Baseball is their identity
By John ErardiEnquirer
As part of the lead-up to tonight's documentary on Spike TV titled "Viva Baseball!" - about the Latin influence on Major League Baseball - Enquirer reporter John Erardi spoke with the Reds eight Latin-born players.
Here is what they said about growing up in Latin countries, their experiences in the States playing Baseball, and playing professional ball back home in the winter leagues.Felipe Lopez, 25, Bayamon, Puerto Rico
When I was growing up in Puerto Rico 15 years ago, baseball was still big.I lived right in front of the stadium (where one of the winter ball league teams played). I always had baseball around me. Not that anybody made me play, but it was there if I wanted it - and I did.
Roberto Clemente was the person everybody idolized.That's how I grew up - I wanted to be like Roberto Clemente. Even though I never saw him play in person, I saw him on TV in classic games. But, still, his name lived on.
I started playing organized ball when I was 4. They called it "The Pamper League." Everything was about baseball back then. It was so big.
(Lopez's family moved to Kissimmee, Fla., when he was 11.)
I was so far ahead of the kids in Little League in Kissimmee because of playing all that baseball in Puerto Rico that it (baseball in the States) was a joke to me. I couldn't believe the kids weren't any better than that. They would practice (one day a week) and play one game (a week). In Puerto Rico, I was playing ball all the time, any kind of ball, stickball, anything that had something to do with baseball. We'd round up a group ofguys and play.
There are too many other things going on in Puerto Rico now. Kids aren't interested in competing anymore. They want to party or play basketball and volleyball. C'mon! How many kids play basketball in the NBA? But baseball? Yeah, baseball is in our blood, and it goes way back. But they (Puerto Ricans) have lost interest. It's like night and day from what it used to be.
Back in the day, there used to be a lot of Puerto Rican players. But look at this year in the All-Star Game. It was only me and Pudge (Rodriguez) and Carlos Beltran.The rest were Dominicans and Venezuelans. ... Fortunately, there are still some great players coming out of Puerto Rico, just not as many of them, guys that are going to be like Juan Gonzalez.
I played three seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico. But, if the excitement's not there - if I don't feel that excitement -why go and play? We'd have like 300 fans a game. You could count 'em! Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, they still are filling their ballparks. Kids there still love baseball. Baseball is what they want to do.But in Puerto Rico? No, it is not that way anymore.Javier Valentin, 30, Maniti, Puerto Rico
Felipe's right about winter ball in Puerto Rico. It used to be one of the best leagues in the Carribbean, now it's the worst. ... The (current) president doesn't know anything about baseball, and that doesn't help. If a person who is going to buy and run a team, he wants it to be successfu0l. ...My brother (Los Angeles Dodgers middle infielder Jose Valentin) and I have tried (to resurrect it), but we don't know what happened. It went down quickly.
Maybe it's that the Puerto Rican players don't play as hard (in winter ball) as they do when they're in the States. It's not the same game we play over here. The respect for the game is not there like it used to be. If we love the game, we have to play it hard. My brother played every winter in Puerto Rico, and so did I. We play together for our (hometown) team, Manati.
I've been playing winter ball every year since '93. My brother and I, we don't think, 'I'm going to get hurt.' Playing winter ball has helped me. A lot. Here in the States, I don't play against lefties that much, but in Puerto Rico I know I'm going to play every day and I can work on my swing from the other side. I see a lot of left-handed pitchers.And I worked on other positions - first base, third base. And I stay in shape. This sport has given me a lot, and I have to give back all I can. My brother is going to build a sports complex (in Manati). We give a lot to Little League. I've got a young kid. My brother has three kids. We want baseball to be there for them like it was for us, if that's what they want to do.
Yes, baseball in Puerto Rico was bigger when I was growing up. It was huge.My father played with (Roberto) Clemente (in a national tournament). He knows (Clemente's) family ... When I started playing baseball, I loved going to the park and watching Candy Maldonado and Ruben Sierra.
When I started in baseball, oh, Ruben Sierra! I told my uncles and my dad, "I'm going to play this game someday. I'm going to be like Ruben Sierra."
I learned from an early age: Everybody wants to play in the major leagues. So, when I got there, I knew how many guys wanted to be in my spot. That's why I've worked hard at it. I love this game!Miguel Perez, 21, Guatire, Venezuela
My dad was a pitcher. Not professional, but very good I hear.I started playing baseball when I was 5. My mother and father both pitched to me. My mother is a left-hander. I started catching when I was 10, 11. We had a game, and we had only nine players, and nobody was a catcher. And the coach asked, 'Who want to catch?'
And nobody wanted to catch. So, I said, 'Hey, I can do it. I just want to play!' I remember that day: I picked a guy off first, and threw out two guys at second base. After that, I wanted to be a catcher and I always caught.
The baseball field was real close to my home - like two blocks. The field was my second house. My mother always said that if I was gone a long time, she knew where I was. We had this game we played with a rubber ball.We played it with our hands, used our hands as a bat. We had three bases and a home plate like in baseball, but we could play it with five or six players. We would play it at school and we'd play it in the street. We didn't need a glove, but when we did need one and didn't have one, we would cut up (an empty carton of) milk or orange juice and use it as a glove.
I played other sports, too. Volleyball, basketball, but I played mostly baseball. My music teachers would say to me, 'Be careful. Don't play too much baseball. You will hurt your hands, and won't be able to play the viola anymore.'
But that went in one ear and out the other. As much as I loved music, I loved baseball more. My favorite all-time player is Andres Galarraga (from Venezuela).
This will be my sixth year playing winter ball (in Venezuela). Professional baseball. My first year was 2000. I was 16 turning 17 when I played for one of the (minor league) teams ... I was 17 when I signed with the Reds. A scout invited me to a tryout in Caracas. It was a 45-minute drive. I took the bus. And now I'm in the big leagues. Amazing!
My English has improved a lot since I got here (the States) in 2002. That was rookie ball, in Sarasota. When I was in high school, my favorite class was English, which helped, but the best thing was to get here and start speaking it. My fiance spoke less English than I did when she got here, but now that she is a senior at Duquesne University, and her English is better than mine! Must be those college-level English classes!
Our winter ball in Venezuela is good. People are always waiting for baseball season. Winter ball. When I was growing up, one of my cousins worked for a radio station in Venezuela. We would get a (satellite feed of a game on TV) and then my cousin would be the commentator on the radio.
One day, I remember seeing Kent Mercker making this unbelievable catch behind his back (on the mound) and I never forgot that. When I got here my first year, I said, "Do you remember that play you made behind your back?"
He said, 'Oh yeah, that was in '96 or '97. How do you know that?' Hey, I remember.Ray Olmedo, 24, Maracay, Venezuela
I started playing baseball when I was 4 years old. My mother and dad were divorced, so it was my mother who (introduced) me to baseball. She played everything. (Soccer), volleyball, basketball, everything. She would pitch batting practice to me! Everything is expensive in Venezuela, but I would borrow other guys' gloves ... In 1998, before I signed professionally, I would be watching a baseball game on TV, and my mom would sometimes change the channel. And I'd say, 'Wait, mom, don't do it!' I would almost fight with my mother over that!
The names (Luis) Aparicio and (David) Concepcion are very special, and not only to me, but to a lot of people in Venezuela. The first time Cincinnati opened an academy in Venezuela, Davey was there in 1999, and I talked to him a couple of times. I never saw Davey play shortstop. By the time I watched him play, when I was little, he was playing first base. But my mother saw him. She felt he was the best! I heard he was great. I'm not the only guy who says that. I have heard that from Jose Vizcaino, Omar Vizquel.
And, my first in professional baseball, (Hall of Famer) Luis Aparicio was there.He was a coach for our winter ball team. I talked to him a lot. He is a great man.Wily Mo Pena, 23, Lagunda Salada, Dominican Republic
I was 9 years old when I started playing. I played some basketball, but not much. Mostly baseball.There is some soccer and basketball in the Dominican, but nothing is close to baseball. Some people say, 'With your size and speed, you would have been a good football player.'
I don't know about that. We didn't play football back home. Our football is soccer, not the NFL. Baseball? You see baseball all over the place, in the streets, everywhere. Baseball, baseball, baseball. You go here, they talk about baseball. Go there, they talk about baseball.
When I was a kid, I had to use somebody else's bat, somebody else's glove, somebody else's spikes. I had to borrow those, whenever I played. I give away a lot of (equipment) away when I go back home in the winter - batting gloves, stuff like that - so the (Dominican kids) don't have to borrow things like I did...
I built a home for my family in the Dominican, because they worked so hard for everything. So now, when I go back, I live with them.Yes, I play winter ball in the Dominican. I play for the best team! Aguilas. The manager is Felix Fermin. We have a lot of good players on that team. Edwin Encarnacion, Bartolo Colon, Tony Batista
Winter ball is great in the Dominican. People enjoy the game. A lot of people come out, and we really love it. You get excited when you see that many people in the ballpark, and it makes you want to play winter ball in the Dominican!Edwin Encarnacion, 22, La Romana, Dominican Republic
I'm from La Romana. There is a famous golf course there, Casa de Campo. (Teeth of the Dog course, a Pete Dye-design.) I don't play golf. Not too many Dominicans play golf. Americans go there to play. It is a good resort, one of the best ... La Romana is close to San Pedro de Macoris, where all the shortstops and Sammy Sosa are from ... There have been other players out of La Romana (including) Rafael Santana and Andujar Cedeno, and now (Antonio) Alfonseca.
I started playing baseball when I was 7 years old. My dad showed me the game. He was a good player - outfielder - but did not sign professionally. My hero is Miguel Tejada. He is a good person on the field, and off the field. He takes care of people. He has helped a lot of people in the Dominican. He gives away a lot of stuff, and he takes care of his city. He is from Bani.
In 1994, I saw my first game on TV, the first game I remember, the Chicago Cubs. Sammy Sosa was there. That's when I started thinking about the major leagues. I remember thinking, 'I want to be there.' I was like most of my friends. We couldn't afford equipment. Too expensive. What was good for me, is my father worked in Puerto Rico, and he bought me a pair of (baseball) shoes and a glove. We would use a tree limb, (whittle) it down for a bat. We played baseball in the streets.
The guys who live in the Dominican don't (earn) enough to buy gloves, just enough to eat and take care of their families. My father was an athletic trainer at the University of Turabo in Caguas. It was a better life for us. It is a better life in Puerto Rico.
The hardest thing for me, for any Dominican, is the language. I didn't talk English in Puerto Rico. The English I know now is what I learned playing pro ball here. My English isn't perfect, but I understand a lot. You get here in the United States, and you don't know nothing. They talk in their meetings, and you don't know what they are saying. That is the hard thing for Latin players in the United States.
The hardest part of baseball for me is hitting. If you don't hit, you can't stay here. Especially at third base. Third basemen have to hit. You have to be consistent. I have to learn to be more selective at the plate, and stay aggressive.They throw me a lot of sliders in the dirt. They throw me a lot of low and away pitches - a lot of breaking pitches. When they throw the pitch on the outside part of the plate, I have to learn to hit that pitch the other way.
I feel blessed to be a professional baseball player. A lot of the guys in the Dominican want to be here, in the big leagues. That's the best feeling for me, being here, being in the big leagues. I want to stay here. That is the best thing for me, and for my family. ... I like Cincinnati. It is a beautiful city.There is no place to get Dominican food, so we cook it ourselves. I live with Wily (Mo Pena).We have somebody cook for us. And my mom is coming soon - Mireya Rivera - and she will cook for us, too.My favorite is chicken and rice.Ramon Ortiz, 32, Cotui, Dominican Republic
I'm from Cotui - a very small city - an hour-and-a-half from Santo Domingo. We have a lot of good baseball players there, a lot of talent. We have a lot of players signed from my town. (Jose) Capellan, Pedro Liriano, Duaner Sanchez. ... In my town, everybody loves the game. When I pitch, everybody knows about it. My mother watches every game. I got her a TV. You can see like 300 channels.
I played on a Little League team in the Dominican. I would see or hear about the (few) Dominican players in the major leagues, but I never, ever thought I would be playing on the major league level. Now, to be here, I enjoy it so much. I say, 'Thank God, for every opportunity you have given me in my life.'
Now you see all these Dominican players. I think it's a great thing.
There are so many great players from the Dominican: Juan Marichal, Joaquin Andujar, Alfredo Griffin, Albert Pujols, Juan Samuel, Felipe Alou, Pedro Guerrero, Manny Mota. ... You know why there are so many Dominican (professional baseball) players? Because when kids go to sleep at night the last thing they think of is baseball. In the morning when they wake up, the first thing they think of is baseball. That was me.
I didn't have that much stuff. I'd go to sleep at night and I'd say to myself, 'Oh my god, tomorrow I get to play baseball.' It didn't matter to me that I had to use somebody else's glove. Then, when my brother - Bernardino - signed with the Giants, he would bring me stuff.He was 18, and I was 11. He was a pitcher, too.When he signed with the Giants, I said, 'Wow.' I saw him play in winter ball in San Pedro. I could not believe it.
You go to the Dominican right now, and you see kids with gloves on their hands, and bats over their shoulders. It's unbelievable. And when I go home and I see that, I feel good because when I go home (in the winter) I always take them a lot of stuff.I buy 4,000 baseballs, and gloves and bats and Cincinnati Reds hats. I give balls to every team in Cotui.
When I came here (to the States), I didn't know any English.My English is better now, because I'm not afraid to talk. Before, I was afraid to talk. I watch a lot of movies and TV. I have learned a lot in 11 years.
When I go home (after the major league season), I go to see my family. I take it easy for one month. I don't sit around and drink. I am with my family, having fun, eating my mother's cooking. Here, in the States,I have my wife to cook for me ... My favorite dishes are rice and beans, and beef. The best cities for Dominican food are New York, and Boston, and Chicago and Cleveland.
You know, for me, it doesn't matter what country you are from. I treat everybody the same. American guy, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Dominican, for me, everybody is the same. For me, baseball is like a family, and when this family wins, I am happy, I feel it in my heart. They are my family ...You can see something in the Latin player.Everywhere we go, you see a Latin player, you say, 'How you doing, brother?' That's a family, too.Luis Lopez, 35, Cidra, Puerto Rico
For me growing up in Cidra - it's toward the middle of the island - I was very close to the game from 5 years old to about 9, then I picked it back up about 14. In between, I was playing basketball, volleyball, BMX bicycling.What got me back into baseball was that Luis Rivera, one of my idols, from my hometown, would come back (after his baseball season in the States). Cidra is not that big of a town, so everybody knows everybody. As soon as we found out he was home, we'd go out and see him.I wanted to be like him, and that's why I got back into it.
I think my English is good because when I first got into pro ball, I knew no English. I started playing when I was 17, and I'm 35 now, so I've had a lot of time to learn. My first year - I signed with San Diego, and I played in Spokane, Wash. - I was one of only two (Latins) on the team, and the second year we were the same two guys in South Carolina. The third year I was hurt and rehabbed in San Diego, and the guy I rehabbed with was Jose Valentin, Javy's brother. I started picking up English a lot quicker that year, watching TV and reading. Back then, there were no schools or tutors like these organizations have now...
For every Puerto Rican player, our idol should be Roberto Clemente. For a lot of Venezuelan guys, it's probably Luis Aparicio, for Dominicans it's Juan Marichal, George Bell. I learned a lot about Clemente from Rod Carew, who was my hitting instructor in Milwaukee. Carew told me that when he came up to the big leagues (in 1967), Roberto had made it very clear to the Latin guys (throughout baseball), 'We're a minority here in the States. Take pride in what you do, and take care of each other and the young (Latins) coming up.'
And that's what Carew did for me. And that's what I try to do. Miguel Perez stays with me. Every night we watch TV and talk about baseball. He's a good learner, and he wants to be a quick learner.
I think it is great that these (American) baseball academies exist (in the Caribbean) to keep the (prospects) in school. Without them, there would still be a lot of kids dropping out of school to play baseball, because that was their only way to make a good living.
It's great for the Latin community, because (American baseball clubs) are investing money and developing something that is good for baseball and good for business. I think that for the guys coming up in the late 1990s, and now the 2000's - Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez - I'm pretty sure they came up through the academy system. If the dream of baseball falls short, you have your education.You have to stay in school, and that's what I tell the kids when I go to camps: Respect your family, respect the game of baseball if you get the opportunity to play it, and stay in school. You pass it along, like Clemente passed it along to Carew and like Carew passed it along to me.