Marlins newcomer Andre Rienzo paving way as Brazilian-born big leaguer
JUPITER, Fla. — The Miami Marlins clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium resembles a mini United Nations this spring training.
Scattered among the Americans, Venezuelans and Dominicans are Ichiro Suzuki (Japan), Jhonatan and Donovan Solano (Colombia) as well as Adeiny Hechavarria (Cuba).
Then there’s right-hander Andre Rienzo, an example of MLB’s increasing effort at globalization.
Rienzo grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he learned to love baseball over soccer — in what many consider the mecca of The Beautiful Game.
A brief history lesson would explain his choice: When the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908 in search of fortune as farmers, they introduced the sport of baseball. According to a 2008 article by the Japan Times, Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. The largest concentration within the country can be found in Sao Paulo.
Following his parents’ divorce, Rienzo’s mother decided it was best to follow the "Japanese way" of living to keep the family away from trouble.
So his mother played softball. He and his two older brothers became the first Brazilians to play baseball in their area. A Cuban pitching coach would teach Rienzo how to throw his four-tool arsenal consisting of a fastball, cutter, changeup and curveball.
"I love to play," Rienzo said. "In Brazil, you pay for play. You don’t play to get paid. Most of the people in Brazil play baseball because they respect and love the game. I learned to respect the game from the Japanese a lot. You start to respect and understand it more and love it more and more.
"I like to be part of the team, and I’m in the middle of the diamond. I see behind me I have my team. I have my teammate in front of me. I like to be part of the team and help the team the most I can."
When a scout from the Chicago White Sox signed Rienzo in 2006, it validated his decision to concentrate on baseball.
From there, he spent 2007-08 in the Dominican Republic summer and winter leagues, where he learned to speak Spanish. Rienzo quickly discovered that the two countries differed in their views of the sport. Though Brazil considered it more "for fun," Dominicans saw it as a profession.
"It wasn’t frustrating or intimidating," Rienzo said of the competition. "Baseball is still the same, just different people. The game is always the same. I go there and show my game. Glad I showed good (enough) to be here today."
Rienzo pitched in each level of the White Sox organization — also learning English during this time — until his big-league call-up July 30, 2013, against the Cleveland Indians. He allowed three runs on six hits with six strikeouts and three walks over seven innings for a no decision.
On Aug. 21, 2013, Rienzo became the first Brazilian-born pitcher to start and win a major-league game, giving up two runs on five hits over six innings at Kansas City. In 10 starts as a rookie, Rienzo went 2-3 with a 4.82 ERA over 56 innings. Over 18 appearances (11 starts) in 2014, he posted a 4-5 record and 6.82 ERA in 64 2/3 frames.
Veteran Jake Peavy became Rienzo’s mentor during their overlapping time with the White Sox. Despite the ups and downs, the big-league experience became invaluable for Rienzo.
"That was really good, because some guys play a long time and talk to the rookies," Rienzo said. "Really good feeling for a rookie to have somebody explain things to you. The passion — I’m human, so I make a lot of mistakes, and I need to learn to take the mistakes out of my mind. I can’t control what happens, just control what it comes from. I think that’s the most important thing I learned."
The 26-year-old has had to make an even greater adjustment this winter. The only organization Rienzo knew — the one that discovered him on another continent and eventually brought him up to the majors — traded him to the Marlins for lefty Dan Jennings. He is grateful to both teams for the opportunities.
Rienzo couldn’t believe his luck Thursday morning before a team meeting. On the opposite side of the clubhouse sat Suzuki. Rienzo’s friends have texted asking for autographs. Suzuki, considered an idol and a hero in Brazil, impacted many Brazilians’ view of baseball, including Rienzo’s.
Perhaps one day Rienzo can be that for kids in Brazil who want to give a sport other than "futebol" a try. Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes is the only other Brazilian-born player on a 40-man roster. Both are trailblazers.
"It’s getting better," Rienzo said of baseball in Brazil. "Barry Larkin went there for four years already. LaTroy Hawkins went there for major-league camp. That helps Brazil a lot to make baseball grow up. Baseball isn’t still a big sport in Brazil, but maybe soon."