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Latino Impact On USA Baseball Is Major League PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 19 September 2013 03:30

The Number Of Players, Fans Continues To Grow

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Best In The Game -- Miguel Cabrera, being congratulated after hitting a home run, is considered the best hitter in the major leagues. Last year Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and RBIs.

This is the third and final part in a series on Latinos and baseball.

Take a look around Major League Baseball in the USA today and what do you see? An international game of diversity, with players from every hue of the human rainbow.

Of the 856 players on the 2013 Opening Day 25-man rosters and inactive lists (750 active and 106 disabled or restricted major league players), 241 – representing 15 countries and territories – were born outside the USA. That percentage, 28.2, is the fourth highest of all-time since the game began tracking such data in 1995, according to MLB officials. That's not even counting those players born in the USA whose surnames suggest they came from somewhere else.

AP Photo

An Iconic Pirate -- The late Roberto Clemente recorded 3,000 hits in 18 seasons with Pittsburgh and was on two World Series championship teams. He was the first Latino elected to baseball's Hall of Fame..

And there's never been a better time to be a Latino ballplayer. "We are currently in the golden age of the Latino impact in organized baseball," notes Anthony Salazar, a Latino baseball historian and member of the Society For American Baseball Research. "We have nearly a third of all major league ballplayers being of Latin descent.

And nearly half of all minor league players are of Latin descent."

Salazar is not the only person unsurprised by what is happening.

"If you take a look at All- Star rosters, the majority of both sides were peppered with Latinos," said Tomas Benitez, a Dodgers blogger and a cofounder of the Latino Baseball History Project of the Baseball Reliquary.

"And it's not just players from Mexico. The islands – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic – have been critical…when Mexicans came over here from the 1910 Revolution, they didn't come over playing soccer. They were playing baseball. Soccer was a club sport. Baseball had a whole subculture of leagues, teams, and parks for years before soccer had the same kind of infrastructure."

Indeed, the historical presence of Latinos in American baseball runs long and deep. But what has emerged over the past 15-20 years is a level of depth on the playing field that doesn't seem close to reaching its peak.

For example, Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers last year became the first hitter since 1967 to win the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and RBIs. He began this week owning the best batting average in baseball (.350) and RBIs (133), and would be chasing a second straight triple crown were it not for injuries and the tremendous home run season produced by Baltimore's Chris Davis.

Cabrera is considered the best hitter in the game today. The man he replaced? Albert Pujols, now with the Angels, who won two World Series rings and three MVP awards with the St. Louis Cardinals. They are not alone. At the beginning of this week, 20 of the top 50 hitters in the majors were Latino.

The arms are also plentiful. Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez had the second best earned run average (2.19) in baseball behind the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (1.94). Jorge De La Rosa of Colorado, and Francisco Liriano of Pittsburgh were tied for fourth in wins with 16. Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera will retire after the season as the all-time leader in saves. And so on.

This is not an aberration, a blip or a trend. The MLB landscape is undergoing a shift in the style and faces of the game. And the party – make that fiesta – shows no signs of stopping.

A Brief Historical Rundown

Nemesio and Ernesto Guilló first introduced American baseball to Latin America in 1864 in Cuba with the foundation of the Habana Baseball Club, according to most historical accounts. Other Latino countries took to the game; Mexico was introduced to it in 1882, Nicaragua in 1888, and Venezuela starting its own league in 1895.

Esteban Enrique Bellán of Cuba became the first Latino player to play for a professional team when he played for the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals of the old National Association, a precursor to the National League. Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who both joined the Cincinnati Reds of the National League in 1911, are considered the first Latinos to play in what was now considered Major League Baseball.

The first Latino star was Adolfo Luque, who won 27 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1923 and played for 20 years from the late 1910s through the 1930s. Though Luque was successful, many other Latino players of that era were not as fortunate, with brief and undistinguishable careers in the late 1910s and 1920s. And only light-skinned Latinos were given an opportunity to play. Dark-skinned Latinos could play in the Negro Leagues.

In 1949 Minnie Minoso became the first dark-skinned Latino to sign with a major league team (Cleveland), and broke into the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1951. He would help open the door for others like Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal, who had Hall of Fame careers with Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco.

Baseball Academies

Still, in the 1950s and 1960s, very few Latino players were stars. But the seeds to bring about a change were soon being planted.

"In the mid-1970s, MLB had already experienced the first 2-3 waves of Latino players," said Marcos Breton, a Sacramento Bee columnist and author of the book, "The Life and Times Of A Latin Ballplayer."

"But those 1970s teams noticed a lot of talented players were failing in the minors for various reasons, like not properly assimilating into American culture, and it was something the teams then were not equipped to deal with. There had to be a smarter way to approach it. Free agency was also starting, and some teams felt Latino players were a cheaper alternative."

One solution, Breton said, was to build and develop baseball academies, first in the Dominican Republic and then Venezuela.

"The Dodgers were the first to do it (in 1987), then the Toronto Blue Jays," Breton said. "Both teams had scouts familiar with Dominicans, and those scouts sold their teams on building academies on the island to house players, feed them, drill the players on the game, also teach them rudimentary English, and talk to them about things about America they need to be aware of."

Some players who came from the academy and made it to the Dodgers include Raul Mondesi, Pedro Astacio, and Pedro Martinez, although Martinez would have his best years with the Boston Red Sox.

"Baseball is like all businesses; if one succeeds with something, everyone else jumps in," Breton said. "Just about every team now has an academy in the Dominican or Venezuela. Teams realized they needed Spanishlanguage coaches at the developmental levels, and the more money they invested into the academies the more they want them to work."

But it's not all about practical application. Salazar points out that in several Latino countries, aspiring players are taught to know and appreciate those who came before them.

"(Former) players like Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente are looked upon as incredible pioneers that kids look up to," he said. "It's incredible the way pioneers are revered in those countries. I don't know if you find something similar here, if kids talked about Reggie Jackson and Nolan Ryan in the same way."

Growth Continues

In 1990, Latinos represented 13 percent of major league baseball players. By 1997 that number had increased to 24 percent surpassing the amount of African-American baseball players (17 percent) in the Major Leagues.

"Conditions are much better for Latino players than even 20 years ago. Clubs make interpreters available, and have classes in the minors on American culture, helpful phrases to use, and on American life. The transition is easier," Salazar said.

The growth is not only on the field, but also the stands, especially in big cities like Los Angeles and New York.

"The Dodgers have done a brilliant job of marketing," Benitez said. "There's an old saying; 'If you want people to come, you have to invite them.' They want Latinos to come to the ballpark. The Dodger model (of promotions aimed specifically toward the Latino audience) is very successful and only getting better."

"And if you look at the shifting demographics at where Latinos are living," adds Salazar, "you see interesting pockets in Utah, Indiana, and North Carolina where those minor league teams have Latino promotions. You see it with major leagues. That is part of the evolution.

Clubs recognize the buying power of Latino fans, especially in New York, L.A., Miami – even Seattle. Also indicative is how those clubs are leveraging their social media presence, too, with Facebook and other websites in Spanish to complement the Spanish radio and TV broadcasts."

That doesn't mean all is well. Salazar said more Latinos should be considered for manager and front office jobs. Benitez voiced concerns that the academies can also create false hopes for becoming a major leaguer.

"There is such a fanatical desire to escape rampant poverty, the kids there are exploited in that (teams) bring in 100 and pick one," Benitez said. "If you don't cut it at the academy, they send you back to the sticks and you're left with nothing."

Still, for every Latino youngster who dreams of being another Clemente, Cabrera – even the next Yasiel Puig – there has never been a better time to make that dream come true.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 September 2013 03:35