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Beisebol from the ground up

3/27/2011 - MLB Tampa Bay Rays
The site of a future baseball academy in Brazil. Klaus Thymann | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the April 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Boom-boom, thump-thump, rakata-rakata-rakata-rakata.

In a small, crowded auditorium just east of downtown Sao Paulo, a musical ensemble of more than 100 people, named the Nene de Vila Matilde, begins its nightly practice. Men and boys with percussion instruments -- tiny drums, tambourines -- pound in rhythm with singers on stage. The February session is a warm-up for the group's performance at the great Carnaval in March.

Soon, the tempo rises and the crowd in the auditorium begins to dance. The faster the rhythm, the better the dancing. The faster the beat, the bigger the frenzy.

"You know, this type of dancer would make for a good shortstop," Edno de Souza says.

De Souza, a tall, dark-skinned Brazilian, is a consultant for the Tampa Bay Rays. His mission: help build a pipeline of prospects from Brazil to Florida's Gulf Coast. In June, Tampa Bay expects to begin construction of a 29-acre baseball academy in Marilia, Brazil, approximately four hours north of Sao Paulo, which they hope to fill with Brazilian ballplayers who will one day shore the foundation of the Rays' franchise. Tampa Bay's ambitious efforts -- when completed the academy will be the first of its kind outside the Dominican Republic and Venezuela -- are headed by the legendary scout Andres Reiner.

If you don't know Reiner, perhaps you should. With a limited budget in the late-1980s and '90s, Reiner was instrumental in making Venezuela a hotbed for MLB talent. Every successful Venezuelan player from that generation -- Bobby Abreu, Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and Melvin Mora, among others -- either was signed by Reiner or passed through his Houston Astros' academy in Valencia. Now, Reiner, on the cusp of 76 years of age, believes Brazil will be his next gift to baseball. "This would be the culmination of my career," he says. "I'm convinced Brazil will be a great market. I've always been something of a visionary. And this will be difficult, probably more difficult than anything I've ever done. But if this succeeds, it will change the history of baseball."

Baseball is played on a small scale in soccer-mad Brazil, mostly in the Japanese neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. Japanese settlers first arrived in 1908, after Brazil and Japan signed an immigration agreement to boost trade and production. Brazil's current Japanese population is 1.5 million, the biggest in the world outside Japan. The sport is governed by the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation, which is run by Japanese descendants, and Japanese pharmaceutical company Yakult Honsha owns the academy where the federation practices. Though the federation has existed for 21 years, no player from Brazil has ever reached the majors and only nine are now playing in the minors. Even in Japan, there are only three Brazilian players who are active in Nippon Professional Baseball.

The sport remains largely segregated for both cultural and economic reasons. Non-Japanese players who train with the federation say they are often chided by friends for choosing a "Japanese game" over soccer or basketball or volleyball. Even American football is more popular. Worse yet, baseball's exile from the Olympics has cut off the federation's financial support from the government. Today, the federation can barely afford to send players to international tournaments, youth leagues are on life support and coaches can't afford to work full time. "You can tell these kids all kinds of things, but it's not an even playing field if they don't have the same information as kids in the United States or the Dominican Republic," says Barry Larkin, an instructor this February at the first-ever MLB-sponsored camp in Brazil. While Major League Baseball has aligned itself with the Brazilian federation, Reiner and the Rays feel there is a better way to teach and promote the game. If baseball is to one day become a national passion, Reiner believes, the sport must first become popular in the countryside, in ghettos and working-class neighborhoods like Vila Matilde, where boys with able dancing feet will translate those skills to the diamond.
As the boys and girls, the men and women, continue to move to the pulsating music of NenĂª de Vila Matilde in perfect rhythm, you wonder: Why can't this samba-dancing, soccer-loving country become the next land of the shortstops? You wonder why this emerging economic superpower, which in the next five years will host the two biggest sporting events in the world -- the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics -- couldn't create an infrastructure for player development that's on par with the D.R.'s. Caught up in the trance of the beat, you begin to believe Reiner. It's not a question of will Brazil become baseball's next frontier, but when.

The great scouts can see a perfect flower among a cluster of weeds -- sometimes literally. On a plot of scruffy land, where a horse calmly chews on a lonely patch of grass, Adriano de Souza, Edno's younger brother, points to the site where Tampa Bay will build its main baseball field for the academy in Marilia. Adriano is the Rays' director of Brazilian operations. Like his brother, Adriano was born in Marilia, a town of approximately 250,000. He notes that the two soccer goalposts on the land will be removed when construction begins. "They are taking down a soccer field to build a baseball diamond!" Adriano says in wonderment. "Can you believe it?"

Even harder to believe is that the Rays have so far spent zero dollars on the construction of the academy. The $2.5 million project has been subsidized by both federal and local funds. Tampa Bay's only financial commitment is for the upkeep of the academy, which could be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per year, for the next five years. Tampa Bay won't even have to spend a dime on players' medical care since all Brazilians are covered through the country's universal health care plan.

How did the Rays convince the town of Marilia to gamble its sporting and economic future on a completely foreign game? Andres Reiner.

Back in 1997, Edno de Souza was desperate to get his then-17-year-old brother Adriano, who had spent three years playing in the Cuban minor leagues, a tryout with a major league team. Edno, an aspiring agent, asked around to find the best scout in the world. Reiner's name kept coming up. During his tenure with the Astros, from 1989 to 2005, Reiner trekked to remote Venezuelan towns where other clubs never dared to go, where most kids played soccer and knew little about baseball. He introduced eye-opening training methods and brought in sports psychologists. But most of all he spotted talent, eventually signing more than 135 raw recruits to contracts.

So in 1997, Edno placed a cold call to Reiner, who was quickly taken with the young man. Edno was a charmer and all-around go-getter who could speak three languages (Portuguese, Spanish, English). Mostly, Edno was persistent.

Reiner thought the regimented Japanese teaching methods stifled creativity. Why force a pitcher who looks like David Price to throw like Hideo Nomo? Why make a player built like Carl Crawford hit like Kosuke Fukudome? Brazil was a baseball black hole.

But Reiner wasn't interested in Brazilian ballplayers. He had first visited Brazil in 1991, when the Astros sent him to scout a prospect named Jose Pett, who to this day is still the best baseball prospect Brazil has ever produced. Though he liked Pett -- who'd eventually sign a $670,000 minor league contract with the Blue Jays -- Reiner was not impressed with how the Brazilian style of play mirrored the Japanese game. The players learned small ball and developed pitching deliveries that relied on deceit. Reiner felt the style didn't suit the Brazilians' raw physical strength and ability. Unlike the Brazilians' fast-paced brand of soccer -- "o jogo bonito," the beautiful game -- Reiner thought the regimented Japanese teaching methods stifled creativity. Why force a pitcher who looks like David Price to throw like Hideo Nomo? Why make a player built like Carl Crawford hit like Kosuke Fukudome? Brazil was a baseball black hole.

Reiner passed on Adriano, but Edno stayed in the scout's ear. Edno figured if he couldn't deliver his brother to the game, maybe he could deliver the game to his country. Edno set about slowly convincing the man who put Venezuela on the baseball map that he could do the same for Brazil. It took a few years, but by the time Edno had won over Reiner to the idea, most of the Houston front office people who had allowed Reiner to start the academy in Venezuela had left the organization. Plus, many of Reiner's finds ended up on other teams. How was Reiner supposed to ask his new Houston bosses to build an academy in a country where they didn't even play baseball?

Reiner resigned from the Astros in 2005. The following year he joined Tampa Bay, a team with a young front office that was ready to take chances. Reiner told them he saw Brazil as a bigger, richer, safer and better-educated version of Venezuela. He sold them on a country that produced star athletes in soccer, basketball and volleyball. If Reiner could introduce a new academy, one that would break away from the current federation, he believed it would only be a matter of time before he discovered baseball's version of Pele or Ronaldo.

But to completely sell the Rays on the idea, Reiner first needed to find a Brazilian town willing to foot the bill. Marilia made sense, not just because it was the de Souzas' hometown, but because the town had a strong educational system and an affluent business community. It took two years of meetings, hours and hours of work by Edno ("I've learned how to be a lobbyist," he says) and several false starts before getting a financial commitment from Marilia and the federal government. According to mayor Mario Bulgareli, the town of Marilia will fund almost 70 percent of the project. The potential long-term payoff? An influx of money for Marilia if other major league teams build academies and make Marilia a baseball epicenter.

Once the town signed on, the de Souza brothers and Reiner went about convincing the area's elementary and middle schools to put baseball into their physical education programs. In Venezuela, Reiner began his monopoly by strengthening Valencia's little leagues. To do the same in Marilia, he asked the school system to help spark interest in youth baseball. This February, Reiner gathered 19 of the area's school principals and told them, "Baseball is a sport that anybody can play. You don't have to be a true athlete. In futebol, if you can't dribble the ball, then you can't play. That's it. But in baseball, you can be tall or short, thin or fat, young or old. And if you're not very good, they can put you at first base. Anybody can play baseball."

Reiner chuckles when remembering the speech.

"Well, maybe I told a little white lie. Not everybody can play baseball."

But from his own experience, Reiner knows it actually is true. Even for a boy from Hungary who wore a prosthetic leg after a train accident and whose family had moved to Venezuela to escape Hungary's oppressive Communist party. When the 11-year-old Andres Reiner saw a glove for the first time in Venezuela, he had no idea what it was, but he became fascinated by this strange new game. Despite his handicap, Andres learned the sport from his classmates -- though he only pitched, since that position required less movement than the others. Andres Reiner was hooked, and the game's path was altered forever.

"Brazil is a true vision," Reiner beams. "I don't think that I'm wrong. Maybe it will be like when Columbus landed in the Americas. He didn't know where he was, but he knew it was land."

At least Columbus had the backing of an empire. Reiner has the low-budget Rays. And his venture faces many uncertainties. Will the Rays, with their thrifty ways, scuttle the project if the government money dries up? And on a smaller scale, what if kids can't afford to play because the equipment is so expensive? Because of import taxes, baseballs can often cost as much as $15. What if Brazil's many athletes simply can't pick up baseball's nuances? What if the project stumbles once Reiner goes into semiretirement, something he sees happening as soon as next year? What if other teams don't come to help in the development? Most ominously, what if the culture clash between American and Japanese styles of baseball kills them both?

The news of the Rays' arrival in Brazil did not sit well with Jorge Otsuka, who heads the Brazilian baseball federation. Otsuka complained that the Rays had swooped in and taken government money that could have gone to his federation. And he questioned the decision to make Adriano de Souza, who used to play with the federation, head of the Rays' academy. "When he was a player here, [Adriano] wasn't the most disciplined," Otsuka says. De Souza admits that he had a rebellious spirit: "Nobody was going to tell me to tip my cap and bow my head because it wasn't my culture," he says. Mostly Otsuka feared that if the Rays fail in Brazil, it could doom baseball in the country forever.

So, in September 2009, Otsuka went to Marilia to convince the mayor to withhold the funds. Reiner sought to smooth things over and set up a face-to-face meeting with Otsuka at the federation's academy in Sao Paolo. According to Reiner, he told Otsuka: "I know you're upset that I didn't come to you to ask for money. But be honest, what could you have given me? You don't have money to give me. We're not coming to Brazil to fight with you. You need our help to get players." In the end, Otsuka acquiesced. "We want to have a good relationship with every team," Otsuka says of the Rays.

And now there are early indications that the two sides have found some middle ground: Until the Rays' facility opens (as early as December), Adriano de Souza and two other coaches are providing free baseball lessons for kids of all backgrounds at Marilia's Japanese community center. Otsuka says he now often receives calls from other towns who want to donate land to major league teams to build academies. Edno de Souza says he's talked to local politicians who say the same.

"Teams will come," Reiner promises, "because they will see Tampa Bay's success."

Boom-boom, thump-thump, rakata-rakata-rakata-rakata.

Jorge Arangure is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.