An All-World Baseball Team: The Starting Lineup – Hardball Times
Yesterday, I began constructing an All World baseball team in celebration of the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Today, I’ll round out the team with my starting lineup.
C: Iván Rodríguez (Puerto Rico)
When you think ballplayers from Puerto Rico, the name that immediately comes to mind is Roberto Clemente. One of the first things you do when trying to make an All World team, or at least the first thing I did, is go through the big baseball countries and write down the big names you are going to build your team around. And one of the first names you write down, because he is overwhelmingly synonymous with Puerto Rican baseball, is Roberto Clemente.
The problem is, once you start filling out the rest of the roster, it becomes apparent how hard it is to fill the catcher spot without Puerto Rico.
You can, of course, use your U.S. spot to take Johnny Bench or Josh Gibson or Yogi Berra, but if you want to use the U.S. spot for another position and start looking at the list of international catchers in MLB, Rodríguez is the clear #1. Behind him, you’ve got Jorge Posada, and then maybe Yadier Molina, Benito Santiago, or Javy López.
I’m not saying those alternatives are bad options—they aren’t I-Rod, but they’re all good players. They’re also all Puerto Rican.
Outside of Puerto Rico, there’s Manny Sanguillén (Panama), Víctor Martínez (Venezuela), and Russell Martin (Canada), but you’d not only have to accept the big drop-off from Rodríguez, you’d also have to forego taking one of the bigger stars from those countries. Tony Peña is an option, but I don’t even want to begin contemplating how depressing it would be to use my one Dominican slot on Tony Peña. And if those guys are out, we’re not that far from Dave Nilsson (Australia) being the next best available option from MLB.
Perhaps the best alternative to using Puerto Rico for your catcher spot is to go outside MLB to Katsuya Nomura, a legend of the Japanese league who is second only to Sadaharu Oh in career home runs in NPB. And honestly, that’s not a bad way to use your Japanese spot, so if you really want to make Clemente work as your representative from Puerto Rico, this is one way to do it.
Still, this isn’t just a case of positional needs forcing our hand—Clemente aside, the position of catcher is really the island’s defining role in Major League Baseball. Outside the U.S., Puerto Rico has easily the strongest crop of catchers of any country, both in terms of depth and elite talent. Iván Rodríguez just became the first non-American-born catcher elected to the Hall of Fame, and while Posada fell off an over-crowded BBWAA ballot in his first year, he has a chance of eventually becoming the second depending on what the Hall does with the Veterans Committee in the future.
1B. Sadaharu Oh (Japan)
It may seem likely that baseball entered Japan through the American occupation in the wake of WWII, but the game was already popular in Japan long before that. Rather, the game’s roots in Japan trace, at least indirectly, back to Commodore Perry’s 1853 arrival in Tokyo Bay. Perry’s mission was to forcibly open trade relations with Japan and overturn the country’s two-and-a-half-century-old policy of isolation from foreign influence.
While Perry himself didn’t bring baseball to Japan, the sudden influx of foreign influence that followed did. Turmoil over the unequal treaties forced by foreign military interventions contributed to the overthrow of Japan’s Tokugawa government in 1868. The new Meiji government replaced the previous policy of cultural isolation with a new policy known as bunmei kaika, which involved a rapid modernization of Japan by learning from foreign technological, political, and cultural innovations. It was during this period that baseball was introduced to Japan by American missionaries.
Japan presents a unique challenge in that all of its best players have spent significant chunks, or even the entirety, of their careers outside of MLB, which makes it difficult to compare their production to MLB stars. The issue is further complicated by the fact that most sources covering their careers are written in Japanese.
This was especially true before the Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano cases brought changes to the MLB-NPB working agreement, which had previously barred MLB from signing Japanese stars. Even today, nearly all Japanese players begin their careers in Japan, at which point they are contractually bound to NPB until they either accumulate nine years of service in NPB or their Japanese team agrees to post them.
Even without many MLB-proven stars, though, Japan has a rich enough baseball history to have legitimate options at every position. Nomura and Nagashima are not nearly as well known as Oh in the U.S., but Nomura was a catcher who hit 657 home runs and maintained a career SLG above .500 over a 26-year career, and Nagashima (3B) playing alongside Oh for the Yomiuri Giants was the closest thing to a Japanese equivalent of a Gehrig-Ruth combination.
If catcher is the heart of Puerto Rico’s legacy in MLB, though, for Japan that position is pitcher. Over 70% of Japanese-born players in MLB have been pitchers, and since Ichiro’s debut in 2001, most of the country’s high-profile postings have been pitchers. Of these, Yu Darvish stands out for both his dominance in NPB and his success in MLB, though he’s been slowed the past few years by Tommy John surgery. Among the older generations, you have Eiji Sawamura, who was (unsuccessfully) recruited by Connie Mack and who is the namesake for Japan’s top pitching award, and Masaichi Kaneda, who once went 31-14 for a team that finished 58-68 and who finished his career in Japan with more strikeouts and fewer walks than Steve Carlton.
If I really wanted to game the system, I could have selected Oh as a representative from Taiwan (his country by citizenship due to Japan’s restrictive citizenship laws at his birth) or China (his father’s home country and his connection to Taiwan), but Oh is so overwhelmingly associated with Japanese baseball and society, that felt a little bit like cheating.
2B. Rod Carew (Panama)
Other Panamanians considered: Mariano Rivera, Manny Sanguillén
While Panama lacks the sheer volume of talent produced by other baseball powers, few countries can boast a pair as strong as Carew and Rivera.
There is historical evidence of baseball in Panama dating back to the 19th century, but the game’s development was spurred significantly by the occupation of the Panama Canal Zone by American military and construction personnel throughout much of the 20th century.
During WWII, the canal became a strategic focal point for the Allied forces, and some of the professional players who had been drafted and assigned to military baseball teams were stationed in Panama. Their exhibitions, along with a handful of preseason exhibitions held by MLB teams in the years following the war, further stimulated the isthmus’ interest in the game. Carew, born in the Canal Zone in 1945, was just old enough to catch the effects of this wave growing up.
Over the ensuing decades, however, American influence waned as the Canal Zone was transferred back to Panama. Panama has since fallen behind the Dominican Republic and Venezuela as baseball powerhouses following MLB’s investments in developmental academies in those countries.
In the absence of American influence, Cuba has taken the lead in aiding the game’s development in Panama in recent years, but without MLB’s capital, Panama has struggled to maintain a professional league and adequately fund youth programs, and the country’s talent-production has waned as a result.
There are promising signs for Panama’s future, however. The current winter league, which has operated since 2011, has been Panama’s most stable professional league in decades and is currently attempting to rejoin the Caribbean Series for the first time since the 1960s. This, along with Panama’s history of producing talent, could position Panama as an attractive alternative for MLB teams that are scaling back or pulling out of their Venezuelan operations.
3B – Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela)
When the Houston Astros opened MLB’s first academy in Venezuela in the summer of 1989, 53 Venezuelan-born players had made it to the major leagues. At the time, that was roughly twice the number of major leaguers produced by Panama (25), and less than half the number from Puerto Rico (124). Following the academy’s opening, another 305 Venezuelans have made it to MLB, compared to just 30 from Panama and 133 from Puerto Rico.
Venezuela has long been among the richest sources of MLB talent outside the U.S., producing stars like Luis Aparicio, Omar Vizquel, Dave Concepción, and Andrés Galarraga, but the academies completely transformed its place in the game’s international hierarchy. Within a decade, 23 MLB teams had opened academies in the country in the hopes of duplicating Houston’s success, and Venezuela had emerged as second only to the Dominican Republic as a foreign source of MLB talent.
Houston’s academy led the way, producing several of the nation’s best players, including Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Freddy García, Carlos Guillén, Melvin Mora, and José Altuve. (Unfortunately for Houston, they managed to let three of these—Santana, Abreu, and Mora—go for practically nothing, and traded away García and Guillén as minor leaguers for half a season of Randy Johnson.)
Venezuela’s position in the MLB pipeline is currently threatened, however, as the country finds itself in the midst of a severe economic crisis. There have even been reports of teams—members of a multi-billion-dollar industry—struggling to find sufficient food to provide three meals a day for their academy prospects.
In 2008, Houston closed their historic academy. Perhaps even more troubling was the 2011 departure of St. Louis, which came just a couple years after the Cardinals had begun construction on a new facility in Bejuma, Venezuela.
By 2015, only four teams remained in the Venezuelan Summer League. This past year, when the Cubs pulled out, MLB cancelled the VSL for the first time since its founding in 1997. Most teams have relocated their Venezuelan prospects to the Dominican Republic or to Gulf Coast League facilities, and MLB has moved some of its Venezuelan showcases to Panama.
MLB teams continue to scout Venezuela, but even that had become more complicated. Fears over instability in the country, along with new visa restrictions, have significantly slowed the traffic of front office personnel to the country, leading teams to rely more heavily on local Venezuelan scouts while redirecting their own efforts elsewhere.
Future uncertainty aside, Venezuela remains one of the top sources of current MLB talent, and the current crop of talent already scouted and signed should keep Venezuela afloat as a baseball power for the foreseeable future at a minimum.
SS – Álex Rodríguez (Dominican Republic)
Other Dominicans considered: Pedro Martínez, Albert Pujols, Adrián Beltré, etc
One of the more interesting conundrums in baseball is the island of Hispaniola: how can the most prolific producer of MLB talent outside the United States share an island with a country that has yet to produce a single major leaguer?
The economic differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic would seem to be the most obvious explanation, and undoubtedly that plays a role—the Dominican’s GDP per capita is roughly 9 times that of Haiti, which is similar to the ratio between the U.S. and the Dominican. Even with MLB baseballs being manufactured in Haiti throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, with 12-hour days and wages of about $3 a day, that didn’t provide much reason or opportunity for Haitians to get invested in the game outside the factory.
There are historical reasons that baseball flourished in the Dominican while remaining obscure in Haiti, however.
Baseball was introduced to the Dominican Republic in the late-19th century, when political refugees from Cuba began arriving in the Dominican Republic following the Ten Years War. While Haiti is closer to Cuba, as a former French colony, there were few Spanish-speaking inhabitants on that side of the island. Likewise, Jamaica and the Bahamas were both still English colonies and predominantly English-speaking. That left the Dominican Republic as the most natural Caribbean destination for these Cuban exiles.
As the game continued to grow in the Dominican Republic, linguistic, cultural, and political barriers kept Haiti insulated from the cultural imports from Cuba, and baseball never really took root across the island. There have been a few MLB players with Haitian heritage, such as Félix Pié and Miguel Sanó, but all were born into families that had already left Haiti.
In a sense, the Dominican Republic is the closest thing to a country with Cuba’s baseball history without any of the same impediments to sending talent to MLB. When MLB teams started opening Dominican academies in the 1980s, the pipeline of talent certainly sped up, but the country had already produced stars like Juan Marichal and César Cedeño.
Add in the generations of talent produced in the academy-era, and the Dominican Republic is the one country aside from the U.S. where you can write in a superstar at virtually any position. Catcher is probably the country’s weakest position, but even there, it’s harder than you might think to find a country outside of the U.S. and Puerto Rico that’s produced a better catcher than Tony Peña (or at least harder than you might have thought before reading the section on Puerto Rico).
As mentioned in the introduction, Rodríguez was born in the U.S., but split his childhood between the U.S. and his parents’ home country of the Dominican. Rodríguez’s nationality, like that of many other players, is a complicated subject, but he has openly identified as both American and Dominican and has chosen to represent both in the WBC (though he was unable to play for the Dominican Republic due to injury), so I think it makes sense to consider him with both countries. This is the only player I’ve chosen to represent anything other than his birth country.
LF – Barry Bonds (U.S.)
Other American players considered: too many to list
Baseball was brought to the U.S. in 1839 by Abner Doubl…ok, that’s obviously not true, but assuming you know that’s not true, you probably already know more about the history of baseball in the United States than what we’re covering for every other country, so it’s not really in the spirit of this article to dwell on baseball in the United States.
CF – Andruw Jones (Curaçao)
Players like Andruw Jones are invaluable in this exercise. You know you’re going to get big stars from the top handful of countries. So many major league stars are from just a handful of countries, that you eliminate an enormous amount of talent by selecting Álex Rodríguez or Barry Bonds. On the other hand, you begin to appreciate being able to select a HOF-level talent who eliminates no one else you would even consider. It’s almost like getting to select Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the draft.
That said, Curaçao is surprisingly strong. It could be considered the Donora, PA of the Caribbean, with a talent base far outstripping the island’s 160,000 population. No other Curaçaoan has approached Jones’ career, but there have been as many as eight Curaçaoans in MLB in one season (2013), and there are currently five (including Didi Gregorius, who was born in Amsterdam while his father pitched in the Dutch league but moved back to Curaçao with his family as a child). Former major leaguer Wladimir Balentien is also the only player to hit 60 home runs in a season in the Japanese league.
Located roughly 40 miles from the coast of Venezuela and directly south of the Dominican Republic, Curacao has historically drawn merchants and laborers from both countries, some of whom began organizing baseball teams on the island as early as the 1930s. The game picked up in popularity after Hensley Meulens became the first Curaçaoan in MLB in 1989, and MLB scouting has grown considerably in the wake of Andruw Jones’ success, leading to the current wave of talent.
As a Dutch constituent country, Curacao competes internationally as part of the Netherlands (the political relationship is similar to that of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), and along with Aruba is largely responsible for the success of the Dutch national team.
RF – Cristóbal Torriente (Cuba)
Cuba’s historical ties to baseball, and its claim to the game as a national pastime, are arguably the strongest of any country in the world, including the United States.
Cuban students, having learned the game while studying abroad in the U.S., introduced baseball to Cuba in the 1860s and ‘70s at a time when Cuba was beginning its push for independence from Spain. Baseball quickly supplanted the traditional Spanish sports and became so central to Cuba’s national identity that the game was outlawed during the Ten Years War (the first of three wars for Cuban independence) in an effort to suppress Cuba’s cultural independence from Spain.
Cuba is also largely responsible for the spread of baseball through much of Latin America. While countries like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic didn’t begin regularly churning out MLB stars until much later, when MLB had desegregated and eventually begun investing in scouting and academies to spur foreign development, the groundwork for the talent that fed those academies was laid by Cuban exiles who had fled the Spanish government after Cuba’s initial failed bid for independence.
The Cuban leagues were also far ahead of their American counterparts in integration and, along with the Mexican league, hosted many of America’s top players from the segregation era, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Joe Williams, and Oscar Charleston.
Cuba has produced some strong MLB talent, but much of its legacy lies outside the majors. For the first half of the 20th century, racial segregation kept many (though not all) of Cuba’s best players out of MLB, and for much of the latter half of the century, the difficulty and danger of Cuban nationals reaching the United States has been a significant barrier. As a result, outside of Japan, Cuba is probably the country where we can least rely on MLB players to gauge its impact.
I originally had Luis Tiant as my Cuban representative, but I decided to trade positions with Canada, where I originally had Larry Walker, since Ferguson Jenkins and Cristóbal Torriente are arguably both upgrades, with the caveat that it’s next to impossible to objectively compare Walker to a Negro League great. It was also tempting to take Martín Dihigo (another Negro League star) for the bench as a legitimate star who can play all nine positions, or even as a two-way-starter at pitcher and second base.
And that’s my starting eight.
Links and resources
“Build an all world baseball team” -GatewayRedbirds.com
“Major League Baseball to Stream Live in China Via LeTV” –Patrick Frater, Variety
“The first Brazilian to play in the World Series thinks more are on the way” –Ted Berg, For the Win, USA Today
“Contract loophole opened door for Nomo’s jump” –Robert Whiting, The Japan Times
“Panama Baseball: A Brief History” –John Thorn, Our Game
“Cuba’s biggest export is sports” –Kevin Baxter and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
“Panama tries to play catch-up in big league baseball” – Chris Kraul, Panama-Guide.com/LA Times
“As Venezuelan Crisis Deepens, U.S. Baseball Teams Close Academies” –John Otis, NPR.org
“The Growing Challenges of Scouting Venezuela” –Ben Badler, Baseball America
“Baseball’s Back Rooms” -La Cucaracha, Volume VII, Number 9, September 16, 1982, p 14
“A-Rod commits to Dominican team” –Bryan Hoch, MLB.com
“A Speck on the Map Gushes Talent” –David Waldstein, New York Times