A true melting pot — it’s not just America’s pastime anymore

Nationality numbers in minor league baseball are striking, and provide a large sample of how top baseball talent breaks down by national origin. Dominicans (1,442) represent 49 percent of all minor league rosters, and radically dwarf the numbers from all other points of origin, including the closest rival, Venezuela (803). The number of non-US players hovers around half the total overall.

There are almost no Japanese (only 7) in the minor leagues, in spite of the popularity of baseball in Japan — most Japanese big leaguers come to the US as established transplanted players from the Japanese major leagues. The lone representatives of China, the Bahamas, Italy, Guam, New Zealand, St. Martin, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, etc. remain nothing more than novelties.

The trendline of non-US representation in the minor leagues will be one of the most important elements to watch in terms of how baseball changes in the years to come.

Big questions on the table such as the worldwide draft, the possibility of the international expansion of MLB franchises, the challenge of how to build larger and more diverse fanbases and the rumored World Cup of Baseball all depend on these shifting demographics.

It is curious that Major League Baseball has dropped hints about opening franchises in Europe — if minor league numbers are any indication of potential popularity of the sport, then MLB is barking up the wrong tree. Latin America and to a lesser extent, some parts of Asia, are much more potent potential markets. The argument made against this direction of internationalization of the sport is that low incomes cannot possibly provide revenues that can support Major League quality franchises. Creativity and some flexibility will be required. The stranglehold of the big market team ownership groups in the US against significant and positive change in the game will have to change if the exporting of the MLB model is ever to succeed.

In any event, the success and popularity of Dominican, Panamanian, Venezuelan, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Taiwanese, Mexican and other national variations of baseball within these countries are apparent yet not very well understood by those in this country. While true baseball fans in those countries follow US MLB, this is driven mostly by the large followings of their own compatriots in the United States (the Dominican attention to Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero et al, Panamanian attention to Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, Carlos Lee…) and the fascination with the wealth and domination of the gringos by their countrymen, rather than any true affinity with the US way of playing the sport. At the same time, by the mere virtue of tracking their countrymen’s successes and failures in MLB, millions of people outside the US understand the nuances of baseball in the US. The rampant devotion to these stars means that there is a huge fanbase across a number of countries that remains unexploited by MLB.

The growth of non-US players is bringing new challenges to minor league franchises, as well, perhaps even more so than in the Major Leagues, where players are generally more polished and prepared to deal with a wider range of difficult situations. While clubhouses all over baseball are split along gringo-latino lines, with all the various variations on more complex frictions such as Dominican vs. Puerto Rican vs. Venezuelan vs. Mexican or Korean vs. Japanese or Southern vs. Northern vs. Super-religious vs. super-irreverant vs. partiers vs. family-types, these cleavages are even more apparent in the minor leagues. Fights in the clubhouse are more common in farm clubs among these different factions, and the management challenges of mediating differences among groups who sometimes do not even speak the same language are tremendous.

No doubt, the growing internationalization of the sport leaves baseball scrambling for creativity, management skills and vision, not to mention language training. How this complex saga unfolds will be essential for the future of baseball as we know it in the US.

Minor League Players Born Outside the 50 United States (as of April 4, 2004, according to Major League Baseball)

Country		   Total Players
Argentina	   1
Aruba		   7
Australia	   76
Bahamas		   1
Brazil		   7
Canada		   106
China		   1
Colombia	   44
Costa Rica	   1
Cuba		   22
Curacao		   16
Dominican Republic 1,442
Ecuador		   3
El Salvador	   4
Germany		   3
Guam		   1
Honduras	   3
Italy		   1
Japan		   7
Korea		   11
Mexico		   102
Nicaragua	   34
Netherlands	   9
New Zealand	   1
Panama		   64
Puerto Rico	   127
South Africa	   3
St. Martin	   1
Taiwan		   10
United Kingdom	   1
Venezuela	   803
Vietnam		   1
Virgin Islands	   1
Total		   2,914

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