~ Archive for Baseball ~

Contreras’ family arrives in Florida on 21 person boat from Cuba


What a remarkable story about the reunion of New York pitcher Jose Contreras with his family after they successfully escaped from Cuba on a 31 foot boat on Monday.  Among those who arrived were Contreras’ wife and 11 and 3 year old daughters.  What an incredible distraction the plight of his family must have been over the past 21 months for Contreras, and what an extreme example of desperation on the part of his family to attempt the trip.  Contreras arriving in a black stretch SUV limousine is quite a contrast to the thought of 21 people crammed into a 31 foot boat with an uncertain future.

Deeper statistics


Watching /listening to tonight’s Red Sox – Dodgers game at Fenway Park tonight (well, I wasn’t actually at Fenway, but alternating between watching it on TV and listening to it on WEEI) and hearing a remark by a commentator about the matchup between Dodgers pitcher Odalis Perez and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, both Dominican, I started thinking about all the history between batter and hitter, or any player and any other player, from levels below the Major Leagues.  Surely Perez and Ortiz had either faced each other in the Dominican Leagues or played together at some point in their past. Likewise, the memory and experience of many major leaguers of others they face (not to vouch for all) certainly extends into minor league, collegiate, school and sandlot ball.  We all remember many things about people we knew at earlier points in our lives, and it is often extremely difficult to divorce those impressions, experiences and feelings from current happenings.

Thus begins a disconnect between the official statistics of Major League Baseball and the real life experience of the players who are being documented.  Sure, for official statistical reasons there is a big difference between what happens at the Major League level and what happens in the neighborhood field at age 13, but to baseball players, what they have always been doing their entire lives is play baseball, and the CV of accomplishments flows well past those of most other professions.  For players with a long history of playing with/against one another or at least knowing each other (witness the recent often-remarked commentary about Nomar Garciaparra and Jay Payton’s friendship from Georgia Tech, or the ridiculously derided) , that time that some guy took another guy deep back in 8th grade in a summer league actually means something to both players. 

While it is easier to document the US players’ histories (by identifying where they went to school, as well as the better recordkeeping), it becomes more difficult and more vague to figure out how the foreign players fit in together. 

In any case, we often have no idea about the relationship between players on the field and how they relate to one another. This certainly isn’t something that is captured by statistics.  Memory and emotion are still-elusive qualities of sports but affect much on the field or the court.  But the official story and statistics of sports, much like the official story and statistics of many other things in the world, don’t paint the whole picture.

Byung-Hyun Kim and “You Gotta Have Wa”


As I listened to Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. being interviewed on sports radio this morning (mostly in relation to Randy Johnson pitching a perfect game last night), and the topic turned to Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, currently with the Boston Red sox, I was reminded of Robert Whiting’s 1990 classic book on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa.

Garagiola was outlining one of the Diamondbacks’ biggest grievances while Kim was with them — his intense workout regime that some observers have called “insane,” and most agree is over-the-top.  Certainly the Red Sox seem to share this latter view of Kim’s habits of late night sprints in the outfield at Fenway long after the rest of the team has left, constant throwing and a devotion to repetition and overwork that leaves most observers with their heads shaking.

While Kim is Korean, not Japanese, there are certainly echoes of You Gotta Have Wa in Kim’s approach.  In particular, the insistence of Japanese pitchers to throw upwards of 200 pitches a day on their off-days and the repetitive 1,000 fungo workouts point to a similar philosophy of training in terms of excess and repetition.

In You Gotta Have Wa, Whiting, a journalist living in Japan, discusses many of the nuances, and what US readers (and baseball players) would view to be eccentricities, of Japanese baseball.  Along the way, Whiting exposes a lot of insights into Japanese society as well.  It is a great read with some passages that I recall made me laugh out loud.

As big as the culture clash may be for non-US players to come to the US to play professional baseball, by all acounts this experience pales in comparison with the culture clash of non-Japanese who play in Japan.  Deviation from the Japanese concept of team, and always putting the greater good of the team before oneself, along with the total lack of understanding of teammates’, fans’ and society’s expectations, is natural with the utter lack of exposure that US and Latin American players have of Japanese baseball before arriving there (unlike the Japanese conception of American baseball, because there is much more US baseball shown in Japan).  The intense media scrutiny in Japan overwhelms most US players who have played there.  Even the rabid Boston baseball media cannot hold a candle to the tenacity, viciousness and no-holds-barred style of their Japanese counterparts.  In the US we have seen the spillover of the Japanese media effect with the packs of Japanese reporters who swarm around Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Matsui, but this media frenzy is only an offshoot of what is an extreme devotion to their players and teams by Japanese baseball fans.

Whether Byung-Hyun Kim is going through big time culture shock, has lost his velocity due to overwork, is a real loner who shrugs off the overtures of his colleagues, hasn’t shaken his infamous showing in the 2001 World Series, or is just having a bad season, isn’t clear, but in terms of difficult transitions and eye-popping differences in basic philosophies of how to play the game, there is a yawning chasm between Asian and US baseball, and Kim is caught right smack in the middle of it.  You Gotta Have Wa is a great introduction to some of these differences.

Mariano Rivera, computers and kids in Panama: a winning combination


Tonight is the official inauguration of the opening of two Computer Clubhouses in Panama, with the support of Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees and the Intel Corporation.  The Sports for Development Foundation worked over the last two years to help make this happen, so I am very pleased to finally see the Clubhouses open and to know that the official festivities are happening tonight.  The official press release gives some more details about the program, Mariano’s involvement, and the background of Intel’s support. 

I am most excited by the nature of this collaboration — bringing a major sports figure, a large IT multinational, and an established and reputable not-for-profit organization together to accomplish tangible, positive goals for youth.  I think this is a great model for other international development activities, and channels important synergies and complementary skills and core competencies to bear on the pressing problem of the lack of opportunity for most Panamanian kids.  The truly unique and special part of this collaboration, however, has been Mariano Rivera.  It would not have been possible without Mariano’s tremendous dedication to helping others, his desire to give back to his country, and of course his unbridled enthusiasm and focus.

Leonel Wins! Regime change in the Dominican Republic


Yesterday’s presidential election in the Dominican Republic has led to the election of former President Leonel Fern

Mondesi’s legal issues in DR may create ripple effect


I’ll bet there is a lot of nervousness among Dominican baseball players this week after Raul Mondesi was placed on the restricted list by the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is a result of a lawsuit by former major leaguer, and current buscon (Dominican rogue/official/unofficial, depending on the situation, talent scout) Mario Guerrero, who alleged that he is owed around $640,000 by Mondesi because of a verbal agreement made years ago that Mondesi would give Guerrero a certain percentage of his total earnings because of training that Guerrero gave him. When this was backed up by witnesses, a Dominican court ruled in favor of Guerrero. Subsequent to this, Mondesi’s bank accounts were frozen in the Dominican Republic and the Pirates ended up witholding his pay.

Most, if not all, players coming from the Dominican Republic were originally “discovered” by some kind of buscon. These may have been family members, neighbors, friends of friends, total strangers, or a more or less more formal scout linked to a major league team. It really runs the gamut. While many buscones are legitimate, responsible people, there are also some buscones who are pretty sketchy. From my understanding, from accounts from people who have known Mario Guerrero in his buscon phase of his career (including at least one former State Department official who used to deal with Mario Guerrero on visa issues for his players…), Mr. Guerrero is a pretty shady character.

Who knows what the truth is at the bottom of this mess — it is unclear what the relationship between the Dominican court decision and the Pirates’ actions is, the legitimacy of the court ruling (in a country where the rule of law is questionable and the court systems are consistently under serious pressure to clean up their act), and certainly what the details are of the court case that started this.

But what is not in doubt is the almost lawless, frontier aspect of scouting in the Dominican Republic, that leads to the “discovery” of many of MLB’s biggest stars.

As Dominican (and other Latin) players begin to search their memories for any promises made, or to consider the potential for claims against them from people in their past, and move what money remains in Dominican banks (which after last year’s banking crisis can’t be many — what was Mondesi thinking?) to the US or elsewhere, the big question is what the potential for “copycat” or real claims against them might be. No one got where he is today without doling out plenty of favors to plenty of people.

Many of the people who really deserve it already have received or continue to receive the financial and prestige benefit from the stars who made it, in the complex network of patronage that surrounds most Dominican players. But what about those who feel they have been left out, or maybe have purposely have been left out for whatever reason?

Just like the crazy litigation in the US (think about the multi-million dollar case with McDonalds and the spilled coffee…) over many issues, there is real potential for a wave of similar litigation breaking out in the DR alleging all sorts of monies owed for services rendered. The impact on Dominican players, in terms of time and money, could be tremendous. And it could also force MLB’s hand in making some order and sense of the buscon system.

This is just one more thing to distinguish how the Latin players are different from most US players in the big leagues. In many cases, the Dominican and other players have come from places of such poverty and with so few opportunities that it is beyond the realm of understanding of most US players and certainly the majority of US fans of MLB. To get where they are, these players had to really persevere and fight to get where they are.

At one stage, the buscon was a tremendous help in getting them here. Now it could be that we are entering a new stage in which these players, rightly or wrongly (it really is hard to know in the Mondesi case without knowing the details), are going to have to pay back their debts back more publicly and more broadly. It could get ugly for a lot of players.

Manny Ramirez and the Dominican Diaspora


Congratulations are certainly due to Boston Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramirez, who missed tonight’s game against the Cleveland Indians to attend his naturalization ceremony in Florida. Manny first moved to New York City in 1985, when he was 13 years old, and now makes his primary residence in Boston with his wife.

Manny is perhaps one of the most high-profile examples of Dominicans who are naturalized U.S. citizens or who are U.S. citizens of Dominican descent. But confusion reigns among many people, even the most astute of US baseball fans, of who is and who isn’t an American versus a Dominican or Mexican or Panamanian. The strangest, and saddest, confusion is over the Puerto Ricans in baseball, reflecting the tumultous and unresolved nature of the relationship of the United States with its most important territory. Perhaps confusion is perhaps to be expected in this era of blurred nationality, ethnic background and complex national allegiance, where stars such as Vin Diesel have been lauded and highlighted for breaking down ideas of fixed ethnicity, and sports stars like Alex Rodriguez ease in and out fluidly in both latino and anglo cultures.

But in the end, who cares about these things?

In the case of the Dominican Republic the nationality line certainly blurs. After all, former (and hopefully future, as of May 17) President Leonel Fernandez holds a green card after attending high school and living in New York City for a number a years. Dr. Fernandez has actively (and rightly) promoted increased ties among Dominicans and Dominican-Americans as a positive economic development strategy for his country.

The number of Dominicans in the northeast corridor of the United States is certainly impressive: over 600,000 Dominicans in New York, over 250,000 in northern New Jersey, over 40,000 in Lawrence, MA and over 40,000 in Providence, RI.

When well over 10% of a country’s total population actually lives in another country, as is the case of the Dominican Republic, interesting and challenging issues certainly arise.

Without really realizing it still, Major League Baseball has become a major vanguard of cultural, economic and social integration that the world is facing across a number of nationalities, races and sports. It is a pattern that is paradoxical in what generally is fans’ acceptance of a player regardless of race or ethnicity, but which still creates reactions, especially within the sport itself, of racism, bigotry and unfair judgement. That is one of the strange things about sports globally — many times it is the way that the general populace becomes exposed to other cultures, accepts them unthinkingly, yet later grapples with the implications.

David Ortiz speaks out on Dominican youth steroids use


Good for David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox for speaking out on the record in a piece earlier this week by Gordon Edes in the Boston Globe on the abuse of steroids by Dominican kids desperate to get ahead in baseball. This issue recevied some attention last summer when Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post highlighted the deaths of several Dominican youth who died after injecting themselves with animal steroids, but it is important for the Dominican players who have made it to the Major Leagues to take the lead on this issue. The hypocrisy and confusion in the Majors over the issue of steroids is bad enough with the controversy surrounding big league players, but where the impact of drug use is most tragic is in places like the Dominican Republic, where desperation combined with ignorance produce at best unhealthy kids and at worst, a contuing wave of overdoses and deaths.

Edes refers to new effots by Major League Baseball to begin steroids testing of Dominican signees who play in the Dominican Summer League. While this seems to be an improvement over the decidely ignorant and heartless reaction of MLB officials last summer who were confronted with this growing problem in the DR (to paraphrase an MLB official — “it’s not our problem”), let’s hope that there is also some consistency across the different levels of professional baseball as well as in the different recruiting venues for the majors. It would be good to know that the same rules are being applied to the high priced signees out of the Cape League as well as the bargain basement recruits from the Dominican Summer League, even if the same economic principles are not.

Great Resources on Dominican Baseball


As interest has grown on the growing numbers of Latin Americans, especially Dominicans, in the Major Leagues, I am often asked what the best resources are for finding out about the link between baseball and the DR.

There are a number of books that deal with Dominican baseball, but the best of the lot that I have come across is Rob Ruck’s The Tropic of Baseball. Unlike other books that exaggerate or demonize certain elements of the Dominican pastime, sports historian Professor Ruck provides a well-written and well-researched take on Dominican baseball that also provides a good background on Dominican history and culture.

I have been fortunate to have been tangentially involved in another production underway by Professor Ruck, who together with Daniel Manatt, Jose Mota and Christia Alou has been producing The Republic of Baseball: Dominican Giants of the American Game, a documentary dealing with the first big wave of Dominican talent to hit Major League Baseball in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Juan Marichal, Manny Mota, and Felipe Alou and his brothers Matty and Jesus…). The film has a great feel to it, and along with newly-rediscovered footage of Marichal’s legkick and other highlights of the past, it includes interviews with not only past-greats but current Dominican players that include Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada. They are in the final stages of production and are seeking distribution of the film. Hopefully we will see this great piece soon either on the air or in theaters!

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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