The Brazil-Tampa Bay Baseball Connection
The Tampa Bay Rays are investing in young Brazilian prospects.
Brazil might be the world’s consummate soccer country. Sports pages carry scant coverage of anything else. An entire nation anticipates the 2014 World Cup.
But in Marília, a city of 220,000, some 230 miles north of São Paulo, cries of “Play ball!” announce strikes rather than strikers. Balls and strikes. Major League Baseball is arriving in Marília.
The Tampa Bay Rays are making an initial $6.5 million investment over five years to establish a baseball camp to develop young Brazilian prospects. The city will invest $1.6 million to build fields, a clubhouse, dormitories and training facilities. It will also provide transportation to and from school for the youth, along with police for security. The Rays will hire coaches and other staff, provide equipment, run Little League programs and work with the physical education departments of local universities to train students in baseball.
Even though groundbreaking for the construction of the facilities has yet to take place, the program already has 20 players between the ages of 15 and 17 taking part in practices. Little League softball and baseball programs are already up and running in Marília and three neighboring cities. Training programs for physical education teachers are also under way.
Baseball has been played in Brazil since the first Japanese immigrants brought the game with them in 1908. For a century, the sport was primarily the purview of Japanese Brazilians, who were eventually joined by Korean Brazilians. Equipment had to be imported, and the sport remained marginal. Few Brazilians of non-Asian descent played, though one such player, José Pett, made history when he was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays and pitched in the minor leagues for seven years. Another was Adriano de Souza, who eventually signed with Tampa Bay after a stint in Cuba. Souza now works for the Rays in Brazil as a scout. He is also the coordinator of the academy in Marília. His brother Edno de Souza works with the Rays as a consultant and serves as liaison between the team and the Brazilian government.
Without a strong baseball tradition, Brazil had been ignored by major league clubs, which set up training camps for local youth in Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in recent years. But both the Rays and the City of Marília seem enthusiastic about the potential of the project. “Factors like the low cost of living, the quality of life, logistics, the socioeconomic impact, good infrastructure and the benefits for both parties were essential to the decision to approve the project,” says Edno de Souza.
Bill Hinchberger is the principal of Hinchberger Consulting and Features, with offices in Brazil and France. A native of California, he is also the founding editor of the online travel guide BrazilMax.com. Adriana Izzo-Ortolano provided research assistance for this article.