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The international future of baseball

May 14, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

One of the most valuable relics of my childhood is a baseball I received at Fenway Park back in 2011 during a game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Even better, this ball was fouled into the stands by none other than Big Papi himself, David Ortiz. My prized baseball currently resides next to my old black and gold Rawlings glove and a binder containing my baseball card collection. Although fútbol is my favorite sport, baseball holds a special place in my heart.

Lawrence, Massachusetts, the city in which I reside, has a majority Dominican population, and thus baseball culture always surrounded me growing up. The summer hype over pelota, as many of my Dominican neighbors called it, became clear as every park I lived around had a daily baseball game to watch. When I first began loving the game often referred to as “America’s National Pastime,” I thought I was assimilating into American culture. However, it turns out I was integrating myself into a game whose future hinges on Latin America and Asia.

Baseball has a long history with Latin America, first beginning with Nemesio Guillo, the pioneer who popularized baseball in Cuba in the 1870s and founder of the Habana Baseball Club— Cuba’s first baseball team. It is undecided who the first Latin American-born player in the major leagues was (contenders include Colombian Luis “Lou” Castro in 1902 and Rafael Almedia and Armando Marsans in 1911). The White Sox’s Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso became the first black Latin American All-Star in 1951. This success led to perhaps the greatest Latin American pioneer in baseball history, Roberto Clemente. Clemente, a decorated black Puerto Rican-born talent, became the first Latin American player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

Due to baseball’s popularity in many countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, Japan and South Korea, Major League Baseball (MLB) has seen an influx of foreign-born talent take the sport by storm. 2021 Opening Day Rosters had 256 international-born players, which makes up 28.3% of the active player pool. This number does not include the many other MLB players who have foreign heritage, which, in reality, makes international influence much higher.

I witnessed this Latin American influence myself when the Red Sox manager Alex Cora revealed Boston’s 2021 Opening Day lineup. If we further examine player origin, it turns out two-thirds of the batters were of Latin American descent, and one-third were foreign-born.

2B- Enrique Hernandez (Puerto Rico)

CF- Alex Verdugo (USA)

DH- J.D. Martinez (American born, Cuban descent)

SS-  Xander Bogaerts (Aruba)

3B- Rafael Devers (Dominican Republic)

RF- Hunter Renfroe (USA)

LF- Marwin Gonzalez (Venezuela)

C- Christian Vázquez (Puerto Rico)

1B- Bobby Dalbec (USA)

If we wind back a decade to the 2011 Red Sox Opening Day lineup, only two out of the nine batters were foreign-born or not born in the continental U.S. (Marco Scutaro and David Ortiz). One could probably do this same exercise for every MLB Opening Day team and find a major demographic shift.

Top prospects in the minor leagues have also begun to come from abroad at faster rates. In fact, if we take the top three prospects from 2017-2021 according to MLB.com, we will find that nearly two-thirds of them are actually international or have close foreign heritage (e.g., Moncada, Tatis Jr., Guerrero Jr., Gleyber Torres, Ohtani, Acuña Jr., Bichette, etc.).

This clear demographic shift has brought a new generation of exciting and talented players to the MLB, such as Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr and Shohei Ohtani. I cannot deny that baseball currently has an image problem, with its popularity plateauing because of factors like the decline in American youth baseball.

However, I believe that the MLB should work extensively to embrace this demographic shift in order to shape a new generation of baseball fans. For example, baseball’s “unwritten rules” regarding bat flips and player celebrations often hinder the explosive personalities and excitement of the sport. In baseball leagues across Latin America, these rules often do not exist and some foreign-born players like Fernando Tatis Jr. often find themselves victims of the judgement of these draconian rules. This new demographic shift is a great opportunity to create changes like abandoning the “unwritten rules” and developing more marketable images for the sport.

As it stands, the future of baseball abroad looks promising, largely thanks to the success and competition of foreign leagues in Mexico, Cuba, South Korea and, most notably, Japan’s NPB. Although many reforms are needed (especially in the Minor Leagues) to help international talent flourish to their full potential, I cannot understate baseball’s cultural significance to Latin America, and I thus hope the love for the sport conquers all obstacles.

With that said, this was my last column for the year. Thank you (yes, you) so much for reading my content! I am very grateful for all the positive feedback I have gotten, it means the world to me.

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