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Books | Sports

June 30, 2008

Venezuela's Baseball Pipeline

Milton Jamail tells Gelf how one scout sensed opportunity in an economic bust and helped change baseball.

Nick Matros

For the past 20 years, Milton Jamail has been living a double life. When he wasn’t lecturing on Latin American politics and economics at the University of Texas, he was reporting on young baseball prospects for the Houston periodicals. His new book Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom: Andres Reiner and Scouting on the New Frontier combines his two interests by depicting the relationship between economics and baseball scouting in a country whose players—including Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, and Melvin Mora—have dazzled American baseball. Jamail takes us on a journey through the back roads of Venezuela, giving us first-hand insights into the life of a scout in a land where the romantic notion of finding the diamond in the rough still exists.

Milton Jamail/Photo by Tampa Bay Rays
"When a young man comes here, he's outside of his country, his culture, away from his family, in a stressful situation."

Milton Jamail/Photo by Tampa Bay Rays

Gelf spoke to Jamail about his relationship with Venezuelan baseball pioneer Andrés Reiner, his new role as consultant for the ex-league-doormat Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and why Moneyball doesn't always play in Latin America. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Jamail and other baseball writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, July 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: When did you begin writing about baseball, and has it always been with a focus on Latin American players?

Milton Jamail: I started writing about baseball in about 1989. It's always been only Latin American baseball because my training in academia is in Latin America and I speak Spanish. So it was natural to go in that direction.

GM: What led you to begin your specific research on Venezuela?

MJ: Well, in 1990, I saw a piece in either the Sporting News or one of the Houston papers discussing how the Houston Astros were going to open a facility in Venezuela. I called and asked them about it, and they said, "Yeah, we're gonna do something." The Houston Post gave me an assignment to write a story about it. I went and did that story and I thought that was the end, except I got seduced by Venezuela and kept going back and back and back, and that's what the book comes out of.

GM: What was your process and motivation in organizing over 20 years of writing on the subject into a single book?

MJ: Basically, it was to follow one scout, Andrés Reiner, who is the focus of the book, and just to follow his vision. He laid out this vision of what he thought major league organizations could do in Venezuela, a country that had not been scouted very much, systematically. So, I just kept going back and talking to him. I'd do a piece for Baseball America, USA Today Baseball Weekly, or the Astros magazine. I was doing all these little bits and then somewhere in the mid-'90s I realized I probably should do a book on it.

GM: The title contrasts Venezuela's economic bust with the boom of ballplayers making their way to the pros. Yet this speaks only to a small part of the book. Reiner really proves to be the glue that holds it together. Why did you choose to highlight the "bust" and "boom" in your title?

MJ: Well, I think the title is really the key to what Andres's vision was. His vision was, here's a country, that, certainly in terms of Latin American economies, is wealthy. In the late '70s up to the early '80s, Venezuelans had a very high per-capita income and a lot of young men were getting scholarships to study abroad. Reiner saw the bust in the economic cycle in Venezuela as an opportunity for US baseball teams to come in and say, "Hey, you love baseball anyway, why don't you think about becoming a professional player?" It was perfect timing for them to come in the mid to late '80s. I think the title does represent the core of the book, which is that it was the right moment to move into that line.

GM: How did you initiate your relationship with Reiner, and how has it developed over the past 20-plus years?

MJ: I called the Astros up, and they said, "Well, here's his phone number, give him a call." I called him up, I introduced myself, and his first sentence was, "I know who you are; I read what you write." Which was pretty interesting, to have somebody out of the blue tell you that. I explained what I wanted to do, and he said, "I'll be at the airport in Valencia"—which is probably the third largest city in Venezuela—"and when you come, I'll have an Astros hat on." Sure enough, he was there at the airport with his Astros baseball cap on.

GM: On a number of occasions in the book we find players who sign with the Astros organization, through Reiner, for less money than competing ball clubs. How would you explain this phenomenon to your average American baseball fan?

MJ: I think basically what happened was, you spend a lot of time talking with the families—that's the most important thing—and explain to them that you're going to take care of their son. And then if you have their son in the academy for a month, or two months, or three months, or whatever, they like the way they're treated, and then when the time comes to sign the Astros would offer a bonus. Let's say it's $25,000 and some other team might offer $50,000. Parents often would sign with the Astros, and certainly the young man wanted to sign with the Astros, because he liked the way he was treated. There's an example in the book of how Carlos Guillen, who plays with the Tigers, was going to sign with another organization for more money. Bobby Abreu told Carlos, "Come check us out, we're a great organization." This is when Bobby was only about 17 or 18. It speaks to word of mouth, and to a mystique about how good the Astros were in Venezuela.

"Scouting is one of the most complicated arts that there is."
GM: Was there a real danger of players being mistreated by other ball clubs?

MJ: No, not really. I mean, it depends on the organization. Some organizations would sign a ton of players, keep them for a couple of years, and then release them. The Astros tried to keep a player for three or four years to see if he would develop. That's an important consideration, but even the Astros scouts would tell a player, "Hey, look, if somebody offers you a ton of money, then you need to sign with that other organization, you need to think of your family." Again, these are all individual decisions that were made when bonuses were running from 10 to 30 or 40 thousand dollars, that changed in the mid-'90s when the Yankees gave somebody $1.6 million. Then it became hard for the Astros to go up to families and say, "Hey, can you sign for $50,000?"

GM: As you followed scouts, traveling from region to region across the Venezuelan countryside, could you ever imagine yourself scouting baseball talent?

MJ: No—it is one of the most complicated arts that there is, and the most difficult thing is the projection. I'm out with these scouts, and they can actually see a kid who's 16, six feet tall, and weighs 140 pounds, and they go, "When he's 20, he's gonna be six-two, weigh 210 and he's gonna have power." I can't see that projection. What I could see after a while, scouts would say, "Okay, Milton, check it out, who do you think we're looking at?" Well, they were looking at a guy who was bigger or faster when he was 15 or 16. I knew that much, but after that, I was lost. I think scouting is very difficult, and is a very under-appreciated art.

GM: In your book, you highlight how opposite Reiner's method of scouting is to the statistic-centered methods depicted in Moneyball. Has the increased popularity of Oakland general manager Billy Beane's approach influenced how players are looked at in Venezuela, or have you heard any reactions to it from the Venezuelan scouts?

MJ: I think we're talking about two different things. Moneyball was based on the US. In Latin America you don't have any track record for these players—you don't have college or high-school statistics to look at—so the tools that Moneyball people use, you couldn't use in Venezuela. So, they're different issues. I think where scouting has been influenced has been the way that Reiner and the Astros set up this academy setting where you bring in players to look at them, evaluate them, train them, and make them better. I think you had other organizations come in after that and set up similar academies, and if I'm not mistaken there are eight organizations now that have facilities in Venezuela.

GM: So it's not like you've necessarily seen people turning their noses up at Moneyball, it's just too difficult to compare.

MJ: Yeah, it's just too difficult to compare. When I first read Moneyball, I didn't know if it was the arrogance of Billy Beane or the arrogance of Michael Lewis that kind of dismissed Latin America and these scouts who look for makeup of players, etc. Well, in Latin America, you have to look for those things, because you don't have the statistics. Any successful baseball organization has to operate with both approaches in mind: the Moneyball approach and the Latin American academy approach.

GM: In the chapter "Foreigners at their own Game," you offer insights into the difficulties Latin American players face once they come to the US, be they linguistic, cultural, or both. Have most professional clubs taken to offering classes in language and culture similar to those implemented by the Astros?

MJ: I would assume that almost every organization does something to varying degrees. Some will do a great job having really good cultural classes, continuing those classes when they come to the States. Some are more perfunctory, but everybody does something now.

"Soccer dominates Brazil, so when you go in looking for a baseball player, it's going to be a long-term process."
GM: What are some of the common problems that occur, in terms of cultural issues, that as fans we might not even take into consideration about a young prospect coming over from a Spanish-speaking country?

MJ: I think the most important one is the ability to speak English comfortably. When a young man comes here, he's outside of his country, his culture, away from his family, in a stressful situation. If he can speak English he can begin to defend himself off the field—order pizza, or whatever he needs—and on the field, of course he can listen to instruction from his coaches. The faster a player can learn English, the more successful he's going to be. I think the example I would give you is Pedro Martinez, who is absolutely competent on and off the field and has no problem dealing with reporters. An example of a person at the opposite extreme is Vladimir Guerrero who is tremendous on the field, but he doesn't like to talk to the press because his English skills were never that good.

GM: Have current political tensions between Venezuela and the US affected Major League Baseball's interest in the Venezuelan market?

MJ: That's a difficult issue. I work with Tampa Bay now as an international consultant on their programs in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and we operate under the rules set out by both those countries. We don't have any problem with either one, but no one knows what the future holds.

GM: You speak of Reiner as finding a new frontier of baseball talent in soccer-dominated Brazil. Have you been able to follow up on that progress at all? Do you have any plans of shadowing scouts down there, or perhaps on some other new frontier?

MJ: On the Brazilian issue, this is a long and complicated issue, but I'll try to be as short as possible. Brazil plays baseball in the southern part of the country and it's mostly dominated by descendants of the Japanese immigrants who came in 1908. It's the 100th anniversary of that migration. So if you ever see a Brazilian baseball team in international competition, 98 percent will be Brazilians of Japanese descent. Some organizations are now going into Brazil. Tampa Bay is thinking about that. I know Philadelphia have signed players there, and the Yankees have signed players there. Again these are kind of long-term issues, because soccer dominates Brazil. When you go in looking for a baseball player, it's going to be a long-term process.
Tampa Bay has recently, in the last few years, signed six players from Argentina, and that's very unusual, because they hardly play any baseball in Argentina—they play softball. There's an independent scout who watches softball games and then says that he thinks a kid would make a pretty good professional ball player, and we send an international scouting director down, and he signs those kids. We have one pitcher in our organization—Diego Echeverria, a knuckleballer from Argentina—who's pitching up in the Hudson Valley with the Renegades in the same league as the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees. He's a lot of fun to watch, and should he make it to the major leagues, he just might be the subject of my next book..

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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- Sports
- posted on Sep 18, 08
kent Lambertson

I was telling my brother I had met Geno Petralli.
I told my brother how Geno had attended Sacramento California schools. He entered MLB through the amataur back door draft. He played for a Venezuelan team and later Toronto/Oakland & eventually catcher for The Texas Rangers Basebal. Please enlighten. Thanks, Kent

Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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