SAO PAULO, Brazil — Gaijin! Gaijin!
Gaijin was Paulo Orlando’s nickname growing up. His teammates called him gaijin; he called his coaches sensei. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. Orlando, a ballplayer and sprinter as a teenager in Brazil and now an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals, was a foreigner in his own land.
For the most part, he didn’t feel inferior; he just felt different. Not everyone’s experience is so benign. Others felt the Japanese ballplayers believed they were superior to the native Brazilians. Some still feel that way.
Edno and Adriano De Souza, Brazilian brothers endeavoring to grow baseball in their home country, are black. Adriano now works as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays after an abbreviated attempt to make it to the majors that included a stint with a Rays’ minor-league affiliate. Throughout his career in Brazil, he believed he had to fight against racism, particularly from the country’s baseball and softball federation.
“We can see very clearly the problem that no one in Brazil in admits, but we have,” Edno De Souza said. “The discrimination. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s reality.”
It’s a reality De Souza said he believes is holding Brazil back from achieving its potential as a baseball-playing nation. The world’s fifth-largest country possesses most of the necessary characteristics to become a conduit to Major League Baseball, but corruption and the fear of it have presented a persistent obstacle.
Part of the problem, part of the perceived discrimination, might simply be cultural differences. For example, in Japan, it has been common – and, still is, in some cases – to give a sum of money as a sign of gratitude in situations where it would be unusual to do so in Brazil, like for a surgeon. It’s akin to a tip, except tipping is frowned upon in the Japanese service industry, and Brazilians don’t traditionally tip their doctors.
When asked if the federation takes a portion of signees’ bonuses, Jorge Otsuka, the federation’s longtime president, called that to mind while denying that any amount is mandatory, saying some of the players leave a small portion earmarked for development purposes. Luiz Gohara, the teenage left-handed pitcher who signed for $880,000 with the Mariners three years ago, left an undisclosed sum to that end for the federation.
Attempting to explain why native Brazilians were treated as gaijin in Brazil, Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes lowered his voice one spring afternoon in a quiet Indians clubhouse.
“You know how we have the token black guy here?” Gomes asked, referring to the usage of the phrase in film and television. “Every team had a token Brazilian guy.”
To him, the Japanese were the overwhelming majority. They still are, to a less-whelming extent, because the federation has learned that the so-called Brazilian-Brazilians have higher earning potential.
Gomes signed a $23-million guaranteed contract last year, a deal that dwarfed the biggest a Brazilian native has received playing in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. The highest-paid player in the NPB this year will receive 510 million yen, equivalent to $4.1 million. The few Brazilians there make nowhere near that.
In playing baseball, Gomes grew up almost strictly around children of Japanese descent. And, in a curious sidenote, he also grew to be attracted to Japanese-looking women, a preference he did not connect to his upbringing until after the fact. Thee years ago, he married Jenna Hammaker, the daughter of Atlee Hammaker, thought to be the first yonsei to pitch in the major leagues.
She’s a quarter Japanese.
Inside the winding southwest borders of São Paulo’s expansive city limits is a neighborhood known as Brooklin Novo – New Brooklyn. It contains perhaps the most spacious park in the city, and, for that reason, it hosted perhaps the oddest-named baseball team in the world: the Brooklin Bullet Dodgers.
“I put the bullet because of São Paulo,” said Thiago Ramos de Sousa, the amateur team’s founder and coach, similarly named but unrelated to the De Souza brothers.
Once notoriously high, the murder rate in São Paulo has decreased dramatically over the past decade-plus. In the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2011 global study on homicide, São Paulo was cited as an example of the “significant possibilities for violent crime prevention and reduction in the urban context.”
Still, gunshots ring, and crime continues. Nearly half of all vehicle robberies in Brazil occurred in São Paulo in 2012, according to the United States’ Overseas Security Advisory Council.
So, Ramos de Sousa sought a space in Brooklin Novo where he could host a game and found Parque Villalobos, which encloses dozens of fields. Through Adriano De Souza, he got in touch with a Portuguese-speaking MLB official named Caleb Santos Silva, who worked with the commissioner’s office to send a letter to the local government requesting field access.
It was approved. This year, again through De Souza, the Tampa Bay Rays started sponsoring the team. They’re now known as Tampa Bay Rays Brasil, and they practice Saturdays and Sundays, competing against adult amateur teams from a few cities.
The Rays put their name on it in an attempt to build name recognition, which they seem to view as a component in the long game. They’re already the preeminent major-league team in Brazil because of their efforts to open an academy that received significant local press.
The Rays Brasil players take their play seriously, but it’s no different than the myriad adult-league teams you’ll find across America. In terms of actual stadiums, Mie Nishi is still the best in Brazil, although the ballpark itself is hardly different than most California community college fields.
It does share a complex with a sumo-wrestling arena and a court for a croquet-like, Japanese sport called gateball, making the whole place feel distinctly un-Brazilian – and un-American, for that matter. If they crowded in people like Brazil used to at its soccer stadiums in the 1960s, the stands around the ballfield could fit 5,000 people.
The playing field features a 6-foot dugout clearance, a remarkably irregular infield formed with dirt that once occupied subway tunnels, a malfunctioning drainage system and long-broken lights.
Brazil has 205 million inhabitants, a clearly sports-driven culture and all kinds of athletic specimens, in the region of the world where the most baseball is played per capita. On top of the 3,500 people who play it formally in Brazil, the federation recently estimated 20,000 people play baseball “regularly” in the country. A Little League administrator said roughly 1,000 children play Little League in Brazil, all within a five-hour radius of São Paulo.
Yet, for a generation, there hasn’t been a baseball field in the country with lights that turn on.
A jovial man named Murray Cook makes his living as a field guru, traveling the world fixing up ballparks for international competition, lately under MLB’s employ. In January, the league sent him to São Paulo to evaluate Mie Nishi’s game readiness. His stated goal was to determine what would have to be done to get the stadium ready for an exhibition game, or, say, a World Baseball Classic qualifier?
Cook came to a conclusion: “A lot.”
The center-field wall is 350 feet away from home plate. Fifty feet beyond that wall is the SP-15 state highway. It’s said a ball has collided with a car just once in the 57-year history of the stadium, but major leaguers assuredly would cause traffic accidents during batting practice – unless, of course, a massive net was installed to keep home runs off the highway, a measure that’s been discussed and determined to be cost-prohibitive.
A BASEBALL OASIS
There is one good place to play baseball in Brazil.
Getting there from one of São Paulo’s three major airports requires a 100-minute drive, sans stoplights. You pass a lot of lakes, a few horse-drawn carriages and several one-way tunnels where cars wait on either side to motor through.
Eventually, you arrive at the Brazilian baseball federation’s headquarters in Ibiuna, a sprawling rural oasis built in 1999 by the Japanese yogurt company Yakult Honsha, with MLB logos splattered across the locked entrance gate. A little boy mans it, running out to manually open up for cars entering and exiting.
Inside are five fields, a dining hall, locker-room space and ample dorms. In conversation, people again and again mention their surprise upon first sight.
“It’s an impressive facility,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations. “Thoughtfully designed, pretty well-maintained. Without having known it was there, I would have never expected to see something like that.”
Said Dodgers vice president of international scouting Bob Engle: “They basically took the top of a mountain, cut it off and layered it.”
Save for Gomes, every Brazilian to reach any sort of international baseball success practices there in the offseason. Miami Marlins pitcher Andre Rienzo spends at least a couple weeks in Ibiuna, as does Orlando. They are the only two men raised in Brazil to make the majors.
For the past four years, MLB has held a 10-day Elite Camp at the facility each winter, part of a worldwide effort to “globalize the game.” Practically, it’s intended to make it easy for American franchises to scout players.
In previous years, the camp would conclude with a showcase game at Mie Nishi, a more accessible location for American talent evaluators. But then, as it often does during Brazilian summers, rain came down, the stadium flooded, and the game was canceled. Now, the whole thing takes place at the Ibiuna oasis.
On the first morning of this year’s Elite Camp, a 16-year-old Bahamian outfielder named Ellison Hanna Jr. showed up on MLB’s invitation and became the star. A lithe 6-foot and 170 pounds, Hanna could sign with an organization before the current international signing period concludes next July 1. Two Brazilians from the camp also eligible for the first time and bandied about as likely signees were outfielder Gabriel Maciel and pitcher Igor Kimura, both 16. Neither has signed yet.
On the third day of this year’s camp, only two MLB teams were represented, the Reds and the Rays. More arrived the following week, when 60-yard dashes and other tests are performed. Until then, the campers received personalized instruction from Hall of Famer and national-team coach Barry Larkin, former MLB outfielder Steve Finley, and other baseball lifers the league hires to coach at its camps worldwide.
The level of coaching is probably commensurate to a junior-varsity level.
“We dumb it down a little bit so they can understand it,” Larkin said. “We don’t expect them to understand everything all the time.”
The post-practice talks are an ordeal. Larkin patiently pauses every 20 or 30 words to allow his words to be translated into Portuguese and then Spanish, for the four Argentinians taking part. He has worked to pick up some of each language, but not yet enough to talk to his team in it.
There are 47 players aged 14-19 in attendance. Many of them clearly have no chance to be paid to play baseball. Most of the others are unlikely to make it, lacking in one aspect or another. There are but a few with legitimate opportunities to make it to America.
“I just want these kids to have a chance,” said Finley, a part-time instructor for MLB’s international efforts. “If they don’t make it, I hope they continue playing through adulthood, and they have kids, and they start teaching their kids.
“That’s how it went in the U.S. It takes time.”
It also takes athletes. But the kids playing at the camp are not obviously superior athletes to the kids playing soccer at any old Brazilian park, and that’s a problem. That might be the problem, in fact.
“Our success depends on if we can get that top-tier athlete, that athlete who’s frustrated with fútbol,” Larkin said, using the Portuguese word. “If the game doesn’t grow, it’s an indication that we’re not getting those better athletes. It really depends on the saturation in the communities.”
Said Gerry Hunsicker, a baseball-operations senior adviser for the Dodgers who previously worked for the Rays: “You’re not gonna get the best athletes. You’re gonna get the kids who aren’t good enough to make the soccer team.”
Generally, those ones aren’t particularly fast, and their arms might be more skilled than their legs if they’re not good at soccer. So, more often than not, the first thing they’re told to try is pitching. Only those who cannot pitch play the field.
“Here in Brazil, we have this idea that it’s easier to make a pitcher,” Adriano De Souza said. “And I agree, but not everybody can be a pitcher.”
Emilio Carrasquel, Seattle’s coordinator of Venezuelan operations, is the Mariners’ primary Brazilian scout. In the past five years, he’s signed three Brazilian pitchers and two position players, the former to far bigger signing bonuses than the latter.
Teenage throwers there generally exhibit good control and projectable bodies, he said. “With position players, it’s different, because they’re so small,” Carrasquel said.
At times, position players and pitchers alike seem disparate from those their age playing this game elsewhere in the world. One late afternoon during this year’s camp, after the teenagers stopped scrimmaging and finished listening to the translated speeches, they began to pack up and head back to their dorms.
“Sometimes, you win,” one of the Brazilian kids from the losing side said, in pretty good English, to no one in particular. “Sometimes, you lose. And sometimes it rains.”
Another boy looked up confused from assembling his things and said in Portuguese: “What the (expletive) is that?”
“Bull Durham” references are the least serious of the many ways Brazilian ballplayers lag behind their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere.
The final part of our look at Brazilian baseball later this week explores the future.
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