Major League Baseball Teams Tap Into Latin American Talent

Baseball is beginning to look more like bisbol - the Spanish name for the same game. In the past decade the stock of Latin American players in major-league baseball has increased significantly.

Last season Latinos made up 17 percent of opening day rosters, up from 8 percent about 10 years ago. That presence is expected to grow, says ESPN sportscaster Jeremy Schaap, who last summer did a show on baseball in the Dominican Republic.

To replenish the demand for players, which tomorrow's expansion draft will certainly create, teams are presently scouting the talent-rich Latin American leagues.

"If you are not seriously into the Latin American market you're in trouble," says Mr. Schaap. "The talent in these countries is deep and wide."

Except for Minnesota and Cincinnati, all major-league baseball teams are active in the Dominican Republic. The Dodgers, the first team to move into the Latin American market, scout the area's talent closely. About 104 of the 237 minor-leaguers they had under contract at the start of the year were from that region.

It's not the facilities but the 12-month-long summers that act as an incubator for aspiring players, says Schaap.

They even have a winter league that started three weeks ago, and Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa and an estimated 20 percent of major-leaguers are expected to play.

With 57 players, the Dominican Republic had the biggest presence in major-league baseball last season followed by Puerto Rico (28), Venezuela (20), and Mexico (8). Some of the key players on teams that made it to the playoffs this year are from Spanish-speaking countries: Moises Alou, the Alomar brothers, and Livan Hernandez.

As fans continue to migrate to other professional sports, major-league baseball is encouraged by this demographic shift. According to census figures the Hispanic population in the United States is estimated to grow by 73 percent to 40 million by 2010. Some teams are already tapping into the surging Latino buying power.

The Florida Marlins' first postseason appearance was acknowledged with the release of the first-ever Hispanic commemorative baseball coin.

The San Diego Padres bus their fans from Tijuana, Mexico, for a bargain price of $11, which includes tickets to the ballgame. It has raised attendance of Hispanic fans from 7 percent to 25 percent between 1994 and 1997.

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