It’s easy to argue that baseball has yet to experience the success of exporting itself to the world that soccer or basketball has enjoyed. Soccer spans the globe and is rightly called the world’s game. Basketball is played professionally across Europe, Olympic Gold was recently won by Argentina and China’s passion for the game is growing with every point its native son Yao Ming scores for the Houston Rockets. But with the exception of a sprinkling of Asian countries and much of Latin America, baseball appears to be playing catch-up in the era of globalization.
It’s easier still to find fault with the game in its native country. Today, in the United States, where baseball as the national pastime is directly associated with patriotism and love of country, the U.S.-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reports that between 1987 and 2000 the number of teens playing baseball fell 47%, while the number playing youth soccer grew exponentially.
By 2002, 1.3 million more kids were playing soccer than Little League in the United States.
Proof of widespread steroid use has hung like a dark cloud over the game in past years, giving rise to embarrassing U.S. congressional hearings involving some of the sport’s biggest stars, and thoroughly disillusioned fans.
The game itself has slowed to a snail’s pace, players and management have become increasingly greedy and intractable, and in my hometown of Denver, the abysmal Colorado Rockies have had the gall to raise ticket prices. If baseball is faltering at home, what chance does it have for success abroad?
Perhaps more than one would think. In Santa Domingo de Heredia, north of San
José, ProPlayersAcademy is training a handful of young major-league hopefuls. Run by a trio of brothers, the academy has been in operation just 11 months, and has already had one prospect sign with the Minnesota Twins’ farm system.
Erick, Alfredo and Niels Arias all played baseball growing up. Erick reached so high as division-one college ball in the United States, where he played second base for the Florida State Seminoles. Now in their 30s and living in Heredia, the brothers started ProPlayersAcademy out of their love for the game, with the hope of honing the skills of young Latin American players while preparing them physically and mentally for the rigors of playing professionally.
For the moment, the academy is focused strictly on developing pitchers. On a Thursday morning under an uncharacteristically cloudy March sky, four young men played long toss, ran wind sprints, lunged with weights hugged to their chest and practiced their throwing mechanics in the hope of increasing their fastball by 10 mph or adding another inch of drop to their curve.
The players, who come from countries across Latin America, including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, were chosen during ongoing Pro Players tryouts based primarily on the prototype of what pro scouts in America look for when shopping for pitching: arm strength and height.
“Arm strength is the most important quality a pitcher can have,” said Erick, as he watched Alfredo raise the elbow of a player to give him a more direct delivery to the plate.“Height is something you can’t change. But we can improve a pitcher’s fastball by 1-1.4 mph every month if he pays attention and trains hard.”
The prospects present that day certainly complied with the latter. For adolescents, their strength was impressive and their work ethic even more so. They hardly rested as they moved from drill to drill, stopping only for swigs of water from a community jug resting in the shade of the dugout. Such dedication and hard work will be extremely important if these young hurlers are to achieve their goal of making it to the big leagues.
The climb to U.S. major-league baseball is one of the most arduous in sports. The farm system – the semi-pro league administered by the professional clubs and meant to develop future talent – is six-tiered, and virtually every big-league player must pass through its ranks at one time in his career.
Players are forced to endure long stints in Podunk towns such as Kingsport, Tennessee, or Bristol, Virginia, and many spend their entire baseball careers shuffling between minorleague clubs, earning anemic salaries and never making it to the pros.
After 90 minutes of drills aimed at increasing arm strength, flexibility and endurance, the players trotted over to a track adjacent to the baseball diamond for a two-mile run. Alex Torres, 16, a tall, hard-throwing Cuban who has lived in Costa Rica for six years and whom Pro Players coaches identify as one of their most promising prospects, was first to finish.
Wiping the sweat from his brow and massaging a cramp in his calf, he said the New York Yankees are his favorite team.
“They are the best,” Torres said between heavy breaths. “Jason Giambi is my favorite player, but I like Barry Bonds too.”
Erick and Alfredo have clocked this young pitcher at 80 mph; he wants to get up to around 87 or 88 mph, about the baseline for a major-league heater.
Torres was joined that day by fellow Cuban Ariel Pino and Ticos Alan Camacho and Yardan Zeledón. Their commitment to the game speaks, perhaps, to the sport’s health in Latin America compared to the United States (as might Mexico’s victory over the favored U.S. team in the recent World Baseball Classic).
Last month, baseball suffered another body blow in the land of its birth, with the release of “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, two writers for the daily San Francisco Chronicle. The book focuses on, among other things, Barry Bond’s alleged use of steroids and other banned substances over the past seven seasons.
Arguably the most dominant player of his generation, Bonds has hit more home runs than anyone in the history of the game besides Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. But now, like his once revered contemporaries Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmero, all of whom have been connected with the ongoing steroid scandal, Bonds and his records are debatable, if not disgraced.
Fortunately, this sordid controversy is a world away for the youngsters in Heredia. As the morning’s workout drew to a close, they turned their focus to the next day’s practice, and the ever-closer dream of one day wearing Yankee pinstripes.
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