Global Baseball

One man\’s year-long journey through the world of baseball

Interview with Peter Bjarkman

3/27/2007

Back at the Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico earlier this year, I had the good fortune to meet Peter Bjarkman, author of several books on the international side of baseball, including the recently published A History of Cuban Baseball: 1864-2006, Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball, and Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. After spending a few days with Mr. Bjarkman in the Caribbean Series Press Box (and serving as unofficial chauffeur to him and Baseball America’s Chris Kline for a few days), it became clear that he was a man with amazing stories to tell and a wide breadth of knowledge about the game of baseball in the one place I am forbidden from traveling to in my year of study: Cuba. Seizing this opportunity, I pestered Mr. Bjarkman with questions about Cuban baseball all week long, and got him to agree to do a Q&A that I could put up on Global Baseball, which I’ve included below. I encourage anyone reading this to visit his website, http://www.bjarkman.com, and buy any/all of his books. You won’t be sorry.


Peter Bjarkman and Frederich Cepeda

GLOBAL BASEBALL INTERVIEW

 

Peter C. Bjarkman

Author of A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007)

 

 

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GB – How did you develop your interest in Cuban baseball, and how do you get away with your several trips to Cuba each year?

 

BJARKMAN – I have always been enthusiastic about baseball and I first developed an interest in Latin America while working in Ecuador and Colombia (as director of bi-national U.S. Dependents schools in the early 1970s) and again later while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Florida in Spanish linguistics. When I turned to writing about baseball history fulltime (after I gave up my academic career in 1987), the two interests naturally merged. I published my first book on the topic in 1994 (BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT, McFarland). Later, photo researcher Mark Rucker approached me (in 1995) about doing a coffee table picture book about Cuban baseball (this was published as SMOKE: THE ROMANCE AND LORE OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1999) and that is where the Cuban adventure began. I rapidly fell in love with the island, its people and its baseball (which in 1996 was a most pleasant change from the owner-player financial battles then plaguing the majors) and have been making 3-5 trips a year to Cuba since 1997. I travel legally with Treasury Department (OFAC) license as a researcher, and therefore most of my trips to Havana originate from Miami (on sanctioned charter flights), though I sometimes travel the Cancún route simply for convenience sake. In the Introduction to A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, I write extensively about [the] background of my travels in Cuba, for those who want further details.

 

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March 27, 2007 Posted by | Cuban Baseball | 1 Comment

Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!

About 6 years ago, Australia emerged as a potentially huge source of international talent.  Since then, most Aussie players have stalled out in Double and Triple-A, including Glenn Williams, the first and (I believe) only Australian player to be represented by Scott Boras as an amateur.  Today, we bring you 3 reports on Australians fighting for regular playing time on major league rosters.

First, and most compelling, is the story of Peter Moylan, the former pharmacy representative who impressed scouts at the World Baseball Classic and now plays in the upper levels of the Braves’ system.  Moylan throws hard heat, but is just now learning what it takes to succeed at the major league level after following the Dennis Quaid path to reborn baseball relevance.

Next, we have a Kansas City Star article on Justin Huber.  Thought to be a lock as Kansas City’s first baseman of the future two years ago, Huber’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when KC acquired Ryan Shealy from the Rockies.  Huber needs a good year to improve his trade value, because it’s looking more and more like he’ll never get a shot with the Royals.  Usually, inability to crack the worst roster in major league baseball’s a pretty damning indictment of someone’s abilities, but KC’s actually pretty stacked at the corners this year.  I remain cautiously optimistic on Huber, but if he doesn’t show enough this year, he’ll turn into a Quad-A guy.

And finally, one of my favorite players, even though he’s yet to complete a full major league season.  According to the Nationals’ website, Chris Snelling seems to be the subject of a dispute in talent evaluation between Nats’ manager Manny Acta and GM Jim Bowden.  At issue: the competition between Snelling and Ryan Church for the starting Left Field job.  Bowden says Snelling’s definitely on the team and a good bet to start in left, while Acta says Church has left field locked up and Snelling’s on the bubble to make the team.  It’s only natural for Bowden to be a fan of Snelling’s.  Snelling and Fruto for Video has the potential to be the rare Bowden masterstroke, though I may be a bit biased as a Mariners fan and full-fledged member of the Cult of Doyle.
Finally,  the Boston Globe ran a piece a couple of weeks ago about the Australian National Team that took home the silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens which shows how much work is left to do promoting the game down under.  What the few Australians in baseball have managed given baseball’s relative status as an extremely specialized niche sport in the country is nothing short of remarkable.  Australians are incredible athletes, and Major League Baseball seems to be rededicating itself by setting up an MLB-funded Australian Winter League, so hopefully we’ll see significant growth in the game in Australia in the next few years.

March 21, 2007 Posted by | Australian Baseball, Chris Snelling | 1 Comment

Taiwanese Signing

TaiwanBaseball is reporting another 6-figure signing out of the East China Sea.  This time, it’s the Cincinnati Reds making their first foray into the Taiwanese market, inking 19-year-old LHP Tzu-Kai Chiu to a signing bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000.  Chiu’s apparently a pretty soft tosser, so if the price the TT’s hearing is accurate, this might be something of a statement signing on the Reds’ part, announcing their intentions to compete for top Taiwanese talent in the future.

March 17, 2007 Posted by | Signing Period, Taiwanese Baseball | 2 Comments

Next Year’s Signing Period

Baseball America and the New York Times have highlighted 4 Dominican outfielders on the early schedule for showcasing, but from what I’m hearing, this year’s Latin American crop is going to be heavy on pitching.  Two 16-year-old pitchers, one a rare top target from one of the several training programs on the fields adjacent to the Estadio Olympico in the middle of Santo Domingo, and the other from San Cristobal, are generating considerable buzz.  Apparently one of them has already turned down an $800,000 offer (though of course, any such offer would have to have been under the table, since we’re well in advance of July 2).

The top bonus I’m aware of for a “July 2” pitcher (that is, a 16/17 year old Latin American player) is Francisco Liriano’s $900,000 bonus back in 2000.  There may be a signing I don’t know about, but in any case, it’s only a matter of time before someone exceeds Liriano’s mark.  Maybe this is the year.

March 17, 2007 Posted by | Signing Period | 5 Comments

Red Sox 2007 International Signings

Same as the Yankees post: divided into Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Misc. International, and Misc. Latin America. I include certain Caribbean islands where they don’t necessarily speak Spanish in the Misc. Latin America category because, well, it’s convenient, and I don’t really feel like giving the Dutch Antilles its own category.

An aside before I list the amateur signings: the Red Sox seem to have signed live-armed Venezuelan pitcher Edgar Guaramato away from the Seattle Mariners. Guaramato was converted to the mound relatively late in his career (I believe at age 20), and rated as a top-20 prospect in the Northwest League by Baseball America during the 2005 offseason. He throws low-90s and consistently strikes out better than a batter an inning, but suffers from some pretty severe control issues. Guaramato’s a longshot at best after putting up an ERA north of 5 in relief in low-A last year, but not a bad free get by the BoSox scouting department.

Onto the new names.

Dominican Republic

Angel Beltre, OF, 17, $575,000

Oscar Tejada, SS, 17, $525,000

Juan Bonifacio, OF, 18

Eudi Cordones, 3B, 20

Marcial de Nieve, 18,

Eddie Lara, 1B, 18

Wilfred Pichardo, 2B, 17

Stolmy Pimentel, 17, RHP

Manuel Rivera, LHP, 17

Venezuela

Anthony Alvarado, RHP, 17

Pedro Chourio, 3B, 17

Alberto Conzalez, RHP, 19

Leandro Morin, RHP, 18

Ernesto Reyes, LHP, 16

Maykol Sanchez, C, 19

Misc. International

Michael Lennox, 3B, 17 (Australia)

Misc. Latin America

Randy Consuegua, RHP, 17 (Columbia)

Dennis Neuman, 17, RHP (Curacao)

March 17, 2007 Posted by | Minor League Free Agents, Signing Period | 3 Comments

Yankees 2007 International Signings

The most frequent question I get is whether or not I have information on any new international signings by team X. Almost always, the answer is no. At this point in the season, however, a lot of teams have released their media guides, both in hard cover form and .pdf. I have access to the latter, and figured I’d throw up a list of all of a random team’s new signings. Will I do this with all 30 teams? Almost certainly not. Will I do it again? If someone asks me for a specific team, sure.

We’ll start with the Yankees. I’ll add salary information when I know it, but I don’t have any new information since posting my list of known international bonuses back in January. For convenience’s sake, and because it’s important to me to see who’s scouting where (for research as well as contact purposes), I’ll break the signings down by country (read: Dominican, Venezuela, and Other).

Dominicans: (Name, Position, Age)

Aris de la Cruz, INF, 17
Jairo Heredia, RHP, 17
Ariesky Lupaix, OF, 18
Jimmy Paredes, INF, 18
Yaquensi Romero, OF, 17
Damian Taveras, INF, 17, $200,000
Jose Toussen, INF, 17
Carlos Urena, OF, 17, $350,000

Venezuelans

Alberto Acosta, INF, 17
Francisco Arcia, C, 17
Juan Mercano, LHP, 16
Jesus Montero, C, 17, $1,600,000
Jose Pirela, SS, 17, $300,000
Yohanny Reyes, RHP, 18

Other

Rogelio Noris, OF, 17, Mazatlan, Mexico

Almost all of these guys will be playing on one of the Yankees’ two Dominican Summer League teams come mid-June.

Non-DR or Venezuela areas where the Yankees are most active: Mexico and Panama.

March 6, 2007 Posted by | Signing Period | 14 Comments

Global Baseball: Still Dominated by DR and VE

I meant to do something of a writeup on the Caribbean Series a bit closer to the end of it, but I was a bit overwhelmed by the beauty of Okinawa, the spectacle of Okinawan baseball, and the bevy of friends from different parts of my life that descended on this small island in the short time I’ve been here.

During the latter days of the series, however, I started thinking about how far baseball is along in its path towards true globalization.  Looking over rosters, the answer came back loud and clear: not very.

Teams are pumping more and more resources into Nicaragua, Columbia, and Panama.  Major league baseball’s spending millions promoting the game in China and South Africa.  There’s talk of MLB funding the rebirth of the Australian Professional League, which would do a lot to alleviate the huge hit Australian baseball is taking since the IOC decided to dump baseball from the list of events at the summer Olympics (speed walking, however, is still an Olympic event).  Israel’s starting up a professional league.  The Caribbean Series is considering expanding to include the Nicaraguan and Columbian winter leagues (a bad idea unless the invitation also goes out to Cuba).  The MLB European Academy is netting intriguing young talent, and the Seattle Mariners even signed the first kid from El Salvador this offseason.  Taiwanese teenagers choose to sign with major league clubs instead of enter the Japanese League’s draft with ever-increasing regularity, and speaking of Japanese baseball, the NPB and Major League Baseball are going to have to seriously re-work the system of player exchange in the next couple of years, as neither side can be particularly happy with the posting system at this point.

There’s growth on the horizon.

However,  there’s still a lot of growing left to do.

The top prospects in baseball not acquired through the draft still come from two places: the DR, and Venezuela.  Even countries that have produced a handful of quality major leaguers in the past 10-15 years are not showing much of a sign that their output is growing in any meaningful way.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the top prospects from countries where the draft does not take place not named the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

If anyone feels I’ve missed anybody, feel free to chime in.  Combing for prospects is a rather difficult process, so I’m bound to leave some people out.

Mexico

Major Leaguers produced: 98

Best Active Players: Erubiel Durazo, Oliver Perez, Esteban Loaiza

Top prospects:

Joakim Soria, RHP, Royals , Luis Cruz, SS, Padres, Pablo Mehchaca, RHP, Padres

Panama 

Major Leaguers Produced: 48

Best Active Players: Carlos Lee, Mariano Rivera

Top Prospects:

Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies, Davis Romero, LHP,  Blue Jays

Australia

Major Leaguers Produced: 20

Best Active Players: Umm…Chris Snelling?  Justin Huber?  It’s a real down cycle for Australian major leaguers.

Top Prospects:

Shane Lindsay, RHP, Rockies (injured), John Hussey, SP, Padres, Jason Smit, SS, Indians

South Korea 

Major Leaguers Produced: 13

Best Active Players: Um…Jae Wong Seo?  Chan Ho Park?  Shin Soo Choo?

Best Prospect: Yong Il Jung, RHP, Angels

Nicaragua

Major Leaguers Produced: 9

Best Active Player: Vicente Padilla

Top Prospects: Nobody really of note. Seattle RHP Juan Carlos Ramirez has some buzz about him in the low minors, but that’s about it.

Columbia

Major Leaguers Produced: 8

Best Active Players: Edgar Renteria, Orlando Cabrera

Top Prospects: Emiliano Fruto, RHP, Nationals, Ronald Ramirez, 2B/SS, Astros

Netherlands

Major Leaguers Produced: 8

Best Active Player: N/A – best ever: Bert Blyleven

Top Prospects: Alexander Smit, LHP, Twins, Rick Vanden Hurk, RHP, Marlins, Greg Halman, OF, Mariners

Curacao

Major Leaguers Produced: 6

Best Active Player: Andruw Jones

Top Prospects: Wladimir Balentien, OF, Mariners, Scharlon Schoop, SS, Giants, Shairon Martis, RHP, Giants

Taiwan

Major Leaguers Produced: 4

Best Active Players: Chien Ming Wang, RHP, Yankees, Hong Chih Kuo, LHP, Dodgers

Top Prospects: Chin Ling Hu, SS, Dodgers, Seung Wei Tseng, RHP, Indians, Yung Chi Chen,  Mariners

The Verdict

If baseball is growing in areas in Latin America outside of the traditional power houses, the current level of minor league talent from those countries is not showing it.  In some cases, there are extenuating circumstances.  For instance, it’s really difficult to scout Columbia effectively, what with it occupying a prominent spot on the state department’s travel warning list.

However, outside of Latin America, the sport is clearly growing.  Australia’s hit a bit of a low spot since its winter league went broke in the late-90s, but with the possibility of the league’s rebirth, there’s potential to get another strong wave of Australian prospects starting in a couple of years.

The real signs of growth are in Europe and Taiwan.  It’s pretty clear that we can attribute the growth of these countries’ minor league representation to money pumped in by major league baseball in the former case, and by individual teams in the latter instance.  There are a handful of Nederlanders in the minors who are potential major leaguers, along with a couple of Italian prospects.  In the next year, I fully expect to see players from the Czech Republic and South Africa (South Africa’s best young players participate in the MLB European Academy) begin to show up.

Major League Baseball clearly wants to grow the game’s international audience, and with good reason.  There are huge markets out there.  To put a cynical outlook on it, there are countries out there where baseball can find kids who do not have access to quality agents and have no clear idea of what their talent is worth.

Of course, there’s also the issue of Cuban Baseball potentially opening up its doors to American scouts in the next few years after Castro kicks the bucket, which will completely overhaul the makeup of the minor leagues first, and then eventually the majors, and baseball will come out stronger than ever because of it.

Money to be made + money to be saved = significant motivation to go out and expand the game.  It will be interesting to watch MLB’s attempt to become a truly global league unfold over the next decade or two.

March 6, 2007 Posted by | Australian Baseball, European Baseball, Prospects, Random Musings, Taiwanese Baseball | 8 Comments