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LATIN AMERICAN REVOLUTION THE MAJOR LEAGUES ARE BEING TRANSFORMED BY A FLOOD OF IMPACT PLAYERS FROM LATIN COUNTRIES

March 12, 1996
March 12, 1996

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March 12, 1996

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Scouting Reports

LATIN AMERICAN REVOLUTION THE MAJOR LEAGUES ARE BEING TRANSFORMED BY A FLOOD OF IMPACT PLAYERS FROM LATIN COUNTRIES

High among the palm fronds along a potholed road outside the
ramshackle town of La Victoria, Dominican Republic, the Oakland
A's have planted their colors, the colors of lucre: green and
gold. The team banner marks a dirt entryway leading to a
padlocked fence, beyond which lie two magnificent baseball
fields that are fussed over by a cadre of groundskeepers. Dozens
of trees had to be cleared to make way for these emerald
diamonds, which is no mean feat; the A's were initially told
that for every tree uprooted, 20 must be planted. But because
these trees were sacrificed in the creation of an academia de
beisbol, the team struck a less taxing deal with the government.

This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue

On a hill above the ball fields stands a gleaming white building
of plaster walls and tile floors. Inside is a huge kitchen,
locker rooms, video rooms, coaches' rooms, weight rooms, study
halls, a rec room and a dormitory that can comfortably sleep 50
prospects. Baseball talent is cultivated and groomed here--talent
that seems to be more plentiful and replenishable than the
trees. Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, who lives 20 minutes
away in Santo Domingo, has long been Oakland's man in the
Dominican Republic--head scout, operations overseer, chief
consultant. He is surveying the immaculate grounds from the
building's second-floor deck, soaking up the breeze.

Amid the sugarcane fields and the horse-drawn carts and the
grazing cattle, a baseball revolution is in the air. "In the
next five years, there will be maybe 150 players from the
Dominican Republic in the major leagues," says Marichal, the
58-year-old Laguna Verde native and winner of 243 games, the
most ever by a Latin pitcher. "There are so many prospects in
this country, it is unbelievable. For the kids today, if they
want to be a ballplayer, their possibilities to make it now are
very large. Before, they were very thin."

North American green is in global pursuit of ball-playing gold,
and nowhere is the search for raw talent more feverish than in
Latin America. Last season there were 172 big leaguers who had
been born in Central or South America, Mexico or the Caribbean
(page 42); the Dominican Republic (pop. 7.8 million), with 77
major leaguers, ranked ahead of every U.S. state except
California (pop. 29.8 million), which produced 218. By 2005 it
is quite possible that close to one fourth of all big leaguers
will have Latin origins--more if Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba
crumbles and the scores of prospects there enter the free
market. At the very least, that would represent a threefold
increase in peloteros over a mere 30 years, creating what would
amount to a whole new ball game: the Americas' pastime.

It's not just sheer numbers of Latins, either; it's the numbers
those numbers are putting up. No longer do they conform to the
hackneyed image of the "good field, no hit" middle infielder (a
phrase, incidentally, that was coined in 1924 by the man who
would later become the first Latin manager in the majors, Mike
Gonzalez, who happened to be describing Moe Berg, a Jewish
catcher). In 1995 the ranks of Latin major leaguers included
nine players who hit more than 20 homers, nine who batted .300
or better and 12 who drove in more than 80 runs. And not even
reflected in that count are such U.S.-born Latin sluggers as
Baltimore third baseman Bobby Bonilla, who hit .329 with 28
homers and 99 RBIs, and Seattle third baseman Edgar Martinez
(page 50), who batted .356, hit 29 dingers and drove in 113.

MARTINEZ, in fact, is now annually stitched onto more big league
double knits than SMITH or JONES. In the World Series last
season, nine of the 25 players on the Indians had been born in
Latin America, including stars such as second baseman Carlos
Baerga (page 36), rightfielder Manny Ramirez, closer Jose Mesa
and shortstop Omar Vizquel. Over the next few years that
percentage might be surpassed by the Dodgers, almost 40% of
whose 246 minor leaguers are Latin-born; or by the Expos, who
have 66 Latins in their farm system; or by the Astros, whose
pipeline to Venezuela, set up in the late 1980s, has already
gushed out half a dozen bona fide prospects (page 46). Says
Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle, "I take the view that
ignoring Latin America would be like ignoring Southern
California or Florida."

In 1871 Enrique Esteban Bellan, a Cuban infielder, became the
first Latin to play pro ball in the States. But no dark-skinned
Latin would enter the majors until 1949, when Bellan's
countryman Minnie Minoso joined the Indians. From the 1940s
through the '60s, only a handful of teams combed Latin America
for talent. Two scouts in particular served as baseball's Vasco
da Gama and Juan Ponce de Leon: Washington's Joe Cambria
established a supply line from Cuba, and Pittsburgh's Howie Haak
scoured Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Their quests
were encouraged by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith and
Pirates general manager Branch Rickey for an elemental reason:
They wanted to find bargains.

It is that same motivation that has largely prompted today's
gathering tidal wave of Latin players. Residents of the U.S.,
Canada and Puerto Rico are subject to the major league draft.
No. 1 picks now often demand more than $1 million to sign. All
other players are free agents; without the leverage of a draft
slot or an agent to represent them, they often receive signing
bonuses of only a few thousand dollars. For a total in the low
six figures, an organization can cast a scouting net across the
Caribbean, signing first-round talents at a fraction of the
going price.

"There's a lot of competition for players, it's true," says A's
general manager and president Sandy Alderson. "But if you're
willing to put in the effort, there's no limit to the reward."

Oakland is hardly alone in setting up shop in a corner of the
Dominican Republic. The Dodgers also have a complex there, and
one Japanese club has lavished at least $4 million on an even
more elaborate facility in Santo Domingo. Milwaukee, not known
for its deep pockets, signed Toronto's onetime Dominican
superscout, Epy Guerrero, to a three-year deal in January. Of
the 28 current major league teams, 25 had a presence in the
Dominican Summer League last year. "The athletes have always
been there," says Expos manager Felipe Alou, a native of the
Dominican Republic. "The difference now is opportunity. There's
more scouting. We're not losing athletes in Latin
countries--they're being found instead of being lost."

And discoveries are being made in more and more places. The
Marlins' top minor leaguer, 20-year-old shortstop Edgar
Renteria, is from Colombia. Toronto unearthed Jose Pett, 20, a
hard-throwing righthander, in Brazil. The Braves went to
Curacao, Netherlands Antilles (off the coast of Venezuela), to
sign outfielder Andruw Jones, an 18-year-old power hitter of
enormous promise.

Venezuela itself may soon yield as many major leaguers as the
Dominican Republic: Many teams have created extensive scouting
operations there. "The best crude oil has been pumped out of the
ground," Braves international supervisor Bill Clark says. "Now
we've got to go deeper into the lower rock to get the next layer
of oil."

Teams will continue to dig and dig, even if the draft is
expanded to include players all over the world, as is expected
within the next few years. The huge deals inked over the winter
by a pair of Cuban pitchers who defected via the Dominican
Republic--Livan Hernandez, 20, with the Marlins ($4.5 million for
four years) and Osvaldo Fernandez, 27, with the Giants ($3.2
million for four years)--have the less wealthy franchises
agitating for such a draft in place of the current system of
open bidding. Those teams want to sign Latin players while
they're still raw prospects, not wait until they have
established themselves with, say, their countries' national
teams and can command a much higher price. Meanwhile, teams such
as the Indians, who have enjoyed success under the current
system, prefer the status quo. "A world draft would put a major
dent in what we've done [in Latin America]," says Cleveland
scouting director Jay Robertson. "Those kids will make $500,000
if they're in a draft. I'd hate to see that. We're against it.
All the work we've done will backfire in our face." But even if
the draft does one day comprise all foreign players, that won't
stop teams from continuing to beat far-flung bushes for talent.
Says Rangers G.M. Doug Melvin, "Clubs will feel that since these
players have to be a part of the draft, they have to put scouts
everywhere."

And while that may send some of the bird dogs off to Australia
and Korea and Japan, it will also mean more and more
exploradores in Caracas and Curacao, San Pedro de Macoris and
Sonora. The talent pool in Latin America has never been more
attractive for a variety of reasons, not merely the lure of the
bargain. Here are some of the others:

--La pasion. "The Latins have a passion for the game that I don't
see anywhere else in the world," says Roger Jongewaard,
Seattle's VP of scouting and player development. Adds Oakland
assistant G.M. Billy Beane, "We love scouting Latin players
because their motivation level is so high."

Hunger often motivates: In the Dominican Republic the gross
national product per capita is $1,230, while the boom in
Venezuelan prospects has been prompted in part by the bust in
the oil market a decade ago. But the fantasy of big league
riches can only partially account for a passion that has endured
for more than a century. "As a kid, I loved the game so much I
dreamed about it," Marichal says. "I'm 58, and I still dream
about it."

Baseball executives often contrast that Latin enthusiasm with
Stateside indifference. "The worst things to happen to baseball
[in this country] were Nintendo and air conditioning," says
Padres G.M. Kevin Towers. "Nobody goes outside and plays home
run derby or pickle anymore. You go to Puerto Rico and the kids
are lined up on fields at eight in the morning." Notes Pirates
general manager Cam Bonifay, "I think we're just raising our
kids in a little different way. I think the importance of
everything being part of a very rapid, very quick, very
hands-on, right-at-your-fingertips kind of society is what's
responsible. There's no understanding of what long, tedious
work--which describes the game of baseball, in my opinion--means
for younger children. We've almost gotten our kids to not enjoy
the game of baseball because of everything around them."

Indeed, while U.S. youths more and more often choose baseball as
merely another item in their recreational buffet, most Latins
still take it as their main, and only, course. Ricky Williams,
an outfielder from San Diego in the Phillies' chain, spent last
fall as a hotshot freshman fullback at Texas. "He'll never get
soft enough hands to be a middle infielder because he hasn't
played baseball every day since he was five years old," Arbuckle
says. "The good Latin American players develop those skills
because they don't split their abilities between sports."

--La diversidad. A gifted infielder may be the easiest player for
a scout to spot: Arm strength, quickness and sure hands can be
gauged by rapping him a few ground balls, and his speed can be
measured by a stopwatch. To take the true measure of a hitter or
a hurler requires game conditions; until recently, scouts had
neither the time nor the resources to exhaustively work out all
the Latin teens who might catch their eye in pickup games. Now
they do--and they must.

The result has been a more diverse crew of imports. Only 24.4%
of the Latins in the majors played second or short last season,
a drop from 28.8% a decade ago. The change has been most
pronounced on the mound: Forty-three Latins--20 from the
Dominican Republic alone--each threw more than 40 innings in the
bigs in 1995. "If I get a pitcher who is 15, 16 years old and
throws in the low 80's," says Al Avila, the Marlins' director of
Latin American scouting, "I can project that guy to throw
harder. It is harder to make a mistake with a pitcher like that.
You give me an outfielder, it is hard to say that this guy is
going to hit. That is what you try to avoid."

Competition among scouts is so intense that they can't afford to
pigeonhole players in positions. "When we were growing up, they
said we were too small to play anywhere else, so everybody under
six feet was an infielder," recalls Ramon Aviles, a 5'9" former
second baseman from Puerto Rico who played in the majors between
1977 and '81 and is now a Phillies scout. "Now you've got a guy
like [the Rangers'] Ivan Rodriguez. He's only 5'11", but he's
built like a wall. I guarantee you that if he had come up in my
time, they would never have made him a catcher."

--La liga dominicana. Though the Caribbean winter leagues have
long served as a finishing school for up-and-comers, the
11-year-old Dominican Summer League is now vital for those just
beginning their careers. The U.S. State Department permits major
league teams a total of 728 work visas for foreign minor
leaguers (26 per team, but a team may exceed that number if a
surplus of visas exists). Teams stash any overflow of talented
players for a year or two in the Dominican league, where their
training, health and education can be more closely monitored.

The Giants have already dropped out of the Arizona Fall League,
in part so they can pump more resources into the Dominican
league. "We can accelerate the development of players and not be
at the mercy of the draft," says assistant G.M. Brian Sabean. A
score of teams are interested in forming a similar league in
Venezuela as well.

--La lengua. More difficult than the on-field adjustments for
many Latins is the radical lifestyle change they face upon
arriving in Class A outposts like Bend, Ore., or Hickory, N.C.
Some find themselves in a strange new world. "I can remember a
kid in the minors using a match and trying to light a microwave
oven because he thought it was a stove," says Giants coordinator
of Latin American instruction Carlos Alfonso, a native of Cuba.
"There are so many things we take for granted, but it's a
different story for someone from a different background."

For decades, the barrier to the bigs most frequently cited by
Latins has been the language. But given the recent increase in
Latin American prospects, teams are hiring more bilingual minor
league instructors, and almost all major league clubs have at
least one coach who is fluent in Spanish. "It's very difficult
if you're a shortstop and you don't understand the cutoff
system," says Arbuckle, whose Phillies conduct nightly English
classes during spring training. "And if you're 17 years old,
you're probably afraid even to say something. So you may get
labeled as slow to learn when it's simply a language problem.
[Our program] helps us understand the language problem, and if a
kid is having another problem it allows us to become aware of
that, too."

--La fraternidad. Latin players are quick to define themselves by
their ethnicity. Records for wins or homers by a Latin American
are well-known and coveted. Players with established
credentials, like Baerga, are keen to help their countrymen with
advice and resources. "Much more than in the States, you see
these players going back to their countries and giving a lot to
the younger players so they will have the same opportunities,"
says Paul Snyder, Atlanta's director of scouting and player
development.

That network must often serve as a bulwark against racism. A
Penn State study completed two years ago revealed that a Latin
American player stood a 33% lower chance of winning a
salary-arbitration case than a white or African-American player.
And according to the most recent Racial Report Card from
Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in
Society, there are no Latins in top front-office positions in
the major leagues. "Teams want a person who speaks English well
and knows how to carry himself in this culture," says Rangers
Latin American liaison Luis Mayoral. "It will take time.
Progress is being made. It's at a slow pace, but my being here
proves that steps are being taken forward."

The infusion of Latins seems to have a self-perpetuating
momentum: The more players who make it, the more support and
hope is available to those aspiring to. "In the Dominican
Republic before, most of the rich kids weren't interested in
playing baseball," Marichal says. "But now even they are
playing. They know the opportunity is there."

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CLARKE Vinny Castilla MEXICO Primarily a shortstop in the Mexican League, the Rockiesthird baseman hit 32 homers in '95.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Manny Ramirez DOMINICAN REPUBLIC Raised in New York City, the rightfielder was second among Indians in home runs and RBIs.COLOR PHOTO: MILTON HINNANT/DALLAS MORNING NEWSIvan Rodriguez PUERTO RICO Tough players like the Rangers catcher are toppling the stereotype of Latins as puny middle infielders. [Ivan Rodriguez colliding with opponent]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECKLuis Sojo Omar Vizquel VENEZUELA Two of Venezuela's many good glovemen squared off for the American League title last year. [Overhead view of Omar Vizquel, Luis Sojo, and umpire]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLEJose Mesa DOMINICAN REPUBLIC Cleveland's closer is part of a deluge of Latin pitchers to reach the majors in the past decade.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Raul Mondesi DOMINICAN REPUBLIC The '94 Rookie of the Year clubbed 26 homers last season and led the Dodgers with 91 runs.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERQuilvio Veras DOMINICAN REPUBLIC In '95 the Marlins second baseman became the first rookie in 10 years to lead the majors in stolen bases.