Originally published in Tribune Sports on March 5, 2006
The saying used to go that you couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard. These days you can’t spell the players’ names without tildes and accented vowels.
Attempting to portray its sport as a world game, Major League Baseball reported last year that 242 of the 829 players on opening-day active rosters, including the disabled list, were born outside the 50 states.
Make no mistake. Those numbers were fueled by the six major baseball-playing countries and territories of Latin America.
For all the lip service paid to the Asian influx in the late 1990s, there were just 18 players from Japan, Korea and Taiwan on those rosters.
Compare that to the nearly one-infour major leaguers, 207 in all, who were born in Latin America. The figure included 91 players from the Dominican Republic, 46 from Venezuela, 34 from Puerto Rico and 18 from Mexico.
Like America itself, America’s pastime is increasingly influenced by the Spanish-speaking people south of the Rio Grande and the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“It’s the sport we love, and we play that sport anywhere — in a parking lot, in a baseball field, anywhere there’s room to play,” said Dominican-born Junior Noboa, the Diamondbacks’ director of Latin American operations.
“Baseball in Latin America, it’s getting big. When those kids see all the money that the baseball players make, they really want to become a player. They have a dream.”
MERCADO DE PELOTEROS
(MARKET FOR BALLPLAYERS)
Major league franchises also have a dream. It’s a dream of identifying the next Pedro Martínez or Manny Ramírez before he signs with a rival club.
While American-born players must go through the draft to gain employment in major league baseball, foreignborn players are signable free agents upon turning age 17, or in some cases 16.
For decades, Cuba was the main supplier of foreign baseball talent. When the Cuban market for ballplayers dried up in the 1970s as a result of the U.S. economic embargo against that country, scouts turned their attention to another island nation — the Dominican Republic.
There they found a baseball-mad country where rampant poverty created a work force of 16-year-olds hungry to earn even minor league contracts.
Noboa, who signed with the Cleveland Indians in November 1981, was one of the earliest commodities on a bull market for Dominican ballplayers.
Prior to Noboa’s major league debut in August 1984, only 100 Dominicans had ever played in the majors. In the two decades since his debut, nearly 300 have infiltrated major league baseball.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, would reside between West Virginia and Maryland as the eighth smallest of the 50 states. But its 9 million inhabitants would make it the ninth-most populous state.
And for every million residents of the Dominican, 10 currently play in the major leagues. Compare that to the two major leaguers per million American citizens.
In a country where the per capita gross domestic product is just $6,500 — nearly $3,000 less than the world average — paying for an education is nearly impossible.
Baseball is an escape route.
“It’s an opportunity to go to the United States, the country of the dreams,” Noboa said. “In America you have so much opportunity to do a lot of things. Here in the Dominican, the only opportunity you have to get a better life and get a big salary is baseball.”
OTRAS TIERRAS FÉRTILES
(OTHER FERTILE LANDS)
Every All-Star unearthed in the slums and farmlands of the Dominican brought more scouts and agents to the tiny nation. As the market became flooded with recruiters, some began to seek new areas to mine for talent.
They found similar social conditions and baseball talent in Venezuela and Panama. Panama’s population base is so small that it’s unlikely to become a major supplier of talent, but Venezuela is nearly three times as large as the Dominican.
The increased focus on Venezuela allowed the country to recently pass Puerto Rico as the No. 2 supplier of baseball players outside the 50 states.
The scouring of that country for talent only figures to grow.
“It’s going to be the same way the Dominican is,” said Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero, a native of Venezuela. “Now you’ll see a lot of kids, they don’t even go to school. They go to the field to play professional baseball.”
Holding back Venezuela is the fact that baseball will always be second to soccer. The same goes for Mexico — a country of more than 100 million people.
In the Dominican, there is no such competition.
“That’s why the Dominican has the best players,” Diamondbacks closer José Valverde said. “You go to sleep. Then you wake up, what do you have in your hand? It’s a glove.”
The sleeping giant in Latin America is Cuba.
Cuba was a major supplier of big league talent prior to Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959. Now, in order to draw a paycheck in the United States, Cuban players must defect.
As a result, there were only six Cuban players on major league opening-day rosters last year, although the country is more populous than the Dominican and has a state-run baseball infrastructure that has won three of the four gold medals in Olympic baseball history.
There’s no doubt major league teams would line up to sign players like Yulieski Gourriel, the Cuban national team’s 21-year-old infielder who hit eight home runs in 11 games in last fall’s World Cup.
“If they take the blockade off, the Cubans could sign up just like the Dominicans or the Puerto Ricans or the Venezuelans,” White Sox pitcher José Contreras said in his native language. “It’s possible in five or six years (without the embargo) there could be just as many Cuban ballplayers as Dominican ballplayers.”
BÉISBOL HABLADO AQUÍ (BASEBALL SPOKEN HERE)
Arizona manager Bob Melvin broke into the majors with Detroit in 1985. The Tigers used 36 players that year, with five Latin Americans from five different countries. Only one was Dominican.
He was traded after that season and played on a Giants team in 1986 that used 40 players, including five Latin Americans. Again, only one was Dominican.
This year he will manage a Diamondbacks team with 13 Latin-born players on the 40-man roster. The group includes seven players from the Dominican, three from Venezuela, and one each from Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Latin players are aided in their assimilation by the presence of so many of their compatriots on each roster. One of the four tables in the clubhouse at the Diamondbacks’ spring training facility in Tucson is surrounded daily by the club’s Latin players.
The Spanish chatter flies between the players in that setting. But even those players who understand little English can at least speak about baseball. As a result, the language barrier is not as big an obstacle to game preparation as one might think.
“Once they get to the big leagues they seem to be able to speak the language better,” said Melvin, who nonetheless usually has a Spanishspeaking coach on his staff. “And there’s the baseball language. So even if their English isn’t great it seems like their grasp of baseball talk in the English language seems much better.”
LOS REYES DEL DEPORTE (THE KINGS OF THE SPORT)
The stereotypical representation of a Latin American baseball player — that of a voodoo-practicing, unintelligible clubhouse minority — has been replaced by the imposing image of some of the game’s biggest stars.
In 1980, the winners of major league baseball’s four biggest postseason awards were named Schmidt, Brett, Carlton and Stone.
In 2005, the winners of those same awards were named Pujols, Rodríguez, Carpenter and Colón. In 2004, they were named Bonds, Guerrero, Clemens and Santana. The 2005 American League manager of the year was born in Venezuela and the last two All-Star game MVPs hailed from the Dominican.
In 1980, only five of 61 All-Star selections were born south of the 50 states, none from the Dominican. In 2005, 23 of 68 All-Stars were born in Latin America, including 10 from the Dominican.
The Latinization of the major leagues will only increase because more than 40 percent of players signed to minor league contracts are from that part of the world. In the 2005 Futures All-Star game, the 25-man World team was made up of 19 Latin-born players.
“It’s amazing how many professional players have come from there (the Dominican Republic),” Diamondbacks catcher Juan Brito said. “It’s amazing too the way that every kid has a dream to play. Every one just dreaming about playing baseball.
“And (major league clubs) have people working to find the talent. No matter where it is, they find it.”
The Tribune’s picks for the best team using only active players born in Latin America (save the hate mail, Alex Rodriguez was born in New York).
C Iván Rodríguez PR 1999 AL MVP has 12 All-Star appearances, 11 Gold Gloves in 15 seasons 1B Albert Pujols DR 2005 NL MVP has four All-Star appearances and is only 26
2B Alfonso Soriano DR 2004 All-Star MVP with speed and power moving to outfield this year 3B Aramis Ramírez DR Though slowed of late by injuries, 27-year-old beats out Venezuelan Melvin Mora
SS Miguel Tejada DR Three-time All-Star was 2002 AL MVP and 2005 All-Star MVP
LF Manny Ramírez DR 2004 World Series MVP has been top 10 in AL MVP voting eight times in 13 years CF Andruw Jones Curacao Postseason success and eight-time Gold Glover gains nod over Carlos Beltran
RF Vladimir Guerrero DR Six-time All-Star was 2004 AL MVP
DH David Ortiz DR Top three in AL MVP voting the last three seasons despite playing little in field
SP Bartolo Colón DR 2005 AL Cy Young winner owns career record of 139-82
SP Johan Santana Venez. 2004 AL Cy Young winner is 36-13 in first two full seasons as starter and is only 26
SP Pedro Martínez DR Seven-time All-Star won Cy Young awards in 1997, 1999 and 2000 RP Mariano Rivera Panama Seven-time All-Star has 34 saves and 8-1 record in 72 postseason appearances
Felipe Alou DR With 957 career wins, 1994 NL manager of year edges Venezuelan Ozzie Guillén DR — Dominican Republic. PR — Puerto Rico
The Diamondbacks’ 40-man roster includes 13 players who were born outside the 50 United States. Here’s a breakdown of the Arizona roster by country or territory of origin.
Brian Bruney, Jason Grimsley, Brad Halsey, Brandon Lyon, Brandon Medders, Dustin Nippert, Russ Ortiz, Brandon Webb, Johnny Estrada, Koyie Hill, Chris Snyder, Tony Clark, Craig Counsell, Stephen Drew, Damion Easley, Andy Green, Orlando Hudson, Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy, Eric Byrnes, Jeff DaVanon, Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green, Scott Hairston, Chris Young, Doug Slaten, Mike Schultz
Greg Aquino, Miguel Batista, Tony Peña, José Valverde, Claudio Vargas, Luis Vizcaíno, Luis Terrero
Enrique González, Miguel Montero, Alberto Callaspo
Latin America is strikingly underrepresented in the Baseball Hall of Fame considering the number of Latin stars in the game now. Only seven Latin-born players are currently in the Hall of Fame:
RF Roberto Clemente Puerto Rico P Martín Dihigo Cuba P Juan Marichal Dom. Rep.
SS Luis Aparicio Venezuela
2B Rod Carew Panama 1B Orlando Cepeda Puerto Rico
1B Tony Pérez Cuba