based on one's own abilities -- can amount to luxuries for a kid whose future holds nothing without a professional contract. That's true in many sports, including baseball's twin in PED exposure, cycling. Riders from the United States tend to come from the middle class, but overseas, many cyclists come from families of manual laborers.
"We see that with the Eastern Europeans,'' said Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. As he investigated the U.S. Postal team headed by Lance Armstrong, he noted that even the Americans tended not to receive advanced educations. When he came across Scott Mercier, who quit in 1997 when confronted with the choice of whether or not to dope, the obvious question was: Why not go along with what everyone else seemed to be doing? Mercier told Tygart that he had an economics degree from Berkeley and a career in finance to fall back on.
Mercier does not flatter himself with a certainty that he would have been just as honorable if cycling had been his only way to make a decent living. "I didn't have to win at all costs,'' he says.
That's why watching a devastated Everth Cabrera is so much more valuable than savoring A-Rod's shame. Cabrera may be lying more dramatically than Braun ever did, tugging at our hearts rather than sticking out his chin. He may be scapegoating Nunez, the kind of assistant who is expected to take a fall for the boss. We can't know. But we also (most of us, at least) can't imagine Cabrera's life before he became a major leaguer.
We can't begin to guess what the people he addressed, young players who might leave their countries for baseball, thought if they saw his tears. The hope would be that the scene acted as a deterrent, and not that the exposure of Cabrera's use resonated as an endorsement. This has always been one of the hazards of combating doping. The revelation that someone succeeded on PEDs muffles the message sent by the penalty.
But when commentators call for removing restraints on PEDs, they tend to overlook the circumstances of the most vulnerable athletes. East German women had to take their little blue pills, no questions asked. Two junior cyclists from this country, Erich Kaiter and Greg Strock, ended up settling a lawsuit that contended their coaches doped them without their knowledge, causing serious health complications. The Biogenesis whistleblower, Porter Fischer, has told ESPN that teenagers would come to the clinic, some of them escorted by their fathers.
No one has ever explained how to restrict use before it becomes abuse, or how to keep the PEDs in the hands of adults only. The two teens in the Dominican didn't die because they bought illegal drugs. They purchased something in an open, unregulated marketplace. A sports body from another country has limited powers over such a choice, unless it rigorously bans the substance from its game.
This is where liberalism about drugs runs smack into extreme libertarianism. It unfetters the privileged and strong -- those with the best doctors and least narcissistic parents, the most personal liberty and career options, plus the fewest underlying conditions that can ramp up the risks of any drug -- at the expense of the disadvantaged. We need a smarter discussion about these tradeoffs and the ways in which ideology defies practicality. We'll probably just get more headline puns selling Schadenfreude about the pretty man in pinstripes.