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Red Sox, Mets trend-setters in the Latin American market

01.09.10 at 10:02 pm ET
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Peter Gammons, Omar Minaya, Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were among those on hand Saturday at Fenway Park for the annual round table discussion to benefit the Epstein brothers’ Foundation to be Named Later (for more on FTBNL and Hot Stove Cool Music, click here). The discussion, which lasted just over an hour, focused on Latin American player development and also included current Major Leaguers Bronson Arroyo and Manny Delcarmen as well as outfield prospect Ryan Kalish and Red Sox Coordinator of Latin American Operations Eddie Romero.

Gammons, who moderated the discussion, opened by describing cross-culturalization in baseball and called the Mets and Red Sox the “two most progressive organizations in baseball.”

“Baseball has represented American integration patterns unlike any other sport from the 1870’s on,” the 2005 Hall of Fame honoree said. “People from other countries are coming in [and] assimilating into the sport the way they assimilate into [American] society.”

“Even though Manny Ramirez was born in the Dominican Republic and was raised in New York,”said Minaya, “being raised in Washington Heights is like being raised in the Dominican Republic in a lot of ways.”

Both the Red Sox and Mets have constructed facilities in the Dominican Republic that essentially serve as academies for the Dominican players, who sign with Major League clubs as young as age 16. The panel discussed the challenges faced by Latin American players as they attempt to learn a completely new lifestyle while also working to reach the majors.

“[The Mets] feel that we have a responsibility to that young player that we sign, [that] we have to educate the player,” said Minaya, a Dominican native who helped the Rangers sign Sammy Sosa while a scout in the 1980’s.

The Red Sox have made big splashes in Latin America, as they signed and groomed Hanley Ramirez from the Dominican Republic, and, more recently, landed highly touted defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias of Cuba, who Gammons said has been described as the best defensive shortstop some Major League scouts have ever seen.

Iglesias, who was given a four-year Major League deal worth $8.25 million over the summer, has put forth a significant effort to be comfortable in his new surroundings when he arrives at Spring Training.

“We can’t expect him to step right into a level that might be justified by his natural talent and athletic ability,” Epstein said. “There’s going to be a longer cultural assimilation process.”

In an effort to give Iglesias a Cuban mentor with big-league experience, the team gave Alex Ochoa, who was an assistant coach for Boston in 2009, a new “multi-disciplinary” role that will help him ease Iglesias’ transition. Upon the two meeting, Epstein said it was discovered that “Jose had done more to prepare himself for his adjustment than [the Red Sox] had” and that he has taken to things such as American history and being a professional baseball player.

Latin Americans aren’t the only ones who have encountered significant cultural changes since inking contracts with the Red Sox. The identification of the Latin player’s departure from their comfort zone has led American-born players to the Dominican Republic.

“Imagine yourself moving to the Dominican and taking a job where you’re competing against other Dominicans and not knowing the language and not knowing how to get around, not knowing how to eat,” Cherington said. “Imagine doing your job in that environment and having to compete on an even playing field with people who did know how to get around, did know the language. That’s what we’re asking these players to do, so you have to take their performance for a certain period of time [and] put that in context of the things that we’re asking them to do and the pressures. It really does have to be a longer-range commitment.”

Kalish himself doesn’t need his imagination to take him to an unfamiliar situation in Latin America, as he was in the first group of American players sent by the Red Sox to the Dominican instructional league in 2006.

Such efforts are to be expected from a Red Sox organization that Gammons described as being a “shining light” for international development, but they, like the Dominican facility, are just some of the strides that have been made since they recognized the old approach as outdated.

“Our expectation previously had been, ‘Alright, we’re going to take these [Latin American players] and try to get them to understand how to act like kids from the states,’ and that was really only a small piece of it,” said Cherington. “Our flaw was we didn’t understand. Our American players need to understand what these guys are going through, what these guys are all about too. That was the start of the idea of sending the guys down to the Dominican.”

Epstein identified the issue of “losing” the Latin American player early in his development, which strides such as the Dominican facility have worked to prevent.

“If you took an equally talented 18-year-old who had graduated from an American high school and had been drafted, and [a similar] Dominican Republican signee [that] had the same tools, the same ability, the same type of makeup, and then put them in Rookie ball, and then expect them to go to advanced short-season ball the year after that, then Low A ball, and then High A ball the year after that, I think we found as an organization that we were losing the Latin American player, Epstein said. “It wouldn’t be an obvious thing. It wouldn’t be something that was patent, it was just that by the time they got to High A ball or Double A, the American player was thriving. In the Latin American player, we would start to see things in the scouting report, like, ‘Well, we’re just not sure how committed to the game he is,’ or, ‘We’re not sure what kind of baseball instincts this player has,’ or, ‘We don’t think this player takes coaching very well.’

“When you start to see that pattern over and over and over again, you realize it’s complete inequity,” Epstein added. “It’s not fair, there’s something inherent in the process that we’re not doing to reach the Latin American player. We’re not providing him the same opportunity that we’re providing the American player. And so the problem is not with the makeup of the Latin American player; it’s the opposite. It’s that we’re not doing what we can to provide a level playing field. I think our challenge as an organization has been to level the playing field.”

While many big-name players have emerged from the Dominican Republic, the highly touted athletes often are kept out of baseball games and kept in training facilities, thus explaining the tendency of Dominican prospects to be more raw than most minor-leaguers. Buscones, which are similar to agents in the Dominican Republic, take the talented children (as young as 10 years old, according to Minaya and Epstein) and have them fine-tune their stills through drills. This hinders their baseball thinking so much that Epstein recalled a player that the Red Sox had given $500,000 to that they soon realized did not understand what a force out was. The team now makes every effort to put international players through simulated game sitatuations before committing financially.

The general managers also spoke of the added pressure placed on players who leave their home countries for a shot at the majors. The misconception in third-world nations that all American baseball players are well-off makes it that much tougher for the first-year players to provide for families that may be in dire need of financial support.

“Once that player signs that bonus, he is the hope of that whole family,” Minaya said. “He may be the hope of that whole neighborhood. You may be in Rookie-ball, but they think you’re a major-leaguer.”

Minaya pointed to Sammy Sosa with the Texas Rangers as an example. After signing for $3,500 and immediately sending a third of it home, the young outfielder tried to salvage as much as he could in an effort to continue to provide for his family.

“We were going down to the Dominican Republic and all Sammy wanted [was] an advance so he could get a refrigerator for his mother,” Minaya said. “In this day and age the bonuses are much more, the education level is much [higher], but the pressures are still the same.”

“There’s even more pressure now because the thinking is that all these guys [are] millionaires. [They have] no health care, a terrible work force, pressure of competing. It’s better now [than how it was for Sosa] because of the facilities that are being provided, but the pressures are still there.”

Though some segregation exists among younger players (the Spanish-speaking players generally stick together in minor-league clubhouses), American players of Latino descent, such as Delcarmen and Arroyo, have a unique dynamic with their teammates at the early stages of their development. Arroyo himself laughed when recounting a 1995 experience in the rookie league in which players were surprised that the player with one of the more Spanish-sounding names walked in “looking like the whitest kid going.”

Because his father is Cuban, the bilingual Arroyo had a better understanding of the culture and found himself fitting in across multiple groups that seemingly did not get along in the minors.

“All the Latin guys stuck together and they really didn’t trust anyone else,” Arroyo said. “The white guys didn’t trust the Latin guys, the Latin guys didn’t trust the white guys, and that was the mentality.”

Delcarmen could see where Arroyo was coming from, as the Hyde Park native was thrown into a pool of Americans and Dominicans after being drafted in the second round by the Red Sox in 2000.

“It was tough for me [after being drafted] just because [I was a] Dominican born in Boston [and] all the American guys were like ‘Alright, so if we get into a fight with the Dominicans, what side are you going to be on?”

After the discussion concluded, Mike O’Malley emceed an auction that raised over $20,000.

Other things of note that came out of the event:

-Following the discussion, Theo Epstein made nothing of Jonathan Papelbon’s comments regarding the team.

“I had no idea we got [John] Lackey until [trainer Mike] Reinold came down to see me, just a few days ago,” Papelbon told ESPNBoston last week, also noting that he was unaware of the acquisitions of Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. “”I swear to you. I don’t know anything about the ballclub,” the closer said.

Epstein said that he hadn’t spoken to Papelbon recently but that his comments in no way effect the organization.

-Staying with the theme of international players, a young fan asked Epstein about Aroldis Chapman. Epstein told the fan that the team had worked the Cuban left-hander out with John Farrell and Terry Francona in attendance.

-The RISO foundation announced the Peter Gammons scholarship, a four-year college scholarship that will be given to four Boston public school students. City Council President Michael P. Ross then declared the day “Peter Gammons Day” and former Boston Herald writer and founding HSCM member Jeff Horrigan backed it with an address from the Massachusetts House of Representatives. After Gammons received the multiple honors, Paul Epstein notified him that “President Obama is going to come out now and give you his Nobel Peace Prize.”

-Minaya recounted taking his Latin American players to an American supermarket while coaching in the GCL. Minaya said that the players hadn’t seen anything like the clean grocery stores, so he let them learn things on their own. The next morning he found the team laughing uncontrollably because a player, in an attempt to make a tuna fish sandwich, had bought and eaten cat food tuna. “That player,” Minaya said with a smile, “happened to be Sammy Sosa.”

-The panel and those in attendance had an uncomfortable laugh when Minaya, while discussing recent big-name free agents being from outside the US, stopped for a few seconds. After making a half-frightened face, the Mets GM took a breath and said “I’m going to bring up Jason Bay.” Epstein and Cherington were among those laughing as Minaya apologized for the turn the conversation had taken.

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