Brazil is one of the few countries in the world where baseball wasn’t introduced by Americans. In fact, baseball was brought to Brazil from Japan via Japanese immigrants who settled in Sao Paulo in 1908, the largest city in South America. Brazil needed workers for its coffee plantations and Japanese farmers were eager to move to Brazil, so a formal agreement between the two governments was forged. Brazil’s Japanese community is approximately 2 million strong; the largest anywhere outside of Japan.
With a population of 196 million, Brazil is considered by many to be the last great untapped resource. Yet baseball is not at all on the sporting radar in the soccer-crazed nation. According to the Confederação Brasileira de Beisebol e Softbol – the governing body of the sport in Brazil – there are only 20,000 baseball players in the country. (source) The participation rate is so low for both economic and cultural reasons. Firstly, with baseball’s removal from the Olympic Games, financial support to the Brazilian Baseball Confederation from the government has dried up. Secondly, baseball is perceived by Brazilians as a “Japanese game;” there is a negative stigma associated with that connotation. Athletes are much more inclined to take up soccer, basketball or volleyball – traditional Brazilian sports. And can you really blame them?
As a result, baseball is limited geographically to regions that are in close proximity to the Japanese communities in Sao Paulo.
Domestically, the level of play in Brazil is relatively low. All domestic play can be considered semi-pro; none of the players play professionally. The level of play of the best teams is comparable to the Intercounty Baseball League – low-level independent baseball. Many of the teams, like in Japan, have corporate affiliations and players are given employment by supportive organizations.
Though the national team is not a major competitor on the international stage, the team has made great strides in recent years. In the 2003 World Cup, Brazil advanced to the quarterfinal round of play and faced the powerhouse Cuban squad. Brazil nearly pulled off a massive upset, having led Cuba 3-2 in the top of the 9th inning. In the home-half of the 9th, Yulieski Gourriel stroked an opposite-field triple before Kendrys Morales won it in walk-off fashion with a 2-run home run. Pedro Luis Lazo got the win in relief. Cuba went on to win the tournament. (source) Brazil finished in 7th place overall, and finished 7th four years later at the Pan-American Games. The team’s world ranking has improved from 36th in 2010 (source) to 28th in 2012. (source)
The reason for Brazil’s marked improvement in international play can be attributed to the hiring of Cuban coaches. The Brazilian Confederation has a program with Cuban in place to exchange players and coaches.
The imports include Ernesto Noris Chacon and Juan Yáñez, pitchers who were in the rotation of the Havana Industriales with Orlando Hernández before he left for the United States and stardom with the Yankees and the Mets.
The Cuban coaches have attempted to change the way Brazilians play to game in order to capitalize on their strengths. Because the game of baseball was introduced by Japanese immigrants, the Brazilian style of play mirrors the Japanese game. Players learned small ball and developed pitching deliveries that relied on deceit. This style doesn’t particularly suit the raw strength of many of the Brazilian athletes.
The Cubans say they are optimistic about the Brazilian squad, if not immediately, at least in the near future. They say the players show a rare mixture of Japanese discipline and dedication, and Latin American passion and flair.
“There is an awful lot of talent here,” Yáñez, the pitching coach for the national junior team, said. “It just needs to be polished.”
Yan Gomes became the first Brazilian-born player to reach the Major Leagues when he debuted for the Toronto Blue Jays this season.
Gomes has a Cuban coach to thank for his success:
Gomes fell in love with baseball following a chance encounter his father had on a trip to the grocery store, bumping into a Cuban baseball coach who was putting together a team and looking for youngsters to play. Yan’s father was persuaded to bring his son to a tryout.
“Probably the best thing that he did,” said Gomes, who took to the sport immediately.
The Blue Jays’ Brazilian connections didn’t begin with Gomes. Before Gomes, the greatest ballplayer that Brazil had ever produced was a pitcher by the name of Jose Pett. The Blue Jays signed the then- 16-year old Pett as an non-drafted free agent to a record-breaking contract in 1992.
Pett was given $700,000 US by the Jays, the same amount offered by the Atlanta Braves. Pett chose the Jays because the United States and Brazil had a tax-at-source agreement, while Canada and Brazil did not.
Pett was rated one of the top 100 prospects in the minors by Baseball America before the 1993 season (when he was 75th) and in 1996 (93rd). The 6-foot-6 Brazilian was one of six minor leaguers dealt to Pittsburgh for Dan Plesac, Orlando Merced and Carlos Garcia, reaching triple-A but never the majors.
Another non-drafted free agent of Brazilian descent signed by the Toronto Blue Jays was Jo Matumoto. The Blue Jays signed the 36-year old left-handed pitcher to a minor league contract in 2007 after receiving a call from Matumoto’s wife:
Toronto still might not have heard of Matumoto had it not been for an inspiring e-mail that arrived in agent Randy Hendricks’ inbox in November. What he read was a two-page message from De Luca (Maria Fernanda, Matumoto’s wife), who was desperately searching for someone in North America who would be willing to watch her husband throw a baseball.
“It was sort of this pleading petition, ‘Would you really help us realize our dream?'” said Hendricks, who also represents pitcher Roger Clemens. “But we thought, because of his age, that nobody would be interested. You know how the system works.”
“He doesn’t belong in the Independent Leagues; he’s got Major League stuff,” Hendricks recalled.
While Matumoto’s agent thought his client’s stuff was Major League ready, Major League hitters didn’t agree. In spring training of 2007, Matumoto struggled at the Major League camp and was assigned to AA New Hampshire. He pitched reasonably well there and was promoted to AAA Syracuse halfway through the 2008 season. He was released by the team at the conclusion of the 2008 season and went on to play for Quebec City of the Can-Am League and the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League before retiring in 2009.
In this year’s qualifying round for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Brazil has been placed in a pool with Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama. The team announced that Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin would manage Brazil for the qualifier. Larkin has previously been involved with Brazilian baseball as an instructor with Major League Baseball’s “Elite Camp in Brazil,” (source) which helps to instruct young players from across South America. Of the 14 players from Brazil who play professionally in the United States, Yan Gomes will be the most notable. Gomes is looking forward to the World Baseball Classic and the chance to play for manager Barry Larkin:
It will be awesome,” he said. “Brazil is such a big country, so being able to represent it is such an honour.”
“It’ll be amazing to have Larkin around, especially since he’s a Hall of Famer,” Gomes said. “Hopefully I’ll get to talk to him and learn a lot. I’ve heard from a lot of people, especially Omar (Vizquel) who’s played with him, that he’s such a great guy, so I’m really looking forward to meeting him.”
Brazil has traditionally relied on a strong pitching, and this year’s team should be no exception. Andre Rienzo should be the ace of the staff. The Chicago White Sox farm hand shot through three levels in 2012, finishing the season at AAA Charlotte.
The 23-year old Rienzo’s fastball has been clocked as high as 95-mph. He has a sharp slider and a change-up to complement his electric fastball.
Another Brazilian with a 95-mph fastball is 24-year old Gilmar Pereira. The former Phillies’ farmhand was born in Sao Paulo but moved to Japan at age 14 to receive better instruction. He has extensive international experience.
Mariners’ left-hander Luiz Gohora has an outside shot of making the team. Widely considered the best pitching prospect in this year’s international free agent class, the 16-year old signed a $880,000 contract late this summer. While he may be young, he pitches with a man’s fastball; his heater has been clocked at 96mph. He complements his fastball with a quality slider.
Because Brazilian baseball is so heavily influenced by the Japanese game, it is only natural that there would be Brazilians playing professionally in Japan. Today there are three Brazilians in the NPB, all playing for the Yakult Swallows: OF/1B/PH Yuichi Matsumoto, P Rafael Fernandes, and OF Maike Magario.
Matsumoto is the elder statesman of the group, with 13 years in the Yakult organization. He’s mostly served as a pinch hitter over the last few years, but is probably the most successful Brazilian professional baseball player to date. Fernandes played college ball at Hakuoh University, where he apparently showed great velocity but little polish. Yakult drafted him as an ikusei player in 2008, and he earned a promotion to the regular roster this season. Through 38 innings at ni-gun, he has a 1.89 ERA, but command is still a problem, as he has allowed 22 walks. Magario was born in Sao Paulo but moved to Japan at age five and came up through the high school ranks, playing at Koshien and eventually getting drafted as an ikusei player. So far at ni-gun this year, Magario has a defensive replacement’s line: 25 games played, seven plate appearances.
If baseball is to one day become a national passion in Brazil, the sport must first become popular outside of Sao Paulo: in the countryside, in the favelas and in working-class neighborhoods among non-Japanese players. The Tampa Bay Rays are betting that it will. In June of this year, the Rays built 29-acre baseball academy in Marilia, Brazil, (approximately four hours north of Sao Paulo) – similar to the types of academies found in the Dominican Republic. The academy is headed by legendary scout Andres Reiner – the man credited with turning Venezuela into a hotbed of baseball talent. Bobby Abreu, Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and Melvin Mora, among others, were either signed by Reiner himself or were products of his Venezuelan academy. The Brazilian government is on board as well – the $2.5 million cost of the facility was paid for by local and federal governments. Player health costs are covered by Brazil’s universal health care plan. Tampa’s sole financial commitment is for maintenance of the academy – between $500,000 and $1 million per year. (source)
In addition, baseball has a positive effect on deterring youths from becoming involved in crime – an incentive for government investment. Brazilian police and media report that the crime rate remains high in most urban centers, including the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and is also growing in rural areas within those states. Brazil’s murder rate is more than four times higher than that of the United States, and rates for other crimes are similarly high. Pitcher Gilmar Pereira credits baseball with saving him from drugs and crime:
“My dad thought at first that this was a sport with no future, but thanks to baseball, I’ve received a good education and gotten to know other cultures,” Pereira said. “I don’t know where I’d be today without baseball, because there is a lot of crime and drugs in my old neighborhood, and baseball has calmed me down and given me a focus in life.”
With its enormous athletic talent and vast numbers, Brazil is poised to make a significant mark on the world stage in baseball. Even if soccer continues to be the most popular sport, the sheer size of Brazil will have an impact. And with such an accommodating environment for MLB teams to establish a presence and develop talent, it’s not a question of if Brazil will become baseball’s next talent hotbed, but when.