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From The Archives: Peter Gammons On The Evolution Of The Latin Game

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Blue Jays infielder Damaso Garcia holds the bag as Paul Molitor steals second in a 1981 exhibition game. (Photo by Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This story originally originally appeared in the July 25, 1985 issue of Baseball America. 

Airline pilot Larry Taylor came back from running five miles through the streets of Santo Domingo one morning and rushed over to a group of American ballplayers around the pool of the Embajador Hotel.

“It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. I was out there for less than 40 minutes and I went by seven or eight games,” he exclaimed. “And I mean full-scale games. Every place there was an open field, there were kids playing baseball.”

“Back home,” quipped Expos pitcher Rick Grapenthin of Linn Grove, Iowa, “they’re all playing with their home computers.”

“That’s why this is where the talent is coming from today,” said veteran pitcher Mickey Mahler. “Let’s face it: The odds are stacked against those kids being the next Pedro Guerrero or George Bell. They have to overcome the language, the culture, the quotas and the prejudices. But the kids back home are watching MTV, dabbling in computers or playing soccer or basketball, and look at the impact Latins now have.”

Baseball may still be America’s national pastime; it passes time. But in the Dominican Republic and parts of many other Latin American countries, it is their national pursuit.

“It’s in a Latin kid’s blood more than it’s in our kids’ blood these days,” said White Sox manager Tony La Russa. “That’s why I believe that if you give a young Latin player the time to fully adjust to the culture—on and off the field—you’ll have someone who’s easier to manage than the American stars.”

***

In the last two years, Venezuelan Luis Aparicio and Dominican Juan Marichal have been voted into the Hall of Fame, and the impact of Latin America on the game has been striking.

The quota system imposed by the U.S. State Department (500 foreigners throughout organized baseball, including Latins, Australians, Canadians, et al.) has helped keep the actual numbers down, but only to a degree. In 1965, one of every 17 major league players was from Latin America; when the 1985 season opened, it was approximately two of every 17.

But look beyond the volume. The American League’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1984 was Detroit’s Willie Hernandez, a Puerto Rican. The major league home run and RBI champion was Boston’s Tony Armas, a Venezuelan.

The National League’s only 20-game winner was St. Louis’ Joaquin Andujar, and the majors’ ERA champion was Los Angeles’ Alejandro Peña; they’re both Dominicans. In fact, the NL’s second-leading winner was another Dominican, Cincinnati’s Mario Soto (18 victories), and Mexican Fernando Valenzuela was second in strikeouts.

And Philadelphia’s Juan Samuel, from the Dominican Republic, was second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Rod Carew may have been the only foreigner voted to the All-Star Game, but nine of the other 42 players selected to the squads were Latins.

***

“Twenty years ago,” said legendary 73-year-old Pirates scout Howie Haak, “only a few teams bothered with Latin America. The Griffith family (owners of the Washington Senators franchise that later became the Twins) had opened up Cuba, and the Reds, Dodgers and Pirates were in there until Fidel Castro closed it up; if he hadn’t done that, damn near half your all-star teams would be Latin.”

“The Giants, Pirates and, in the late ’60s, the Astros went into the Dominican, Panama and Venezuela. Now everyone’s down there. They’ve finally figured out that’s where the talent—especially the cheap talent—is.

“Problem is, most of them haven’t figured out what to do with the kids once they sign them.”

“Let’s face it, the talent pool in baseball is a lot different today than it was in the ’30s or ’50s,” said Toronto general manager Pat Gillick, who has been active in the Caribbean since he joined the Houston scouting department in the late ’60s. “Kids aren’t playing baseball in this country the way they used to.

“You have the draft, which restricts the competitiveness of the business. So you have to look for talent everywhere you can find it. It’s just too bad there are so many restrictions, because it used to be only a handful of clubs were involved. Now the 500 slots are spread out over 26 teams.”

***

Toronto is one of 13 clubs that have built complexes similar to the old Royals Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic; only the Dodgers, Phillies and Blue Jays had them three years ago.

Gillick has a part-time scout in Australia (which produced Dodgers Triple-A shortstop Craig Shipley) and in the last year his western scouting supervisor Wayne Morgan has been to Cuba, the Dominican, Alaska, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cold Lake, Alberta.

“You’re going to see teams try to use the Korean or Australian or any other markets as much a they can,” said Haak. “But Latin America is still the best breeding ground outside this country. It’s simple. When was the best time for developing white players in this country? In the Depression. Well, in the Dominican and parts of some other countries, they’re living in their own depression.”

***

Understand that any discussion of the history of Latin Americans in the major leagues has to be divided the way the history of Americans in the major leagues is divided—by white and black.

“There were many, many black Cubans as well as a few Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who could have played in the big leagues in the ’30s and ’40s,” said Dodgers Latin American scouting supervisor Rafael Avila, a Cuban now living in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. “But obviously they weren’t allowed to play in the States because they were black.

“Sure, when I was growing up, I knew the difference between a white Cuban and a black Cuban. But we didn’t have any problems. We blacks and whites lived together, played together, whatever. Americans were the only ones who had the problem.”

There were Cubans in the major leagues before World War I.

The first Puerto Rican, pitcher Hiram Bithorn, joined the Cubs in the ’30s; he, too, was white. “Most of the great players were black,” said Avila. “A lot of people still believe that the best Latin player ever was Martin Dihigo, a big (6-foot-4) center fielder/pitcher in the ’30s and ’40s.

“Luis Tiant’s father (of the same name) was one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. The best Latin hitter I ever saw was Santo Amaro, Ruben’s father (and grandfather to former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.). Branch Rickey wanted to break the color line near the end of World War II with Coco Garcia, a lefthanded pitcher from Cuba. But he was talked out of it.”

“In Cuba, like it became in the Dominican, baseball was built around the sugar mills,” said Avila. “That’s why those two countries got so well organized. Puerto Rico was more influenced by the United States, although they learned the game from Cuba. My country was by far the most developed in terms of baseball, although most of us were poor—but then hunger makes for better players.”

***

The leading importer of Cubans prior to Jackie Robinson was the Griffith family. “Clark Griffith had contacts there back in 1910,” said Calvin Griffith. “Then, when this country opened itself up to blacks, he had the best contact down there in Joe Cambria.”

“A lot of people resented Cambria because he signed so many players for the Griffiths (then in Washington) and so many got released,” Avila recalled, “but I don’t. He gave the opportunity to a lot of my people that no one else was willing to give.

“In the ’50s, the breeding ground came from the Havana Sugar Kings, owned by Bobby Maduro. In four years, they sent more than 30 players to the big leagues.

“Back then, the other American team that was active (in Cuba) was the Dodgers and Al Campanis. He went in and got Sandy Amoros, Chico Fernandez and a few other players.”

By 1959, Fidel Castro had taken over, and the last Little World Series was won by Havana over Minneapolis (managed by Gene Mauch, with Carl Yastrzemski at second base) with rings of armed guards in the outfield.

Avila originally had helped fight Batista but later tried to prevent Castro’s takeover and eventually was involved in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. “A lot of great players never got out when Castro closed it off in 1961, because you had to have family or friends in the States to qualify for a visa,” said Avila. “What a shame.”

Some families, like that of Boston minor leaguer Juan Bustabad, escaped in the mid-’60s. Otherwise, except for Barbaro Garbey of the Tigers, who was expelled with other boat people for fixing games, the door has been shut ever since.

***

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Where Are They Now? Juan Samuel

A prominent ex-player and coach, Juan Samuel would like one more shot at managing.

Campanis and the Dodgers found Roberto Clemente in a San Juan, Puerto Rico, suburb, then the Pirates’ Haak and Rickey stole him. The first Venezuelan had been Alex Carrasquel, imported by Griffith in 1939.

In 1950, his cousin Chico began his country’s real invasion and was followed in 1955 by Aparicio.

The Dominican Republic, however, remained closed. “(Dictator Rafael) Trujillo (who seized power in 1930) wouldn’t let any good players play for anyone but his club, Escogido,” recalled Haak. Trujillo, who named mountains, two provinces and a city after himself, made sure that one of two Ciudad Trujillo (now known as Santo Domingo) teams—Escogido or Licey—always won the Dominican championship.

In 1961, the CIA helped overthrow Trujillo, and the doors were opened. Actually, Haak had already sneaked in the door by stealing Julian Javier out of San Pedro de San Francisco, but the Giants had made the inroads through Trujillo and signed Marichal and the Alou brothers.

***

The Dominican Republic is the center of the talent today. “There are more players coming out of there than any place in the world,” marvels Avila, who runs the Dodgers complex in San Pedro.

“Remember what I said—hunger breeds ballplayers. They have a lot of others sports in Venezuela, and it’s hard getting around because the country’s so large. Puerto Rico is getting too Americanized. Kids want part-time jobs, not baseball. They want cars. When I was playing, my part-time job was baseball. Same with the kids on the streets of San Pedro or Santiago.

“Mexico is different because American teams have to buy the players from the Mexican League owners. Nicaragua looked as if it were going to become a major area because General Somoza pushed baseball so much, but the (Contra War’s) torn it apart.

“Panama has great leagues and great organization because of the Americans, but most of their players except Omar Moreno (and Juan Berenguer) moved to the States to play. Rod Carew and Ben Oglivie didn’t play in Panama. They played in New York. Colombia is still learning, although (Boston shortstop) Jackie Gutierrez is such a national hero he may have an effect on that country.”

***

Toronto scout Epy Guerrero claims that Aruba and Curacao may soon be prime baseball breeding grounds, and he has Rico Carty working for him in St. Maarten. But what frustrates Guerrero and Avila most is Cuba.

“They’ve got four or five players on their junior national team who could play in the big leagues with one spring training,” claims Avila. “Garbey couldn’t even make any of the all-star teams and he’s in the big leagues.”

Morgan spent a week there this winter for the Blue Jays. “The teams and players are taken care of by the government, like the Red Army club in hockey, I guess,” said Morgan. “They’ve got some great players, though.

“There’s one we like better than Shawon Dunston—and we really like Dunston (the Cubs’ rookie shortstop at the time who had been the No. 1 overall pick in 1982). They get 35,000-40,000 (fans) for tournament games, too. But the factories decide who gets the best seats. The best workers get rewarded with the best seats. If you’re lazy, like most of us, they stick you out in the bleachers.”

***

“Even when you’re making the big money, it’s different for a Latin than an American, and we all understand that,” said Toronto’s star (Dominican) second baseman Damaso Garcia. “I grew up idolizing Clemente. Here, I don’t think Clemente is a big hero at all. People used to say stupid things about him, like he wouldn’t play hurt or he was lazy. They didn’t say that about Mickey Mantle.

“The media creates images. I’m supposed to be ‘moody.’ Sure, I’m quiet, but all Latins are supposed to be ‘moody’ or ‘hot-tempered’ or ‘crazy,’ right? Ask Mario Soto or Andujar. They’re supposed to be crazy, aren’t they? When do you ever hear about Latins being leaders on a team? But ask Willie Stargell about Clemente.”

Or ask about Armas. Or Marc Sullivan and Tony Torchia about Gutierrez in the minors. Or anyone about Alfredo Griffin. “He was (a leader),” said Garcia,  “but when he got traded, people said I’m so moody that I wouldn’t be a good player without Alfredo. I read that a number of places. As if I can’t take care of myself.”

(Editor’s note: Blue Jays teammates Garcia and Griffin formed the first Dominican double-play duo in major league history in 1980.)

“Damaso’s a proud man,” said Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox. “He’s going to prove his point, whether the public knows it or not.”

“Wouldn’t you think that the United States would try to encourage some sort of world tournament?” asks Gillick. “The idea would be to have two levels of the tournament, situate the ‘A’ group some place like Caracas, keep the U.S. government and the commissioner’s office out of it and have an eight-country tournament after the World Series involving the United States, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Korea and Cuba. It’d be similar to hockey’s Canada Cup.”

“Castro would love it,” insisted Guerrero. “Why can’t baseball really be an international sport? Why does it always have to be controlled out of New York?

“And who knows? In a short series, a pitching staff of Andujar, Soto, Pascual Perez, Peña and Jose DeLeon might beat anyone.”

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