Latin American baseball — the future of the Major Leagues

In Sunday’s New York Times (13 April 2003), Rafael Hermoso describes how former Texas Rangers’ pitcher Edwin Correa is trying to “salvage Puerto Rican baseball” and create a challenging yet nurturing environment for budding young Puerto Rican baseball players in the new Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. Apart from documenting Correa’s valiant and interesting initiative to teach kids discipline in a combined baseball-academic environment, most of Hermoso’s article focuses on the perceived decline of Puerto Rican baseball in the face of stiff competition from the Dominican Republic, in particular.

I applaud Correa’s efforts and Hermoso for giving a short yet rich account of the new Academy and some of the issues, but I do not think that Puerto Rico is in fact in a baseball decline, and I think that the impact of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia will only continue to grow, and the power and prestige of Latin American players within the major leagues will only become more enhanced with time. If anything, Correa’s efforts should not be seen as a reaction to failure, but a visionary effort to up the ante in terms of Latin American baseball. I believe that time will show that Correa is ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the future of Major League Baseball.

There are some fascinating threads that Hermoso’s story touches upon that I wanted to chat about — mostly stemming from the fact that the Latin American presence within MLB is one of the most obvious yet most generally under-noticed factors in baseball today. And there are important linkages between what is going in baseball and general patterns of economic development, demographics and culture in the Americas. Here are some things that occur to me as relevant and worth further thought and exploration:

First, it is important to point out the general disparity in formal education that exists among Major League Baseball players. While virtually all major league players from the U.S. have graduated from high school, and many have gone to university, these players sit side-by-side with incredible success stories and national heroes in their Latin American colleagues, but heroes and successes who more likely than not do not have very much formal education. There are plenty of anecdotes about MLB players from Latin America who are illiterate in spite of their millions. This in itself is meaningless, but taken more broadly is a strong indicator that education levels are not strong among Latin American players. But here is the true advantage of Puerto Rico over its Latin American counterparts/comrades — many players from Puerto Rico have indeed attended college in the U.S. (see Jorge Posada for example, born in Santurce and attended Calhoun Community College in Alabama) and most come from a more priveleged background than players from the DR, Venezuela, Panama and elsewhere. Informally, baseball insiders say that if Latin American baseball players were arranged hierarchically in order of their level of education, Puerto Rico would be at the top and the Dominican Republic at the bottom, with Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and the others in between. From the point of view of trying to build and manage a team, it is no small feat to meld a group of players made up of graduates of leading U.S. colleges, high school standouts who have forgone college to play ball and talented foreigners who speak little English and have in some cases not progressed beyond the fourth grade.

Most statistics about players’ nationality (or place of origin in the case of Puerto Rico) belie another demographic change in baseball that mirrors the increase in Latinos as a significant population in the U.S. There are more and more U.S. players of Latin descent in the big leagues. Nomar Garciaparra, Luis Gonzalez, Eric Chavez…the list is quite long. But things are not even always as clear cut as that — Manny Ramirez, for example, was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in New York. Alex Rodriguez was born in New York, but his family moved back to the Dominican Republic for four years as a child before they settled in Miami. This is the bi-national culture that so many U.S. Latinos (especially Dominicans) experience. And as Latino-Americanism grows, and more and more U.S. Latinos who defy simple categorization enter baseball, we will only see more and more superstars with incredibly strong childhood and adolescent ties to both the U.S. and their home countries or parents/grandparents’ home countries. This is not dissimilar to the same sentiments that first and second generation Irish, Polish, German and Italian U.S. citizens felt as they grew up, but the difference is that never has one new immigrant, general ethnic group become such a dominant force within any professional U.S. sport. Latin America (at least the 7 countries who make significant contributions to the major leagues), with its incredible talent, emotional fan base and attachment to the sport, will bring many new elements and an injection of enthusiasm, into “America’s pastime.” The dual allegiance that so many Latino players have will play out in philanthropy, business development, and cross-cultural exchange and awareness (like the multitudes of Dominican flag-waving gringos apparent at Fenway Park). But it also brings with it difficult challenges, like the educational gulf among baseball players.

Second, I wanted to touch upon some financial issues. Using numbers from the 2002 All Star Break, the overall players’ payroll in MLB hovered just over US$2 billion (to be more precise, the 25 man rosters totalled $2,024,677,522). Of the 849 players listed on 25 man rosters at that time, there were 74 Dominicans, 36 Venezuelans, 36 Puerto Ricans, 16 Mexicans, 11 Cubans and 6 Panamanians (and 33 from the U.S. of Latino heritage). All in all, there were 221 players from Latin America and the Caribbean or of Latino descent (or 26% of the the big leagues). Of the $2 billion total payroll, Dominicans earned $193 million, Puerto Ricans took home $122 million, and Venezuelans earned $69 million. It seems the Puerto Rican players are getting the best deal of the three largest Latin American groups — a per capita analysis shows that Dominicans earned $2.6 million per player, Venezuelans $1.9 million and Puerto Ricans more than $3.3 million per player.

So Puerto Ricans are considerably better off in terms of salaries –what about Hermoso’s point that there are many fewer Puerto Ricans than Dominicans in the majors? He points out that there are 38 Puerto Ricans on 2003 opening day rosters while 78 come from the Dominican Republic. Yes, there are twice as many Dominicans in MLB than Puerto Ricans, but the population of the Dominican Republic is also twice as big as that of Puerto Rico (~7.5 million to ~3.8 million). So the numbers of players are pretty representative, even if the salaries are not.

Third, Hermoso talks a bit about the relative states of economic development between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as the relative advantages/disadvantages that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have vis-a-vis baseball. Interestingly enough, Hermoso seem to insinuate that better economic development is a disincentive to the formation of good baseball players (through comments by players such as these by Montreal Expos’ Javier Vazquez: “I think the kids in Puerto Rico have a lot of comforts,” said Vazquez, one of the handful of Puerto Rican stars to come out of the draft. “They have computers, PlayStations, all types of things like that. A kid has a life outside of sports.”)

The extension of this argument would be that poverty and the hunger for U.S. immigrant/citizen status are important motivations for Dominican youth to make it to the Bigs. This is a tricky and dangerous argument to make — on the one hand, it certainly is a boost to Major League teams to reap the benefits of Dominican shortstops with soft fielding hands due to years of catching erratic and unpredictable bounces in less than ideal conditions, of pitchers like Pedro Martinez who originally honed his delivery with his sisters’ doll’s heads for lack of a ball, and of hitters to whom a baseball looks like a grapefruit because they are used to hitting a rock with a broom handle (think Pele and his skills learned playing with layers of balled-up socks made into a soccer ball). I guess the real question here in balancing economic development concerns with good baseball is how to make sure that future baseball youth keep the “eye of the tiger” while improving their lives with better education, and more creature comforts and “distractions.” (Of course, some pundits lament the “softness” of U.S. youth and the growing inclination to stay inside and eschew sports, but this seems to be a more general problem of globalization, bad diets and video games.)

But the best argument against the one that says that harsh conditions and good baseball go hand-in-hand may come from the overall numbers of U.S. players in MLB — most major league players were born and raised in the U.S., and the vast majority of them attended at least high school, if not college as well. This in itself would be a fine testament to Edwin Correa’s goal to combine solid academics with solid baseball in one positive package for the development of young Puerto Ricans, and one that should be lauded.

Correa’s actions should make MLB and its franchises stand up and take notice to monitor the success of the Puerto Rico Academy (and it is a good sign that Sandy Alderson has offered some support after an initial reluctance) for the future of baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela — these academies’ current non-baseball offerings of rudimentary English, basic etiquette and how to be a team player that the most advanced of MLB clubs like the Oakland Athletics have implemented are a far cry from the kind of system that Correa seems to be implementing.

Finally, Hermoso’s highlights from an interview with Tony Bernazard, now special assistant to Players Union chief Donald Fehr, really point to some of the big issues on the table for MLB as it considers internationalization of the draft, possible expansion of the League abroad, the growing dominance of Latin American players and the need to reach out to the U.S. Latino fan base. The institution of an international draft will have huge repurcussions for the way that non-U.S. citizens end up in the major leagues. It should have a hugely positive impact on the system of buscones (scouts) that plagues current Latin American recruitment. And it will mean a lot more investment into the Latin American baseball academies. But how will it impact the Dominican summer leagues, in which Latin American prospects compete with one another for a coveted spot in the U.S. minors. Some of this is linked to U.S. immigration policy, which limits the number of Visas that each team can request — what is certain is that there is a whole series of issues to be unravelled here.

The question of why Major League clubs don’t do more to tap into the Latino fan base in their cities is one that I have wondered about for some time. It is good to see that Peter Gammons picks up this theme in his April 14 column. Given the real passion and baseball knowledge that lies at the core of much of the U.S. Latino population, maybe MLB should take a page out of Major League Soccer’s success at bringing in the Latino community to games across the U.S.

With the extremely positive reception (and results) of the Montreal Expos’ first homestand in San Juan, I think we will see more and more attention paid to Puerto Rican, and Latin American, baseball in the near future. Which is only appropriate, because Latin America is the key to much of the future of Major League Baseball in the longer term.

1 Comment

  1. Amanda Fernandez

    August 4, 2003 @ 12:02 pm


    Great article on beisbol. You should email this to my Dad and Janice before you meet with them. I think they would like it. This blog stuff is great! We need to set one up for our Ghana adventures. Ciao for now!

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