Friday, March 7, 2014
PORTLAND – Their baseball talents earn them a chance to play in the United States with dreams of becoming big leaguers.
Reynaldo Rodriguez misses the food he ate growing up in Colombia, but has been able to adapt while playing baseball in the United States – his mother taught him how to cook.
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Once here, the challenges begin for Latin American players.
Along with the tasks of throwing strikes or hitting a curveball comes the adjustment to the U.S., where the language is strange, the weather sometimes cold and the food not even close to what mom dishes out.
"The food. That is tough," said pitcher Marco Duarte. "It's very hard to find someplace like Mexico.
"When my mom is cooking for me, I love that."
As Duarte speaks, he takes in a deep breath, as if he's smelling the grilled beef and spices his mother makes back in his hometown of Hermosillo.
Duarte, who recently joined the Sea Dogs, is the only Mexican on the team, joining players from the Dominican Republic (Stolmy Pimentel and Oscar Tejeda), Venezuela (Heiker Meneses), Colombia (Reynaldo Rodriguez) and Cuba (Juan Carlos Linares). Recently, Venezuelan outfielder Ronald Bermudez was promoted to Triple-A.
The Dominican Republic remains the biggest pipeline for baseball players coming to the U.S. According to statistics gathered during the 2011 season, just over 10 percent of players in the major leagues come from the Dominican. Over 7 percent come from Venezuela, and 1 percent or fewer from Cuba, Colombia and Mexico.
"Everybody wants to be like David Ortiz or Pedro Martinez," Pimentel said of two of the more famous Dominicans to play for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox, like nearly every major league team, has a baseball academy in the Dominican. Young players are scouted and some sign. And Pimentel, like a lot of prospects, signed his first pro contract when he was 16.
"To become professional is a big deal," he said. "Everything changes. You are getting your opportunity."
All the Latin players identified language as the biggest challenge, but Pimentel also discovered another change last year when he came to the Sea Dogs. The rookie and lower levels of the Red Sox minor leagues are in the South. The next step is Double-A in Portland. And Maine in April can be alarming.
"When I got to Portland, it was freezing," Pimentel said. "In my country, it never gets that cold."
Venezuela, the only South American country where baseball is a rival to soccer, is also heavily scouted by major league teams. And teams like the Red Sox and Yankees are well known.
"When I was playing baseball in Venezuela, the Red Sox were my favorite team," said Meneses.
Meneses, 20, signed with Boston as a 16-year-old. He spent two summers playing in the Dominican Summer League before he began playing in the U.S. in 2009.
For Cuban players, the route to American baseball is quite different. The only way is to defect from Cuba. Several defecting players, including former Sea Dogs shortstop Jose Iglesias, made their escape while traveling abroad with the Cuban national team.
But Linares made his move from Cuba, in November 2009, at the age of 25.
"It was very difficult, a little dangerous," Linares said. When he and his wife escaped, they had to travel through swampy waters at night and then board a less-than-reliable boat for an anxious ride to Mexico.
Linares signed with the Red Sox the following July and was in Portland that August. Linares began the 2011 season in Triple-A Pawtucket but injured his leg on a slide and played only 13 games.
Linares, 27, surprisingly began this season back in Portland. But he is not complaining, maybe because of an appreciation from where he came from.
"I've always said, and I'll always say, that I'm willing to play wherever they send me," Linares said through an interpreter.
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Juan Carlos Linares