MLB taking baseball around the world

Veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins hasn’t forgotten the lessons that helped him become a major league pitcher. And he remembers how they were taught.

“They explained pitching to me in basketball terms,” Hawkins said of Rick Tomlin, Dan Rohn and Rick Anderson, who managed and coached in the Minnesota Twins farm system during the 1990s. “They talked about touch and feel, like shooting a jump shot. That changed my career.

“Growing up, I was a basketball player. So they asked me, ‘How do you feel when you release a jump shot, when it’s going in every time? You can get that same feeling when you pitch.’ If you can get that big ball to go in the goal from 15 or 20 feet out, you should be able to throw the baseball where you want. When they explained it like that, the light bulb went on.”

Some two decades later, Hawkins is 40 years old and a veteran of 19 major league seasons. Very soon, he’ll have the chance to craft his own message for kids who might not have chosen baseball as their first sport.

No, Hawkins isn’t retiring. He plans to pitch again in 2014. (He compiled a 2.93 ERA in 72 appearances with the New York Mets this year and is now a free agent.) In February, though, he will travel to Ibiuna, Brazil, and work with 14- to 17-year-olds from Brazil, Argentina and Colombia as the pitching instructor at Major League Baseball’s Brazil Elite Camp.

Hawkins is among seven active major leaguers representing MLB abroad this offseason as ambassadors and instructors, in an initiative that will be formally announced later this week: Curtis Granderson, Chris Dickerson and Roger Bernadina will visit the Netherlands and France beginning this weekend; Jeremy Guthrie is traveling to three cities in China next month; Mark Melancon is scheduled to serve as a special guest instructor at the South African Elite Camp in December; and Yan Gomes — the first Brazilian-born player to reach the majors — will appear at promotional events and clinics in his native Sao Paulo.

Brazil is an emerging baseball country that impressed many observers with its showing under manager Barry Larkin at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Larkin, the Hall of Fame shortstop, also will serve as an instructor at February’s camp.) Gomes, a Cleveland Indians catcher, and fellow Sao Paulo native Andre Rienzo, a Chicago White Sox right-hander, both played in the majors this year.

So it’s possible that Hawkins is about to work with a young Brazilian player who will end up in the big leagues five or six years from now.

“Then I’d feel like my buddies who are scouts and have their first draftee make it to the big leagues,” Hawkins said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Hopefully, I will have told them something or showed them something that was useful. That would be very gratifying.”

Hawkins’ interest in promoting the game globally is an encouraging sign for the sport’s future, given his status as a respected voice within baseball circles and longtime member of the MLB Players’ Association executive board. After playing in the Puerto Rican and Venezuelan winter leagues early in his career, representing Team USA at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and traveling to Taiwan with an MLB All-Star team after the 2011 season, Hawkins has a firsthand understanding of the game’s international reach.

In fact, Hawkins said the Taiwan trip brought about a meeting with MLB International officials Mike McClellan and Jane Kim that led to the upcoming visit to Brazil. Whenever he retires as a player, Hawkins wants to continue with precisely the type of work he’s about to do there.

“I’m really looking forward to growing the sport around the world, to teaching some kids to play the game that has given me and my family so much,” Hawkins said. “I want to pass it down. I know in Uganda they’re playing baseball now. I would love to go there and coach some Ugandan kids. I’ve got some things I want to do. If MLB goes to Uganda one day, hopefully, I’m going to be one of the coaches.”

The upcoming trips are part of a busy 13-month period for baseball’s international growth. In March, the Dominican Republic won the third installment of the WBC with a wildly entertaining style of play, and the 2014 regular season will begin March 22-23 in Australia, with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers meeting in Sydney. The New York Yankees also are expected to travel to Panama for two spring training games in mid-March as a tribute to recently retired icon Mariano Rivera.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Red Sox closer Koji Uehara and Dodgers left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu as stars helped MLB achieve its highest television ratings in years among viewers in Japan and South Korea, respectively. According to MLB, 28.2 percent of all players on Opening Day rosters were born outside the U.S., fourth-highest all time.

“Just looking at the rosters of the teams today, you can tell MLB is doing a great job outside the U.S.,” Hawkins said. “A lot of guys from all over the world are playing the game, and now we’re trying to get even more.”