For more than two decades, I’ve been covering the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands for various guidebook publishers. Because the seasons are reversed from my Northern California home, I’ve arguably experienced an endless summer – as a rule of thumb, I leave the Northern Hemisphere when the World Series ends and return in time for opening day. In South America, though, I’ve generally missed the presence of baseball, my favorite participant and spectator sport.
It hasn’t been a total loss. I’ve played both softball and baseball in Buenos Aires (where there’s a pretty good recreational league that includes teams of Cubans, Japanese and Koreans, as well as Argentines). In the Falklands, I surprised some Japanese fishermen by joining them in a game and catch and throwing curveballs – something they expected even less than somebody who could catch the ball. In Paraguay, I watched a sandlot pickup game (pictured above) in which most of the players were ethnically Japanese.
Venezuela, of course is South America’s baseball powerhouse, contributing many players to the major leagues though the economic crisis there has brought hard times to the game. Colombia is a distant second, but there’s an up-and-coming entrant – as of just a few days ago, Brazil can boast its first player ever in the World Series, reserve outfielder Paulo Orlando of the Kansas City Royals. At the age of 29 Orlando, who started playing with Japanese-Brazilians in his home town of São Paulo, is a late bloomer who played more than a thousand minor league games before finally reaching the majors this year. Seen above hitting a game-winning home run in July, he played in 86 games and showed speed and some power, with 14 doubles, six triples and seven homers.
Orlando hasn’t played much in this Series against the New York Mets, though, and he’s not even the highest profile Brazilian in the game. Catcher Yan Gomes, of the Cleveland Indians, plays the game’s most demanding position and, though he spent considerable time on the disabled list this year, the 27-year-old is just entering his prime (Gomes also spent much of his youth in Florida). São Paulo native Andre Rienzo, a righthanded pitcher for the Miami Marlins, has had limited success so far but is also only 27.
According to Gomes, baseball “is such a growing sport (in Brazil) right now, it’s amazing.” Whether Brazilian baseball will ever really take off in a country that’s obsessed with futebol (soccer) is open to question, but these three major leaguers demonstrate that the athletic talent is there to play this complex and difficult sport.