Will Brazil be baseball’s next frontier?

Yan Gomes knew the idea was to hit the ball and run. That much he’d gotten down pat, although the rest was a mystery. He was like any other Brazilian kid, growing up with soccer written in his genetic coding. But because of a nudge from his father, Gomes was giving a shot to that strange sport from a far-away country. Way up north.

And man, was it foreign. Gomes had “no idea” who Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were.

Joe DiMaggio?


Mickey Mantle?

“Never heard of him.”

History lesson over and done with, Gomes at least was able to hit the ball – and then ran the wrong way.

Fast-forward some 20 years, and that first-timer from São Paulo has done plenty more than learn the rules. Gomes is the Indians’ No. 1 catcher and one of only three major leaguers from Brazil, along with the Royals’ Paulo Orlando and the Marlins’ Andre Rienzo. Eight others are currently in the minors.

“Just having those players in the major leagues has helped a lot with the media, getting baseball on TV,” said Jorge Otsuka, president of the Brazilian Baseball Federation. “The kids that are now playing, they can use Brazilian major leaguers as role models to inspire them. Their countrymen have been successful and are earning a lot of money. It’s an incentive to be like them.”

Can the trend continue? Is it realistic to think there’ll someday be one or two Brazilian-born players on every roster – not unlike, say, the number of Japanese players in the majors?

The answer is yes. If a cautious yes.

“We haven’t turned on the spigot on the player pipeline from Brazil yet,” said Chris Park, senior vice president of MLB International. “Brazil is interesting because it sits in a cross-section of lots of opportunities in Latin America. There’s a lot of room for growth.”

The demographics alone say Brazil will be baseball’s next frontier: At roughly 204 million, its population is not only the largest in Latin America, but it’s also nearly twice that of Mexico.

Just as significantly, 62 percent of Brazilians are 28 or younger, which makes for a near-limitless talent pool of athletes. MLB established a national training center there in 2010, where an elite academy is formally teaching kids how to play. But Brazil has a long way to go before it catches up to the Dominican Republic or next-door Venezuela. Unlike those countries. Brazil is historically, inextricably, passionately bound to soccer.

More than 2 million play the sport professionally in Brazil, scattered among 29,000 clubs throughout the country. Another 10,000 Brazilians play internationally, and as for the number of kids who play soccer recreationally, in school or in the street … well, good luck trying to count.

Gomes readily concedes: “Soccer will never (diminish) in Brazil. It’s like asking Americans not to watch football on Sundays. But the door is open to baseball down there. Brazilian culture is so passionate. If you get it going in the right direction, it’s going to roll.”

There are unmistakable signs of Brazil’s growing curiosity about baseball. Thanks in part to Gomes’ success with Cleveland, Brazilians are eagerly watching on TV. FOX and ESPN combine to broadcast eight games a week, and ratings have doubled since 2012.

Of course, it’s one thing to draw folks to the flat screen, quite another to steer soccer prospects — which is to say, the most talented young athletes — toward baseball. But Brazil got a head start in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, stunning Panama in the qualifying round before finally succumbing to tournament powerhouses Japan and Cuba.

Many of the players on that 2013 WBC team were of Japanese descent, which was no coincidence. Baseball’s growth in Brazil has been driven by the descendants of the quarter-million Japanese who immigrated to Brazil more than a century ago. They brought their love of baseball to Latin America, where it remained strong. Today, some 1.6 million Brazilians can trace their roots to Japan, a majority of which live in São Paulo, the country’s biggest city and its baseball capital. Not surprisingly, Gomes, Orlando and Rienzo all hail from there.

With those three as role models, the next step, observers say, is to make baseball attractive to Brazil’s indigenous athletes.

Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who managed the Brazilian team in the WBC, said: “The kids who play soccer and then give baseball a try, they end up becoming skilled because they’re so good on their feet. It gives them a huge advantage. That’s why we’re hoping baseball can become a viable alternative, as opposed to beating your head against the wall (with soccer).”

Indeed, Gomes, whose family moved to the U.S. when he was 12, played baseball in high school and pursued his interest at the University of Tennessee. Unlike the sport he grew up with as a boy, he said: “Baseball was going to give me a (college) education, and that’s something soccer can’t do in Brazil.”

Not that Gomes didn’t appreciate baseball on its own. Those early days, running the bases in the wrong direction, would’ve never happened if his father hadn’t been friends with a Cuban coach who offered to teach the younger Gomes how to play.

“I kind of fell in love from the get-go,” Gomes said, even as the strange new sport set him apart from almost everyone else in São Paolo. There was something thrilling about using his arms and hands as opposed to just the feet. And Gomes’ eventual size didn’t hurt either – today he stands at 6 feet 2 and 215 pounds, considerably larger than the average Brazilian male, who is only 5-8.

“Technically,” Otsuka said, “the level of play here is growing quite a bit, although the number of players hasn’t grown that much yet. But there are projects now in schools around the country – here in Sao Paulo, in the northeast, in Rio Janeiro – where baseball is part of the curriculum. One of these programs already has 1,000 kids.”

For its part, MLB is ready to embrace a new demographic, both in the stands and on the field. Brazil has the largest economic footprint in Latin America, even though its people are separated by a language barrier. If Gomes has one regret about playing ball in the U.S., it’s that he has no one to converse with in Portuguese.

Still, it’s a small surcharge for being a pioneer. Gomes, Rienzo and Orlando represent the first wave. Another is coming.

“The fact that I’m even doing an interview about baseball in Brazil is a good sign,” said Gomes. “If the scouts find one or two more guys, another Paulo Orlando, things are going to change down there. It’s going to be great.”