Play 'Pelota'! as Opening Day Nears, Major-League Teams Sign Up More Players Than Ever from Latin America. They're Good, Eager - and Relatively Cheap
Larmer, Brook, Newsweek
As opening day nears, major-league teams sign up more players than ever from Latin America. They're good, eager--and relatively cheap.
Cuban baseball player Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez had a right to feel a bit dazed when he touched down on American soil last week. Just three months ago, the ace pitcher was languishing in Havana, banned for life from Cuban baseball and working for $8 a month at a psychiatric hospital--a punishment, he says, for the 1995 defection of his half brother, Livan who led the Florida Marlins to victory in the World Series last October. After escaping from Cuba on a rickety boat and training for two months in Costa Rica, Orlando arrived in Miami with a $6.6 million contract from the New York Yankees--take that, Fidel!--and millions of new fans. El Duque autographed every baseball, Bible and dollar bill that was pushed at him. He laughed off questions about movie deals and endorsements. And he sobbed uncontrollably in the arms of Livan, whom he hadn't seen in nearly three years. At a private party later, under a sign that read Orlando `El Duque' Hernandez is free at last, he told NEWSWEEK: "I had to go out in search of my future, but I knew I would find it here."
Hernandez's progress toward "The Show," as players call the major leagues, is the latest sign that professional baseball is searching for its own future--and finding it in Latin America. Look around the ballparks on opening day next week, and you will see more Latin American players take the field than ever before. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of Latinos in the big leagues has nearly doubled, from 12 percent to about 20 percent. Teams have not made their final cuts yet, but players born in Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to surpass African-Americans this year as the largest minority group in the big leagues--and that's not counting the dozens of Hispanics born in North America, such as the Seattle Mariners' Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees' Tino Martinez. (Indeed, the two most common surnames in baseball, by far, are Rodriguez and Martinez.) "No team can succeed these days without going into Latin America," says Omar Minaya, the New York Mets' assistant general manager. "It has become one of our main bloodlines."
It's a question of supply and demand. During the past four decades, the leagues have expanded from 16 to 30 teams, but the pool of homegrown American players (and fans) has been shrinking as sports like basketball and soccer have grown in popularity. So every major-league club has gone overseas in search of fresh talent and markets. Foreign-born athletes now account for 36 percent of all players under contract, and they come from as far away as South Korea and Australia. But nowhere have teams found such a cheap and abundant supply of talent as in Mexico, Central America and the baseball-mad countries of the Caribbean basin. A record 709 Latin American players were signed by U.S. teams last year. The sandlots of the Caribbean have become for pro baseball what America's inner-city playgrounds are for basketball: frantic recruiting zones where scouts, agents and ball clubs vie for impoverished young standouts--with methods that often look like exploitation.
The fiercest competition is over talent from Cuba and the Dominican Republic where the passion for pelota was born alongside the American sugar mills more than 100 years ago. Cuba has officially been off-limits since 1962, when Fidel Castro banned professional sports on the island, but more than 30 players have defected in the past six years--and U.S. sports agents have secretly made contact with many more. The Dominican Republic, with a population of less than 8 million, now has more players per capita in the major leagues (89) than any American state, even California. …