Andres Reiner, whose scouting acumen helped the Astros mine Venezuela for talent as no organization had before or since, died Wednesday night at the age of 81. Reiner, who was born in Hungary, scouted Venezuela for the Astros for 17 years, spearheading the organization's opening of a baseball academy in the South American country in 1989. Among the big leaguers the academy produced were Bob Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora and Johan Santana. Reiner, who also worked for the Reds and the Rays, retired in 2011. The Astros released a statement announcing his passing. "Andres Reiner was more than just a visionary in the world of baseball," said Carlos Alfonso, the Astros' coordinator of international development, who worked with Reiner toward the end of his Astros tenure. "He was a caring human being that made such an impact, not only with the number of players signed and developed by him, but also with the men and women that he touched in all walks of life. There are scouts, coaches, managers, general managers, athletic trainers and administrators to this day that are practicing things that Andres taught us. We have been blessed to have worked alongside him. My condolences to Carmina (his wife), his children and grandchildren."The following story originally ran in Baseball America in 2001, when Reiner had helped the Astros earn Baseball America's Organization of the Year award. By Milton Jamail
Since pitcher Alejandro Carrasquel made his debut with the Washington Senators more than 60 years ago, about 140 Venezuelans have played in the major leagues, and Astros scout Andres Reiner has signed 10 percent of them–in just the last 10 years, from 1991-2001. Reiner, a Venezuelan businessman who has been involved with baseball most of his life, wanted to open a baseball complex in Venezuela in the early 1980s. He proposed a program that would recruit, develop and prepare players to go to the United States. In 1984, he presented his plan to Astros farm director Bill Wood. "Andres and I had a relationship based on his assistance in placing players in winter ball. He sold his premise very well, and it struck a chord in my mind," said Wood, who was not able to act on Reiner’s proposal at the time. "I told him, ‘If you don’t sell this idea to someone else, there will be a receptive ear here in the future.’ " When Wood became the Astros’ general manager just before the 1988 season, he gave Reiner the green light to use his contacts in the business, baseball and university communities to put together the Academia de beisbol de los Astros de Houston. On Aug. 1, 1989, Reiner’s vision became a reality. Thirteen years later, the academy still sets the pace in Venezuela with results other organizations strive to achieve. Because the Astros were the first aggressive team in the revamped Venezuelan scouting market in the early 1990s and because they had early success, the organization and the academy acquired a local mystique. Three of the first four players Reiner signed–Roberto Petagine, Raul Chavez and Bob Abreu–made it to the major leagues. Six of the first 10 players signed reached the big leagues, cementing the Astros’ reputation. Churning Them Out
Reiner would bring in prospects, some as young as 14 or 15, and he and his staff would work on developing their skills. In January 1990, 16-year-old shortstop Raul Chavez was the first academy product to be signed. During the 1990s, of the 116 players signed out of the academy, 15 made it to the majors (all Venezuelans except Panamanian righthander Manuel Barrios); 50 remain in Organized Baseball. Current Astros alumni include outfielder Richard Hidalgo and lefthanders Carlos Hernandez and Wilfredo Rodriguez. Other players developed by the Astros include Abreu, who was left unprotected during the 1997 expansion draft and traded by the Devil Rays to the Phillies; Orioles shortstop Melvin Mora; and Mariners righthander Freddy Garcia and shortstop Carlos Guillen. Born in Hungary, Reiner came to Venezuela as a young boy in the mid-1940s. While he played only amateur baseball, he has devoted his life to the game. In the 1960s he was instrumental in moving the Magallanes baseball club from Caracas to Valencia, a move akin to taking the Giants out of the Polo Grounds and bringing them to San Francisco. In the 1970s, Reiner helped to establish the Valencia league of the Criollitos–the foundation of Venezuelan youth baseball. While working with Magallanes, he was involved in contacting players from the U.S. to play in Venezuela during the winter. Reiner, a special assistant to Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, now spends much of his time in the U.S. visiting all of the organization’s minor league affiliates. The day-to-day operation of the academy is in the hands of former major league pitcher Pablo Torrealba. Torrealba supervises a staff of instructors as well as a group of scouts–several of whom have been with the academy since its inception–who search for talent throughout Venezuela. Reiner is a frequent flyer between Houston and Venezuela, where he now acts more as a crosschecker. He still searches for players, working with Astros scouts and programs all over Latin America. Recent academy alumni in the Astros pipeline include second baseman Felix Escalona, 22, who hit .289-16-64 at Class A Lexington; catcher German Melendez, 20, who hit .279-1-37 in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League; and righthanders Fernando Nieve, 19, who went 4-2, 3.79 at Rookie-level Martinsville, and Edwin Aguilar, 21, who went 4-1, 3.08 in stops at Martinsville, short-season Pittsfield and Class A Michigan. Stakes Rise, So Does Talent
Reiner would argue that the players he has signed during the past two years rank as his best recruiting class. The Astros team that included most of those players captured the 2001 Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League title. Reiner believes the VSL team could have more than 10 future major leagues. Scouting in Venezuela has become more competitive. The Yankees paid $1.6 million in 1996 for outfielder Jackson Melian, a standard topped by the Marlins in 1999, when they signed shortstop Miguel Cabrera for $1.9 million. In contrast, Hidalgo signed with Houston for $20,000 in 1991. In addition, Major League Baseball instituted new regulations two years ago that allow a team to keep a player at an academy for just 30 days, after which he must be signed. But the Astros remain at the forefront in Venezuela and Reiner is the key to the success. Parents of young prospects feel comfortable speaking with him. "We tell the family from the very beginning that they will be able to sign for more money with another organization," Reiner said. "There is no reason to lie to them or let them think otherwise." Parents are aware that young men learn baseball and discipline at the Astros academy, and they have a real chance at reaching the major leagues. The numbers speak for themselves.