Jim Souhan: More Latin American baseball players? Bring ’em on

I want to see a couple of those at the local ballpark. Soon.
Jul 22, 2014

 

Forgive me for objectifying an entire demographic, but …

You know those ridiculously talented, relentlessly flamboyant guys from Latin America who hung out at Target Field last week?

I want to see a couple of those at the local ballpark. Soon.

Last Sunday, at the Futures Game, the Dodgers’ 17-year-old prospect Julio Urias, from Mexico, and the Twins’ 20-year-old prospect Jose Berrios, from Puerto Rico, were among the Latin American players who displayed uncommon talent and composure.

On Monday, at the Home Run Derby, Yoenis Cespedes of Cuba won the competition for the second year in a row.

On Tuesday, at the All-Star Game, Miguel Cabrera of Venezuela provided the big hit, a two-run home run in the first; Aroldis Chapman of Cuba hit 100 on the Target Field radar gun, and for the first time in All-Star history, an all-Venezuelan battery started the game, in the form of Felix Hernandez and Salvador Perez.

Of the 20 starters in the All-Star Game, including designated hitters and pitchers, five hailed from the Dominican Republic, three from Venezuela and one from Cuba. At the beginning of the season, 19 percent of major league roster spots were occupied by players from those countries, which provided 31 percent of the players on All-Star rosters.

“Every time I step on the field, I represent the Dominican Republic,” Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez said. “That’s where I came from. America gave me the opportunity of my lifetime, but I come from the Dominican.”

What would the game be like without Latin players?

“You tell me,” Gomez said, grinning. “I think it would be boring.”

Many of the best and most entertaining players in the big leagues are from Latin America. The Twins were woefully behind the competition in scouting, signing and developing players from that region before upgrading their operation in the last 10 years.

In 2002, I traveled to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela with then-Twins assistant GM Bill Smith, to visit Cristian Guzman, Juan Rincon and Johan Santana, among others. The Twins’ facilities were not impressive. They have since joined the wave of teams building state-of-the-art complexes in both countries, and were able to sign super prospect Miguel Sano out of the Dominican, a few years after narrowly missing out on signing Cabrera out of Venezuela.

There is a reason for Major League Baseball’s intense interest in Latin American countries: They are filled with young athletes who play baseball year-round and who are not subject to the amateur draft. Latin America is the Wild West of baseball talent procurement.

I asked Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, from the Dominican, what big-league baseball would look like if all those kids had grown up playing soccer.

“A lot different,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s enough athletes to go around for both. I don’t know all the details, but FIFA just made a huge investment in the Dominican and is going to be going after young talent. I don’t know what that’s going to mean long-term to the supply of young players to MLB, but it seems like they’re making a push to bring some athletes into soccer.

“A lot of the influx of Latin American players into baseball has to do with economics, as well. You can acquire a lot of talent down there for just a little money.”

The new breed of players from Latin America, and particularly the Dominican, plays with a flamboyance that can rankle old-school Americans. Yasiel Puig and Gomez, in particular, blend prodigious talent, passionate play and emotional displays that anger opponents. Sano, though well-liked by teammates and managers in the Twins organization, plays with a cockiness that has led to beanballs and brawls.

“The game wouldn’t be as good without them,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said. “A lot of the best players in the game aren’t from America, which I think is good. That’s what makes our game great: diversity. The flair that they play with is awesome for the game.”

Not all players from Latin America are flamboyant, and not all Americans are stoic. Dennis Eckersley was a wild man on the mound; Santana was calm and professional.

In this case, though, stereotypes aren’t insulting. Players and fans insulted by the antics of Puig and Gomez had better get used to the influx of talented players with irrepressible personalities.

“If I hit a ball in the gap, do you want me to put on the brakes at second?” Gomez said. “I don’t think so. You want me to keep going.”

Yes, I do.

 

Log in or sign up to post comments.