Brazil developing baseball talent

Andres Reiner was right about Venezuela.

He was an executive with the Navegantes del Magallanes, one of the most storied franchises in the Venezuelan Winter League, during the 1970s. He knew the breadth of the country’s baseball talent. So, he wrote up his proposal to start a baseball academy, tied to one major-league franchise. There would be dormitories and fields, the incubators for a dream. He offered the concept to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They said no. Too much money. So, he asked the Houston Astros. They said no, too. But then they changed their minds.

The Astros’ academy opened in Valencia on Aug. 1, 1989, with an annual operational budget of $17,000. It was one of the wisest line items in baseball budgetary history. Over nearly two decades, the complex witnessed the earliest professional days of Johan Santana, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Bobby Abreu and Richard Hidalgo — all of whom signed with the Astros.

Reiner is retired now, after spending several years with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Astros closed their famed academy in Venezuela, even though the country ranks third in the world — behind only the U.S. and Dominican Republic — in active major leaguers. There are always new places to find baseball players, and Reiner has a strong opinion as to where that new land will be.

“I will tell you, this is something I have studied for the last 10 years,” Reiner told me during an interview this winter. “The biggest new market for baseball nowadays is Brazil. It has (about 200 million people), and they are really good athletes.

“There is very little baseball there now, but if organizations want to spend a little bit of money and put academies there, with high-level leagues, and get people and kids to play the game, I can assure you that in 10 years there will be so many players you will not have room for them all.”

If the World Baseball Classic is any indication, Brazil already has arrived on the international baseball scene. Brazil held a one-run lead over Japan with six outs to play in Saturday’s WBC opener before Japan rallied for a 5-3 win. Still, Brazil sent a strong statement by hanging with the two-time defending WBC champion, pitch for pitch, in a game played on Japanese soil in Fukuoka.

The narrow defeat was the latest sign of progress for a team that reached the field of 16 with a shocking 1-0 win over Panama in the final of last November’s qualifier. Regardless of how Brazil fares in this WBC, its mere presence in the tournament could reverberate for decades — particularly if the qualifier victory over Panama inspired young Brazilians to pick up a baseball bat one afternoon rather than kick a soccer ball.

“It doesn’t have to eclipse soccer, but it has to be noticed more,” said infielder/catcher Yan Gomes, who was born in Sao Paulo but moved to Miami at age 12. “It’s not a competition of which sport is greater for Brazil. To become greater than soccer in Brazil, baseball would have to go a long, long way. The goal should just be to notice baseball more, for the kids to see another sport in Brazil.”

Gomes drove in the lone run in Brazil’s clinching triumph over Panama — which was actually the second time Brazil beat the host nation during the qualifying round. “We had everybody against us, but at the same time cheering for us,” Gomes recalled last month. “It was great to see how guys reacted to it. We were showing how talented our country was. People didn’t expect us to win a single game in that tournament, then to see the respect we were getting because of how we played in a tournament with teams like Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama. I took a step back and realized, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good right now. This could be huge for us.’”

With the Toronto Blue Jays last year, Gomes became the first Brazilian-born player to reach the big leagues. Gomes, since traded to Cleveland, decided against rejoining Team Brazil this month, preferring to remain with the Indians through spring training in an effort to make the Opening Day roster — which would be another first for Brazilians in baseball.

The presence of Hall of Famer Barry Larkin as the national team’s manager has lent major-league cachet to the sport in Brazil. And then there’s left-handed pitcher Luiz Gohara, the only player not from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela to appear on Baseball America’s list of the top 20 international prospects eligible for last July’s signing date. Gohara is only 16, but the Seattle Mariners are so high on him that they awarded him an $880,000 signing bonus, according to Baseball America.

Although Gohara may be the Brazilian prospect with the highest ceiling, 10 players on the WBC roster are playing for MLB affiliate clubs. While Brazilian fans can’t expect their national baseball team to compete on the same level as their national soccer team — yet — it’s obvious that the country has professional-caliber talent.

To think of it in a different context, what does it say about the potential of Brazil that the country’s minor leaguers nearly defeated an international baseball power like Japan?

“I know the buzz is huge,” Gomes said. “(The Brazilian people) are really excited about what’s happening. The game is growing. Whatever happens, I know we’ve made people proud. This is not the last time we’ll make it. This is only the beginning.”

It’s important to note that baseball isn’t a new phenomenon in Brazil. In fact, the sport has been popular for decades among the large Japanese population that began immigrating to Brazil more than a century ago. Traditionally, the best players in Brazil — whether of Japanese or European descent — have sought to play in the Japanese professional leagues. Because so many of the country’s baseball players are Japanese-Brazilians, the Japanese style of play has heavily influenced Team Brazil.

So, it was only fitting that Brazil’s first game would be against Japan.

“Watching Japanese players play, they respect the game so much, and that has evolved in the Brazilian game,” Gomes said. “It’s been developed in the Japanese culture, how we play the game in Brazil. We don’t just turn it around and make it ‘Brazilian’ baseball. It’s more Japanese.

“Having Barry Larkin as our manager has brought some of the American style, but he doesn’t want to take away the Japanese style, either. There’s a respect and loyalty to the game that comes from both sides.”

So what’s next? First, Brazil must try to secure one of two bids out of Pool A — a difficult task, considering Japan and Cuba are in the same group. Longer term, though, the country will need baseball infrastructure — the sort Reiner developed in Venezuela more than two decades ago. (The Rays, in fact, have tried to establish such an academy there, although the plan hasn’t come to fruition yet.)

And for all the disappointment surrounding baseball’s absence from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there might be a little serendipity in those Games: When the torch is extinguished, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for MLB teams to examine the possibility of converting some of the Olympic facilities into baseball academies?

If that happens, then it will be time to find the last ingredient.


“I know (the wins over Panama) opened eyes and took a huge step in the right direction for the kids coming up,” Gomes said. “If they just try it, they might love it. Then next thing we know, we may have the next great player coming from Brazil.”