IBIUNA, Brazil – The Tampa Bay Rays are hoping a few Brazilians can handle a bat better than they kick a soccer ball.
Convinced that this nation of 190 million people is loaded with untapped baseball talent, the Rays are looking to break into the land of soccer by becoming the first Major League Baseball team to sponsor an academy in Brazil.
The Rays will invest $6.5 million in the next five years in the academy, which will train future players and promote the game locally. Up to 4,000 young people will have a chance to learn the sport at a free after-school program.
“Brazil has been good at producing athletes,” said Andres Reiner, special director of development for the Rays. “Brazil has a lot of people, millions of young people and not everyone can play soccer. If they aren’t good soccer players they can be good baseball players.”
Reiner said that in the long term, when the Rays’ Brazilian academy proves to be successful, other teams will start scouting in Brazil and even set up their own academies. The Rays already have two academies in Latin America, in Venezuela and in the Dominican Republic.
Adriano de Souza, a Brazilian who played professionally for various major league teams and is the coordinator of the academy, said he wants to change the way the sport is viewed in Brazil.
“We not only want to give the opportunity for people to learn baseball, but we want to make baseball more popular among the public,” Souza said.
The academy will be constructed with Brazilian federal funding in Marilia, a city in the interior of Sao Paulo state. The mayor of Marilia, Mario Bulgareli, said the city will provide transportation to and from schools and the Rays will provide the equipment and administration.
The facility is expected to be built in July and could open later this year.
“The academy will give an opportunity to low-income children to play a sport that they might not have had access to before,” Bulgareli said.
Jorge Otsuka, president of the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation, said the main reason that baseball hasn’t grown in Brazil is because of the cost of equipment, which has to be imported. He also said that baseball needs more funding, both from the private and public sector, noting that the confederation has been receiving less money since baseball was dropped from the Olympics.
Otsuka said the Rays’ academy may help generate a little interest here.
Although baseball was first introduced by Americans who came to work in Brazil in the 19th century, the sport is mainly played today by the country’s large Japanese community. Many of current Brazilian players learned the game after being invited to try it by a Japanese-Brazilian friend or hearing about it through relatives.
According to MLB, there are 11 Brazilians under contract with major league organizations. And the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation said there are another 11 Brazilians playing professionally and semiprofessionally in Japan.
The Brazilian baseball confederation already administers a baseball training center, built by a Japanese company in 2000, in the small town of Ibiuna, an hour outside Sao Paulo. It houses 45 Brazilian teenagers who train to be on the Brazilian national team.
Rafael Villaman, a Dominican coach working for MLB’s International Envoy Program, is in Brazil for four months helping players at the training center and trying to get more Brazilians involved.
“I have seen a lot of players here with talent,” Villaman said.
Souza thinks the most important thing to get Brazilians playing baseball is to develop Brazilian coaches who can create a style for teaching the sport. Souza hopes that the academy will help do that, noting that it will also help train coaches and physical education professors.
“Baseball in Brazil doesn’t have an identity,” Souza said. “We need to create that identity, a style, a way we play so that we can have a solid way of understanding the sport.”
Nineteen-year-old Leonardo Reginatto, who became the first Brazilian signed by the Rays on Feb. 2, is training at their academy in Venezuela. The shortstop said he is convinced that if the sport is to spread in his country there needs to be Brazilian baseball star on a major league team.
Reginatto says he “hopes to be that Brazilian.”
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