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Caribbean Baseball Invasion

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2ndpitus

The fact that Caribbeans play a more passionate game than their American competitors is yesterday’s news. Why else does the MLB all-star team have over 40% of the players from the Caribbean?

There are a dozen powerhouse baseball nations with Caribbean beaches, and they send ever more baseball talent to the US. Just look at the numbers: 5 Cubans made the MLB all-star team last year. The Dominican Republic has 153 players in the MLB. Miguel Cabrera and 102 other Venezuelans are among the top players in MLB. Consider that tiny Curacao and Aruba, two Dutch Caribbean islands with 178,000 inhabitants, have 21 guys who play in pro baseball in the US, 6 of them in the MLB. Imagine if similar sized Huntsville, Alabama or Worcester, Massachusetts had half a dozen guys playing in the major leagues.

The engine that drives Caribbean Ball is that it is ingrained in life and culture. Baseball is freedom to dream your way out of a grinding life of hard work for just enough to survive. The dream of making MLB money plays a key role, even though there is no money for baseball at home. The potential earnings a 16 year old player can get from Major League Baseball lures a million boys out to practice hour after hour, month after month, year after year in the broiling sun. Kids of all talent levels love the game and passionately follow their dream of being the next MLB superstar.

In the Caribbean hotbeds of baseball talent, almost every young ball player has a relative or knows someone who is being actively scouted by pro baseball. The economic fundamentals of baseball and the evolution of the MLB’s demographics boil down to getting better talent from the Caribbean for less money. Baseball gets more bang for its buck there than here. And there is a goldmine of talent there to choose from.

weight trainingsan antonio de guerra

Dreams of playing in MLB are put to work by using any equipment and any field with lots of rocks and no grass.

The days of Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, and Barry Bonds are ancient history. Any American baseball player with dreams of playing in MLB better adjust to this economic and cultural reality or sit back and watch a flood of Caribbean players step into the baseball spotlight. Each year there is less and less of a chance for even the best US high school baseball superstars to ever play one inning of major league baseball. 95% of those fortunate American boys drafted by MLB have about the same dismal chance.

I have spent a lifetime coaching elite athletes, and it is my opinion that the vast majority of Caribbean baseball players out­work, out­hustle, out-smile and out­last their stateside competitors. Not all. I have coached lazy Caribbean players and have seen them disappear from the athletic scene in no time. But I have also coached Caribbean guys who play with more passion and more long lasting desire to make it. I watch US guys come to practice in a BMW while the Venezuelan 17 year old comes on a bicycle with a big smile. Caribbean baseball excels with a ridiculously simple system. It isn’t one thing; it’s a brew of several indispensable but connected parts. The way they combine the parts is the key.

1. Genetics

 training group

15 and 16 year old players from Venezuela’s Guillen Academy train with me in Florida along with American guys. Most of the boys will sign as MLB Free Agents for over $200,000.

The racial blend tops the list of reasons why Caribbeans excel, as the nations of this ocean are the very definition of blending. Centuries ago Native Indians mixed with Spanish, Dutch, French, and English settlers. Soon African blood was added, along with a dose of Arabic and Asian. Centuries of inter­racial marriage have formed society in the Caribbean; the norm is for a wide variety of skin color kids all playing in beat up baseball fields together.

It is interesting for visitors to the Caribbean to realize that over there, no one notices, no one makes a big deal about race. Only a blind person would say that the great baseball talent in the Caribbean is because of African bloodlines. Go to the tiny cities of the Puerto Rico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. Watch the little guys play stickball in the streets or vacant lots. The visible racial mixtures are seemingly endless.

Standard baseball folklore states that baseball was the All-American sport of white farm boys, Italians, Jewish, and German boys. Then came Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and a host of black players to turn that idea upside down. Along the way Caribbean guys trickled into MLB lineups led by Roberto Clemente, Louis Tiant, and countless other Latin players. A trickle led to a steady flow that has led to a flood. The genetic flood from Caribbean countries is black, brown, white, Asian, and mixtures of all of the above.

luis aparicio

Luis Aparicio and other Latins arrived little by little 15 years after Jackie Robinson.

In the 1960’s I remember going to a baseball game and watching the magical infield play of Luis Aparicio of the White Sox. That day he made a couple of astounding plays I have never forgotten. He was the first big time Venezuelan player in the MLB, and he helped open the door to other Latin guys coming in. As I look back on it now, it is clear that he represented the magical genetic mix that is at the core of Caribbean baseball talent.

All of us need to get out of thinking race, to think more about what goes into the unique genetic makeup of Latin players. Scientific explanations are muddled when it comes to understanding the musculature, reaction time, metabolic efficiency, and the physique of Latin players. Functionally, the answer is meaningless. Genetically they took the best of each drop of blood that went into the mix. The players have disadvantages financially and are lacking in modern living conveniences, but these disadvantages turn into huge advantages as the little boys grow up into gifted baseball players.

2. Physical Demands of Life

cocoa bags venezuelaconstruction by hand and back

This is a life of building strong legs, lifting, and especially pulling objects. Everyone works and the work is usually lifting heavy stuff.

Poor kids in the Caribbean grow up in a very physical life. The entire population always seems to be carrying things, often heavy stones or material. They do so in beat up shoes or even barefoot. While Americans think of the work as evil child labor, it is quite different when you see it with your own eyes. Bags are filled up, lifted, carried, then opened, then sorted. It is hard work but it isn’t Oliver Twist suffering from the overseer’s whip. The boss tends to be Daddy or Momma laboring hard next to Junior.

Kids walk and walk and walk along the roadsides, dodging cars and motorbikes. Children ride beat up bikes miles to wherever they are going. In the Dominican Republic, you can actually see men with donkey carts walking on streets outside multimillion dollar MLB training academies. Unlike the United States, society is not based upon mommy’s SUV, but on human generated energy for transportation.

Life is work. Little guys work, not in factories, but at home and in family businesses. They carry stuff, lift stuff, move stuff, and pull stuff around. At home, heavy pots are lifted, corn is shucked, and little girls wash clothes and wring them out with their hands.

As the Caribbean boys become teenagers, very often you’ll see them “lifting weights” made of pipes stuck into plastic buckets of concrete. The amount of weight is unknown, nobody counts and nobody cares. The resulting weight just gets lifted. There is no foolish bodybuilding culture for sculpting traps or triceps, not once recording the reps or sets. And yet the resulting scrawny boys can throw and hit a baseball with amazing velocity.

Frequently I go to workouts for MLB scouts. Half a dozen Caribbean ball players will hit, run, throw and field. It always amazes me to see some skinny Latin 15 year old come out and run 6.6, then consistently wack the ball to the warning track and over the fence, then throw strikes from the outfield to 3rd base. There are no big muscles, no puffed out chest. But the performance is off the charts.

3. Diet

chicken soup and vegetables

Steaming hot Caribbean soup is loaded with fresh vegetation and protein.

The vast majority of talented baseball players from the Caribbean come from the poorest sectors of society. They don’t eat fast food or go out to restaurants; instead they eat traditional Caribbean foods with a very high content of fresh vegetation. By rule of Momma, meals are eaten as a family, often a large extended family of aunts, uncles, second cousins, next door neighbors, and the mail man.

The boys eat and eat but the food doesn’t make them fat. Protein isn’t anywhere near the same quantity as their American counterparts, but the protein quality is much better as it isn’t mass produced with contaminants. Overall, they Caribbean kids tend to eat a lot more fish than American kids. The varieties of beef dishes seem endless, flavorful, but surprisingly not spicy hot. Pork is much more common, and goat is eaten often, especially in thick hot soup.

Meals are often fabulous tasting soup, the poor-people food of champions. Roots (yucca, iicama), corn, squash, and green bananas (plantains) are cooked all day with vegetables and fish or goat or pork. The liquid hot soup fills the tummy plus the quantity of fresh nutrients produces a satisfying meal with a taste to die for. Caribbean foods are vibrant and healthful, eaten steaming hot 12 months per year.

They eat fresh fruit, lots of it, usually growing on trees in small yards. The different kinds of fruit are a shock to see, often unrecognisable to Gringo eyes. Fruit is part of their constant hydration. Great Caribbean super stars are fueled with water, not Gatorade.

Puerto Rican pork, rice and plantain

Puerto Rican pork, rice and plantain made by Momma.

Puerto Rican DNA is built on pork, black beans, rice, and plantains. Dominicans grow up on mangu, a mashed plantain with onion. Venezuelans can’t exist without patacones, a huge sandwich with flattened plantains instead of bread. No Cuban is truly happy without yucca and roast chicken.  All of this is cooked by Momma who makes absolutely certain that every bit of it is eaten.

The Caribbean diet featuring yucca and plantains leads some sport nutrition specialists to believe this is the reason for Caribbean success in sports. Wishful thinking. If you took the same diet and fed it to every person in Finland for a generation, I seriously doubt if it would make a difference. However, when the Caribbean diet fits into the grand puzzle of Caribbean sport culture, the diet acts like a spark plug.

4. Culture

dance street partyback yard party

The glue that sticks all the parts of Caribbean baseball together is culture. Any excuse is used to host a backyard party and everyone dances, from little kids to grandparents.

Strong family bonds are a major part of the formula for success. Mostly Catholic, the region is consistently decorated with murals and statues of Virgin Mary. This is part of the reason the ball players are so closely tied to and directed by Momma. Momma sees Junior play every home game and is the most vocal person in the stands. If Momma says to do something, it gets done — now. There is an understood “or else” to this.

But it goes beyond just family. The culture is all about passion. Caribbean music is highly upbeat and rhythmic while the love songs are so passionate they are called corta venas (Spanish for vein cutting songs). The women dress for the Caribbean heat and the clothing tends to be minimal and colorful. Horns honk in the street. People talk very loudly, they hug, and they live life to the fullest.

And this all shows up at the baseball park. The stands at Caribbean baseball games are loud, abusive to the opposition, singing, swaying, yelling. Where else do you see people dressed up like Mardi Gras, dancing in the stands, and laughing at a pitcher whose ERA is over 6. This is a society steeped in baseball stats. There are no zombies in the stands texting or tweeting into iPhones.

Passion is the name of the game in Caribbean Ball. The young boys learn to play with passion, to go wild on the base path, to risk life and limb diving for a foul ball in a 9 to 0 game. This is how Caribbean baseball culture takes a dull 3 hour game and makes it heart pounding.

5. Focus and Freedom to be a Kid

Cuban boys play street baseball

The lack of organized controls on sport allows Caribbean kids to just play ball.

In the Caribbean, you play soccer or you play baseball. Many great peloteross (the Spanish word for ball players) grew up as outstanding soccer players, helping to explain the sometimes amazing athleticism found in Caribbean baseball. There’s no option for tennis, no lacrosse, no basketball, no music lessons, no swimming lessons, no boy scouts, no aftercare games.

There are no bicycle helmets I see when I go there. Kids ride bikes and crash, bleed a little, then ride some more. There are no life vests as they swim, no special shoes, often no shoes at all. They don’t overdo the organized sports, as most baseball is just broomsticks swatting at kernels of corn, street ball, and full games in beat up fields.

Venezuela boys worship Miguel Cabrera

Players grow up knowing Miguel Cabrera also grew up as a poor kid from Venezuela.

Today’s MLB Caribbean ball players grew up living baseball, walking miles to play, playing unsupervised for hours, going to games and watching local heroes. When these Caribbean guys come to the US, they typically don’t understand baseball politics and “daddy ball” that tends to make the sport worse here. Very often they come here and get hurt from our overuse of throwing. They frequently get hurt from our weightlifting system that is based upon muscles rather than motions.

Latin America doesn’t have the same quantity of distractions. With fewer distractions, the Caribbean boys grow up more focused on baseball, more adept than their American counterparts. Life is more difficult there but more care free, at least it seems so to me when I am there. You don’t see little Napoleon youth coaches to burst their bubble, nor organizations to take away from having fun, nor locks on fields to dampen the passion of young boys who love to play.

6. Rocks, Sticks, and Sandals

hitting in flip flops

Learning to hit in flip-flop sandals teaches valuable lessons in batting.

Caribbean boys grow up playing baseball 52 weeks per year. They play in the streets, in cornfields, and “baseball diamonds” that have rocks of all sizes. Infields are dangerous when there are more rocks than clear dirt, and this is a fact of life playing baseball as a Caribbean. Little guys grow up expecting and getting bad hops due to all the rocks in the field. The body must be positioned to expect the ball to dart to one side or the other. The kids learn to instantly charge a line drive to prevent it from having the opportunity to take a bad bounce. When a boy spends 10 years playing defense this way, the habit is a tremendous advantage. This is one reason why Caribbean guys all seem so gifted as fielders.

When children hit the ball (or anything used as a ball) most of the time they do so in flip-flop sandals. Sandals teach that the foot can’t be lifted high as you hit, and especially that the stride must be short — preventing lunging into the pitch. If so, the sandal will fall off. Hitting becomes much easier or “natural” with the habit of a short stride.

Throughout the Caribbean, baseballs are scarce. Batting practice can often be with a bag of 4 or 5 beat up baseballs shared by a dozen kids. Popping the ball high up or hitting up high for distance often means losing precious baseballs. Therefore, little ball players learn early on the importance of hitting line drives and keeping the ball low so they won’t lose another ball. This line drive hitting habit is golden as the guys grow up and play in the United States.

The boys don’t run poles, don’t run miles like a marathoner, and don’t have the luxury of nice cut grass or manicured infields to run on. Instead they sprint full speed on hard dirt or soft cornfields. The soft surface teaches the legs to put more and more force into the ground to sprint — the only kind of running they do. Then they get on the hard surface and utilize that habit of pushing hard for each step. The contrast is like magic in teaching these guys to sprint quick as a cat. Furthermore, the level of extremely fast  competition and peer expectations are important for developing blinding speed. The result is a geographical region of the fastest humans on planet earth.

Blind Gringos

As the little boys grow and develop in the Caribbean, a big change happens at about age 12 to 14. They play on baseball teams coached by former players. They play against similar badly equipped teams with mis-matched uniforms. Sometimes they play against visiting travel teams from the US. There the misunderstanding begins. The Americans see the boys just before the best players are selected to play in a series of baseball academies where the coaching is intense, the quantity of scrimmage games is extensive, and the development of talent is phenomenal. Like the base of a pyramid, the life and experience of being a boy growing up in the Carribean has a solid foundation for an athlete. Years of developing agility, adapting to bad hops, honing skills of hitting kernels of corn with a broomstick, throwing rocks at each other, and running full speed every day of life pay off at puberty.

Compare that to the country club atmosphere (and price tag) of the silly American system of travel baseball teams. I see kids play on two travel teams at a time, play at high schools where the coaching is so incompetent it borders on criminal, all the while failing to see that professional baseball is now more than 42% Caribbean players. When parents pay and pay and pay for Junior’s baseball instruction and get nothing in return, no one points out that Junior has zero chance because of the way Junior was raised.

We take Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, strap them into car seats, take away their bicycles because it is too dangerous, pay $20,000 a year on baseball. They play baseball in a bubble, never touched by the real world of baseball they cannot see. Then we put them out on the field against scrawney Caribbean kids who out hit them, out play them, and have more fun doing so. The contest is between superb Caribbean athletes playing against superb Xbox players.

American baseball coaches, parents, and players fail to open their eyes and just look at what is going on. We have tossed the ball to Caribbean players by the time the last baby teeth are drop out.

There is an Caribbean baseball invasion, and it is saving the grand ol’ game from death by boredom.

This is the future of baseball. Ready or not, here they come.

© Randy Smythe, 2015