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Text by Geoff Baker/Toronto Star/ZUMAPRESS.com

May 15, 2005 - Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic - There are only two reasons why a Dominican buscone would hold a baseball practice in the bushes and it soon became obvious why Victor Rosario was doing just that.

Working out amongst trees and shrubs is a common tactic of this country's shady lot of unregulated street agents when hiding top prospects from other roving talent hunters. But talent theft was the last thing on Rosario's mind this sweltering morning, since the four scrawny pitchers under his tutelage, aged 15 to 17, had been given to him for free by another buscone looking to shed dead weight.

That meant the only other reason Rosario would be grooming his charges on such sparse, confining terrain was because he had nowhere else to go.

"I have no access to any field," confirmed the 36-year-old, a former Dominican Summer League pitcher who lost his factory job four months ago and now spends his days training players full-time on any spare grass. "The good thing is, these guys are pitchers. And you can practise a pitcher anywhere."

Rosario said he's sold just two players in four years to major league scouts for a combined $6,000 (all figures U.S.), putting him among the dregs of a buscone fraternity loosely estimated at about 1,300 across this impoverished Caribbean nation.

Top-end buscones - Spanish for searchers - earn six-figure commissions, drive fancy cars and employ staffs of assistants. One of the best known, former major league infielder Mario Guerrero, has taken players such as ex-Blue Jays outfielder Raul Mondesi to court over money he claims is owed from verbal deals they made as teenagers.

"The baseball players have a lot of power," Guerrero told the Star, "but I also played in the big leagues so I've got power. It's going to be power against power."

It's disputes like those, along with buscones giving players performance enhancers such as Diamino and steroids, or grabbing upwards of 40 per cent of their signing bonuses, that have spurred calls for a crackdown on this country's most controversial baseball industry.

A Star investigation in the Dominican Republic this month, including dozens of interviews of players, coaches, scouts, agents, drug dealers and top baseball officials, has found a system where performance-enhancing substances are ingrained at a young age and carried into the pros. Since some are supplied and their use encouraged by buscones serving as guru-like mentors to players, curbing their tactics appears critical in tackling a local drug problem Major League Baseball fears is infiltrating its ranks.

"They can't just keep carrying out business as usual and that's the message I'm trying to tell them," said Jose Escarraman, 37, a well-connected buscone who has spent three years organizing his brethren into a coaching association that can be more effectively monitored.

Escarraman's association has signed up more than 300 buscones, now recognized as official "coaches" with soon-to-be-issued government membership cards and designated areas to work. He is pushing for new government regulations to make association membership mandatory for any buscone.

"There is a difference between our coaches and the independent buscones," he insists, his cellphone ringing constantly as he hops around city ballparks enlisting support.

"When a buscone becomes a coach with us, you will know the names of players under his control, you will know what arrangement he has with a player and know where to find him at all times."

That hasn't been the case with this often-shadowy group.

With almost no high school leagues here, former amateur and pro players become freelance talent hunters prowling every sugar cane field, fishing dock and back alley. No player with any talent goes unspotted in this country of 8 million, a big reason why so many Dominicans now play pro ball.

The wealthiest buscones, such as Enrique Soto, finder of former American League MVP Miguel Tejada and whose son, Leance, 19, just signed a $675,000 deal with the Blue Jays, run virtual mini-camps. Soto had a half-dozen teams interested in his son before the Jays made one of their biggest Latin American expenditures in years on the third baseman.

"My father made the decision for me because he says I can make it up there more quickly," the younger Soto, a 6-foot-4 powerhouse with still-developing muscles, said in an interview at his home in southern Bani.

Buscones with fewer resources than Soto's father will, like Rosario, often crowd the grounds outside Santo Domingo's Estadio Olimpico, while "coaches" in Escarraman's group have access to nearby grass diamonds.

Their workouts are full-time jobs, with the goal of getting a pro contract as quickly as possible in a country where yearly per capita income is slightly over $2,000. Hence the reliance on performance-enhancing substances by some buscones and players to hasten development and get signed into one of 28 pro Dominican Summer League teams starting at a minimum age of 16 years, six months.

"What's going on is nothing less than exploitation of some of these young baseball players," said Fernando Mateo, president of the New York-based advocacy group Hispanics Across America, which has lobbied MLB to expand drug testing and improve conditions for players in Latin America.

"You have players going to baseball practice all day, who usually wind up dropping out of school because they don't have time for it. They end up totally under the control of these buscones and it can lead to all sorts of bad things."

Mateo has called on MLB to raise the minimum signing age to 18, bringing Dominicans more in line with high school counterparts in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Those players are eligible for baseball's draft once they finish high school and some get seven-figure bonuses as first-round picks.

Dominicans aren't draft-eligible and must ink free-agent deals. Top prospects garner six figures, but most others settle for five and four - bonuses split with buscones.

"We provide their meals and equipment and when they develop, the guys split the money with us," said Tony Garcia, a buscone-turned-coach watching 11 players work out at Estadio de la Normal in Santo Domingo.

"We have to provide everything for them. If we get a kid who signs and we get some profit from it, we'll just throw it back into the pool. It's like recycling."

Dozens of other players and newly minted "coaches" also train here and cringe when one prospect angrily slams his batting helmet. Equipment is scarce and even tattered baseballs are chased after when fouled into the stands.

"We get all the equipment used," said Cesar Castillo, another buscone-turned-coach. "I usually go to the flea market so I can get it cheap."

Castillo works at a designated field outside the Estadio Olimpico and has earned $30,000 this year by getting four prospects signed. Some of that pays for a staff of five assistants who run his stable of 45 players.

"The competition for players is very intense," he said.

Jairo Mateo, 20, a third baseman hoping to soon play for a U.S. college, said pressure to land a contract is also intense for both player and buscone.

"Some guys don't have money for breakfast, so they play on empty stomachs," he said. "Some people offer them drugs and they take it because they're stupid. It's the hunger to put their family in a better position."

Mateo is unusual in that his parents are professionals and he was raised in an upper middle-class home. He realizes he has it good, but says players still have choices about who guides them.

"It's important that the families, their parents, support them," he said. "In the end, no one really cares about you except your mother and father."

Some parents negotiate with buscones while others leave it to their children and the deals struck are often verbal. That's something the now litigation-embroiled buscone Guerrero says he'll never do again after battling over alleged verbal deals with Mondesi and others including ex-Jays Juan Guzman and Geronimo Berroa.

"The way things have gone now, I don't trust nobody," said the tank-top clad Guerrero, tracked down in a section of a city park where he was training players.

"I've got all these kids with me now and I've made them sign with me already because I don't just want to keep going through this all my life."

Guerrero's brother, Epy, is the famed scout who helped make the Jays pioneers in finding Latin American talent. His family is among Dominican baseball's most revered and yet ex-Jays star George Bell recently denounced him over the lawsuits.

But Guerrero, dripping sweat from the mid-afternoon heat, says he's just earning a living.

"If you work, you've got to get paid," he said. "That's the problem with players in the Dominican Republic today. The government gives them a lot of power, so they can do what they want and that (expletive) doesn't work with me."

Guerrero claims Mondesi approached him as a teenager shortly after he'd been signed into a Dominican Summer League academy by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He said the slugger wanted hitting instruction and that he provided it on the verbal understanding that Mondesi would pay him 1 per cent of his future earnings.

A lower Dominican court sided with Guerrero and ordered Mondesi to pay him $640,000 plus $400,000 in interest. But Mondesi, who quit the Pittsburgh Pirates shortly after and returned here, has since had the ruling overturned on appeal.

The case is now headed to the Dominican Supreme Court. The country's most powerful baseball agent, lawyer David Toribio, whose office wall has a photo of him and slugger Sammy Sosa, said the issue of contracts is complex. He is working on a proposed baseball law that would better regulate buscones and come down on those who supply performance-enhancing substances.

"The buscones are the most important tool in this business and they shouldn't disappear," Toribio said. "But first, we need to teach them about levels of management."

Toribio said the government should implement scholastic sports programs so a player's first contact with baseball isn't through a wily buscone. But he also isn't in favour of capping buscones' commissions.

"Two people have the right to establish an agreement," he said. "Two people have the right to make a contract."

That stance is hardly surprising, since Toribio gets his top player clients from buscones, who bring him business because of his high-level contacts. He handles four or five prospects at a time and generally gets them a pro contract within four months, taking a 10 per cent commission - with the buscone getting his own, separate cut.

Some in the U.S. don't differentiate between an actual, trained player agent such as Toribio and a buscone hiding in the bushes. MLB doesn't share Toribio's views on buscone commissions and now forbids them from being included in any contract.

All money now goes directly to the player, who then decides whether to pay the buscone. If a buscone has a separate, written deal with a player, it's up to him to try to collect.

The new rules were imposed last year, soon after a scandal involving Arizona Diamondbacks pitching prospect Adriano Rosario, who paid buscone Ivan Noboa a commission of $100,000 on a $400,000 signing bonus - only to later learn the D-Backs had given Noboa a separate $100,000 payment.

That meant Noboa got 40 per cent of a $500,000 total payment and it was later revealed the Los Angeles Dodgers made a potentially better offer Rosario wasn't told about.

Escarraman is infuriated by the commission rule and says the best hope for his colleagues is an effort to get laws pertaining to Dominican baseball passed in this country. He noted that the country's recently appointed baseball commissioner, Porfirio Veras, is trying to ram through new rules calling for multiple random drug tests of amateur players and says that's "the only way you're going to control the use of drugs here."

In the meantime, he says he'll keep organizing buscones into an accountable association that doesn't allow drug peddling and push for additions to any law that legitimize the right of coaches to earn a living here.

"The buscones are an important part of Dominican baseball," he said, "but they have to do business the right way.

This text may not be edited or altered, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. For editorial licensing of the pictures or text, please contact ZUMA Press at (949) 481.3747 or e-mail Sales.