Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Things that make you go "Aaargh!"

There's a new book out about baseball scouting in Venezuala (Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom by Milton H. Jamail), focusing on the work of scout Andres Renier. Renier is currently a special assistant for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a position he's held since 2006. Before that, he worked for the Houston Astros, founding their Venezuelan baseball academy, a facility that produced Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and Johan Santana, among others. Why should you care?

From Kevin Baxter's LA Times review of the book:
During the 1970s and early '80s, oil-rich Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. More than 75% of the population was middle class and rising, thanks in part to a government that spent lavishly, sending thousands of students abroad to study.

As a result, baseball was considered a game, not a career, and parents weren't beyond hiding a son's glove should he ever get the two confused. The major leagues paid the country little notice.

Then came Black Friday, Feb. 18, 1983 -- the bust in the book's subtitle -- when a steep drop in oil prices led to a devaluation of the bolivar. Before long, more than half of all Venezuelans were considered poor and baseball suddenly was seen as a way to escape poverty, just as it is in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.

Timing was on Reiner's side then when, less than a year later, the longtime Venezuelan resident approached the Astros, San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates with his idea of a Dominican-style training academy, where Venezuelan prospects could be scouted, signed and developed.

All three turned him down.

Reiner was undeterred, telling everyone that Venezuela could produce as many major leaguers in the next five years as it had in the last 40.

He was wrong, of course. It took eight years.

During that period, Reiner had persuaded new Houston General Manager Bill Wood to spend $60,000 to fund his proposed academy, and in August 1989 the Astros' Venezuelan facility opened in Valencia. And Reiner wasted little time proving his seemingly preposterous projections right: Eight of the first 14 players he signed went on to play in the majors, a ridiculously high success rate.

It's easy to play the "what if" game, but wow, that was a pretty big mistake by Galbreath and Co. How much would we be willing to pay for that kind of exclusive access to a prime talent market now? I guess the take-home lesson is that we need to be open to the long view about similar opportunities in the future.

If you're interested in reading more, this 2005 article from the SF Chronicle is pretty good.

1 comment:

WilliamJPellas said...

Interesting post. However, one must keep in mind that for a country as awash in oil money as Venezuela has been since the 1920s, Venezuela has been surprisingly unstable and left-leaning, politically. Hugo Chavez is merely the latest in a long line of dictators of one stripe or another. So, I'm not really sure that the average Venezuelan has ever been so complacently well off that the ol', Horatio Alger-slums to the big leagues path was ever largely ignored. Perhaps the wealthy inner circle of Venezuelan poltical-economic elite might have eschewed sports as a means of economic empowerment, but I doubt highly that most of the rest of the populace would ever look down their noses at "beisbol".

Keep in mind, too, that Chavez' crazy posturing and statist-Marxist-collectivist policies might mean that foreign enterprises like the putative baseball academy would have been subject to harrassment or interference or worse. I'd be curious to know how the Astros' operation is doing in recent years.