Baseball isn't just America's sport anymore

Updated: July 6, 2007, 3:54 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In America, we can be such dopes sometimes.

Can't we ever wake up and see there's a world out there beyond our own nostril hairs, beyond our own city limits, beyond our own customs agents?

Can't we ever acknowledge there are sporting events that matter, even if they aren't known as "the World Series," or "the Super Bowl," or "the Stanley Cup"?

OK, guess not. Sorry. We thought we could appeal to your worldliness for a brief, insane moment.

But luckily, our audience here at ESPN.com extends beyond you goofy Americanos. Luckily, we don't have to explain the significance of the World Baseball Classic to the residents of Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or anywhere else in Latin America.

They get it.

They are, in fact, more than merely interested in the WBC. They're obsessed with it.

Listen to Venezuela's Carlos Guillen describe what is about to happen in his country in a few days, when Venezuela plays a first-round pool-play game against the Dominican Republic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., more than 1,500 miles from Caracas:

"They will have to close the streets in Venezuela," says the Tigers shortstop. "They will put televisions everywhere to [let people] watch that game. They will make parties. They may not go to work, because everybody is talking about the World Baseball Classic."

Get the picture?

But the feeling, of course, is mutual. Listen to Julio Lugo, a member of the Dominican's provisional roster, talk about what life will be like in his country:

"It's curfew time," the Devil Rays shortstop says with a laugh. "When baseball comes on, when that game comes on, it's going to be curfew. The whole Dominican Republic is going to be out to see that game. Believe me, nobody else is going to do anything but that. Even the president is going to be watching that game. I promise you."

In other words, if someone is interested in invading the country, uh, looks like game time would provide an excellent opportunity.

"Oh, yeah," Lugo jokes. "If somebody's thinking about it, that's a good time."

Stark en español
Read the Spanish version of this story on ESPNdeportes.com.
The real invasion, however, is coming when we least expect it. And it's an invasion that will involve bats and balls, not guns and generals.

What is actually being invaded here is America and its hold on its theoretical national pastime.

We're not sure exactly when this happened -- possibly while you were busy watching a Yankees-Red Sox game -- but this isn't just America's sport anymore.

It is Latin America's sport.

Latinos don't own it or dominate it -- yet. They don't outnumber big-league players from the U.S. of A. -- yet.

But they love it more than we love it. Their kids play it more than our kids play it. And they could be on the verge of making a dramatic announcement.

That announcement won't arrive in any press release, either. It could be coming to a World Baseball Classic ball field near you.

"For Latin Americans, this tournament can be a statement, a verification of their place in this game," says Sal Artiaga, a Latin American consultant for MLB and the Phillies' director of Latin American operations.

Here in the United States, we haven't contemplated yet what we will think or feel if a Latino nation wins this thing.

We certainly haven't envisioned what we will think or feel if the United States gets bounced, maybe even blown out, by a team from Venezuela or the Dominican, or even Cuba.

But those Latinos have thought about it. Have they ever.

"It will be like what happens when the American team goes to play in the Olympics, in basketball, and doesn't win," says Andres Reiner, a titan of Venezuelan baseball who now works for the Devil Rays as a special assistant for baseball operations. "That is when people realize these other countries can play, too. And the same thing will happen in baseball."

Whether it will happen in the next week, or the next month, he can't tell you and we can't tell you. That, we're obligated to say, is why they play.

But the way this tournament draw is constructed, two teams from Latin America are virtual locks to survive the first two rounds to reach the semifinals in San Diego.

And at that point, would you bet against a Venezuelan team that can pitch Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Freddy Garcia and K-Rod? Would you bet against a Dominican power plant with Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada and Moises Alou in the never-ending center of its lineup? Not a real smart idea if you ask us.

Almost no matter what happens from there, though, you would have to be blind, or have a remote control stuck on the mute button, not to realize what you are watching.

The term, "baseball game," won't be adequate to describe it. These games will be practically a cultural symposium -- where we provide the greatest Latino players of our time a monstrous stage to demonstrate what baseball means to them, versus what baseball now means to us.

"Our guys definitely play the game different," says Juan Samuel, scheduled to coach third base for the Dominican. "We're more flashy. We probably enjoy it more -- because that's all we do. … Kids in America are playing soccer, playing hockey, playing golf. You don't see guys from the Dominican playing in any pro-ams on the [golf] tour. You don't see guys from the Dominican getting scholarships to play golf."

Johan Santana
Based on the deals other less-talented pitchers have been able to swing, the Twins currently have Johan Santana at a bargain deal.
"In Venezuela, in the Dominican, in Colombia, in Panama, they love it," Guillen says, "because they don't have anything else to do. Everyone is either going to baseball games or trying to play baseball. You see kids in the streets playing baseball with paper balls, trying to make baseballs out of anything just to play ball in the street. There, they close the street to play baseball. Here, you're not going to see that."

Here, in fact, you barely see a decent high school baseball field, says Ruben Amaro Sr., who has spent his entire lifetime playing, coaching, scouting, managing and running teams in Latin America.

"You know, 45 years ago, when I played, the United States was untouchable," says Amaro, now a special instructor for the Phillies. "But people did not really take care of the game at the school level. When I was scouting [in the U.S.], everywhere I went, I saw a nice basketball arena and a nice football stadium. But the facilities for baseball were usually subpar. And even now, that really hasn't changed."

Add in all the other distractions that tore America's youth away from baseball, and we have essentially invited the rest of the world to charge in and take over. Well, it's happening.

At the end of last season, 42.6 percent of all minor-league players were natives of countries outside the United States. Nearly 80 percent of that total came from only two countries -- Venezuela and the Dominican. Those numbers just get larger every year.

The ratio of Dominicans to Venezuelans is now about 2 to 1. But the baseball explosion in Venezuela is so powerful, Reiner now predicts Venezuela will catch up in five years. There are so many kids playing baseball there now, he says, "I can't think of where all these players will go to play."

Amaro says that 30 years ago, if he told a Venezuelan parent his kid could be a baseball player, "he'd actually laugh at you." Now, he says, those parents are telling him, "My kid is 9 years old. He looks like he's going to be a professional baseball player."

So we can see the future, all right. And there is no doubt it is speaking español.

Which brings us back to the WBC. Where that future is about to arrive. Ready or not.

Don't think so? Look at the presence of Dominicans in this sport. Already.

"I think we've made a point," Lugo says. "We have a lot of stars. Like last year, we had two MVPs [Pujols and A-Rod]. We almost had a rookie of the year [Willy Taveras and Robinson Cano both finished second]. I think we've come a long way."

And the Venezuelan tidal wave has hit, too. A Venezuelan (Bobby Abreu) won the Home Run Derby last year. A Venezuelan (Ozzie Guillen) managed the World Series champs. And Venezuela just won the Caribbean Series for the first time in 17 years, beating the Dominican on a two-run rally with two outs in the ninth inning.

By any measure, those Caribbean Series games meant less than these WBC games will mean. But you can still hear the quiver in the voice of anyone who witnessed the electricity of those games.

"I saw some things in the Caribbean Series; it was amazing," says Ramon Henderson, the Dominican's WBC bullpen coach. "It's in our blood, the passion for the game."

And when he describes that passion, he means more than merely the passion of those who play the games. The passion of those who only watch the games runs just as deep. Maybe deeper. And that's a constant throughout the Latino world.

"I felt more pressure playing my first [winter-league] game in Caracas than I did in my first game in the big leagues," Carlos Guillen says. "People are more crazy there, more excited. Caracas against Magallanes in Venezuela is like Boston and the Yankees here -- maybe better. My first at-bat, I had to call timeout. I couldn't even think. Here, I feel more relaxed. There, if you make an error, they might throw something at you from the stands. Here, it's different. Not as much pressure."

So if there's more pressure on these men playing winter ball than there is playing in the major leagues, imagine the pressure being applied now, on the eve of the WBC. Any player who drops out knows he can go from hero to traitor in 30 seconds.

And if he begs off and his team (gulp) loses, uh-oh. He'd better do a lot of praying.

"They're going to feel guilty in their heart if their country loses to someone they should not get beat by," says Carlos Ledezma, Venezuela's clubhouse manager for this tournament. "If that happens, they've got to live their life with that regret.

"People will take it very personally. It will be in the history that they lost because they didn't have a left fielder or a cleanup hitter or a closer. The record will testify to what they did."

This isn't exactly: "Oh, well. We'll get 'em next time." We're talking "guilt in their heart." Whew. Obviously, the Venezuelan players, in particular, don't need to have that message translated.

The only prominent Venezuelan who has dropped out is Melvin Mora, who had understandable concerns about having to play center field instead of third base. Well, those concerns seemed understandable in America, at least.

If Venezuela or Puerto Rico or the Dominican end up winning, it can send a big message to the world. This is our chance to say, 'Hey, we might not have the same population -- but we can be as good as you are.'
Dominican bullpen coach Ramon Henderson

But in Venezuela, Mora has taken so much abuse since making that announcement, he inspired Magglio Ordonez (who had considered withdrawing because he wondered if he was physically ready) to ask back onto the team.

Do we even need to contrast that with the American team, which has had players bailing by the dozen? Do we even need to spell out the sense of urgency with which all Latinos will play these games, as opposed to the hope-we-don't-get-hurt mantra of the "pride" of America?

Way too many American players don't get this. So it's no shock that even fewer American baseball fans seem to get it.

But Latinos? This, for them, can be their Miracle on Turf moment. Listen to them as they dream aloud.

From Samuel: "In the Dominican, people are always talking how we could have our own major-league franchise. So I think people are looking at this as: 'We can show you we could do that.' They're thinking: 'We could have a team better than any major-league club if we took all our guys and put them on one team.'"

From Amaro: "In Venezuela, they think people are probably looking at the Dominican as the No. 1 giver of baseball players. So they want to make a statement, even more so than when they won the Caribbean Series. The statement is: 'This is a step to let people know we are the best.'"

From Samuel again: "This means more to us than it does here. We've only got one Tejada, or one Vlady, where the United States might have three or four great shortstops. So if we win this thing, it's going to be huge. People in the Dominican will be partying until these guys get back there in October or November."

From Ledezma: "For other countries, for other players, money is very important, and contracts are very important, and I accept that. I respect that. But for this group of [Venezuelan] players and coaches, it's pride. We're doing everything we can to show we're on the map."

But as much as they want to put their own homeland on that map, many of these men seem to understand they can make an even larger statement.

This event, more than any baseball competition ever staged, can represent the moment when Latinos make it clear to us Americanos that the future -- baseball's future -- has just shown up at the front door.

"If Venezuela or Puerto Rico or the Dominican end up winning, it can send a big message to the world," says Henderson. "This is our chance to say, 'Hey, we might not have the same population -- but we can be as good as you are.'"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE