SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — In the winter of 2007, Major League Baseball was shaken to its core as Congress, armed with the Mitchell Report, examined the single greatest threat to the integrity of the game: steroids.
In the baseball-crazy Dominican Republic, home to one in 10 major league players, that threat collides with a harsh reality, because finding performance-enhancing drugs here is as easy as buying aspirin.
Take a stroll along the leafy Calle Independencia, a block from this capital's bustling seafront highway, and at every intersection there are two or three pharmacies where steroids are sold openly.
At the brightly lighted Farmax, which shares a crowded strip mall with a cafeteria and a camera repair shop, powerful injectable steroids such as testosterone enanthate can be found behind the toothpaste and cough medicine.
A block away at the Carol pharmacy -- open 24/7 with free delivery -- you can buy not only plush toys and school binders, but the young women in white lab coats at the back of the store will sell you Deca-Durabolin, the anabolic steroid taken by former American League most valuable player Jason Giambi.
In the provincial capital of San Cristobal, about 45 minutes west of here, scantily clad women near the checkout stand of a La Sirena supermarket pass out fliers for a dozen products banned under most drug-testing protocols.
One of the drugs highlighted in the Mitchell Report is the steroid Dianabol, which is available virtually everywhere here, over the counter, for 30 cents a tablet.
Drugs are not the only concern for MLB in a country that produces more baseball talent than any foreign nation.
"Baseball in the Dominican Republic is in jeopardy," says Charles Farrell, a former Washington Post journalist and co-founder of the Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy (DRSEA). "Just from the integrity issue. There's no simple solution."
Plenty of money is at stake, with 29 of the 30 major league teams operating elaborate training academies here, signing prospects for millions of dollars, and pouring an estimated $100 million annually into the crippled economy.
With stakes this high, cheating has become so prevalent there is a phrase for it here. La buena mentira. The good lie.
MLB and the FBI are investigating on three major fronts.
* Drugs. Over the last season and a half, 59% (81 of 137) of the minor league players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs were from the Dominican, home to a quarter of all minor leaguers.
* Document fraud. In a bid to pass themselves off as younger, and thus better, prospects use fake birth certificates or other falsified documents even though hundreds of players have already been caught lying about their identity or age -- the Dodgers' Rafael Furcal and the Angels' Ervin Santana among them.
* Skimming and kickbacks. MLB and FBI investigators since 2008 have found that employees from several MLB teams working in the U.S. and Latin America were involved in skimming tens of thousands of dollars from contract bonuses intended for Dominican and Venezuelan players.
Commissioner Bud Selig this last spring formed a committee to look into these abuses, and others, and chose Sandy Alderson, a former MLB executive vice president, to lead it. Dozens of people have been interviewed, from baseball scouts to officials from the Dominican government, the U.S. Embassy and MLB.
"This is not just a Dominican problem," said Alderson, who expects to file preliminary findings as early as next week.
"This is a baseball problem. So this kind of comprehensive review is intended to determine whether there are structural changes that baseball has to make in its own operations down there to ensure some of these issues are more fully addressed."
Amid crushing poverty, it is no surprise that the lure of easy baseball riches in the U.S. is at the center of many of MLB's problems here and elsewhere in Latin America. Last year, the average signing bonus for a Dominican prospect topped $100,000 in a country where the average annual salary is less than $9,000.
It comes down to a choice. Cheat and get signed to a lucrative contract, lifting your family out of poverty. Don't cheat and take a chance you will have to stay here, cutting sugar cane -- or worse. To many here, taking drugs or other shortcuts is competing, not cheating.
True, MLB forbids performance-enhancing drugs, but enforcing the policy here has been difficult. Until last summer, Dominican labor laws prevented baseball from suspending players in the 33-team Dominican Summer League -- or even notifying clubs when a player in the island-based minor league tested positive.
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who grew up a Yankees fan in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, recognizes how important baseball is to his nation and that such abuses spiraling out of control could mean disaster.