— Eddie Perez arrived in the United States at age 17, bright-eyed and excited, thoughts of baseball greatness on his mind.
An incredible opportunity lay ahead of the youngster from Venezuela. He was a teenager with a professional contract with the Atlanta Braves — a storied franchise in the greatest baseball league on the planet. The Braves thought enough of his skills as a catcher to invite him to spring camp, and he had every intention of making a good first impression.
But as he walked through the airport and listened to all the unfamiliar words being spoken by the strange faces around him, he started to wonder: Now what?
Where do I go? Are they coming to pick me up? If not, how do I get out of this airport? How do I find my team?
Possessing no answers to the questions swirling in his head, Perez waited.
And as the noon sun moved through the sky and finally disappeared below the horizon, he sat in the airport, waiting for the ride that wasn’t coming.
It was 12 hours before Perez found help — a Spanish-speaking Samaritan who called him a cab — and the young catcher was finally able to embark on what would become an 11-year playing career.
“That was scary, it was bad,” recalls Perez, now the 43-year-old bullpen coach for the Braves. “I never told that story to my parents until later in the year because I didn’t want them to feel bad.”
Experiences like what Perez endured are not uncommon for young Latino athletes. But that hasn't stopped the rise of stars from places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Much like the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America into the general U.S. population, MLB has seen a remarkable shift in it's demographic over the last 20 years.
Ozzie Guillen, the outspoken manager of the Chicago White Sox, said last year that within 10 years "American people are going to need a visa to play this game because we're going to take over."
And while Guillen's comments can be taken as a humorous exaggeration, there is an element of truth to what he says.
Baseball might be America's pastime, but the sport is becoming increasingly Latino at heart.
The Latino influence on America’s pastime has increased significantly in the last two decades, with the percentage of Latino players in the major leagues growing from 13 percent in 1990 to nearly 30 percent in 2006. That number continues to hover around 27-28 percent, with the Dominican Republic — a tiny island nation of just 10 million — currently supplying 10 percent of major league players.
The numbers in lower levels of pro baseball are even greater, as more than 47 percent of minor leaguers come from outside the U.S.
But while the rise has been remarkable in recent years, athletes like Perez have been coming to the U.S. for more than a century, willing to brave a foreign culture, strange food, and a puzzling language to pursue a better life.
Cuba produced a pair of major leaguers — Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida of the Cincinnati Reds — in 1911, 36 years before Jackie Robinson is credited with breaking the color barrier. Cuba helped spread the game to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and U.S. oil workers introduced the sport to Venezuela in the 1920s.
Each nation has had its share of success stories, producing Hall-of-Fame talents like Tony Perez (Cuba), Luis Aparicio (Venezuela), Juan Marichal (Dominican Republic) and Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rico). Each legend in turn spawned a generation of young athletes seeking to repeat the success of their idols.
Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro, a Puerto Rican who pitched in the big leagues for 12 years, remembers crafting baseballs out of whatever was handy, and cutting branches from trees to make bats — anything to get a game going and to step into the imaginary shoes of past legends.
“In Latin American countries, baseball is our No. 1 sport,” he says. “That’s what we know, that’s what we learn. We’re just trying to follow in the footsteps of our heroes like Clemente and Marichal.”
But the lure of baseball is not just about culture or the glory. It’s also about opportunity. For many players, playing baseball in the U.S. is a chance to escape poverty, not just for themselves but for their families as well. It can also be a chance to get away from a difficult political environment.
“Our economy is not doing well, and the president we have (Hugo Chavez) is just getting worse and worse,” says Perez. “All you want to do is be a baseball player, make a lot of money, and be out of that country.”
The increasing Latino influence on baseball has coincided with a large influx of Hispanics and Latinos into the general U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic/Latino population increased 43 percent from 2000-2010 (from 35.3 million to 50.5 million) and now accounts for 16 percent of the overall population.
“This seems to be consistent now,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which studies racial and gender trends in major U.S. sports, including MLB. “It’s possible (that the numbers will continue to rise), but I would anticipate that if it does increase, it would be in small increments.”
Lapchick expects the Latino numbers in baseball to remain flat in large part because of a growing anti-immigration movement in parts of the U.S. Alabama, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and most notably Arizona have passed, or are attempting to pass, tough new laws designed to thwart illegal immigration.
Part of the legislation passed in Arizona — whose capital, Phoenix, plays host to Tuesday’s All-Star Game — required law enforcement officials to question people regarding their immigration status in certain circumstances. The law was criticized for legalizing racial profiling, and a federal court tossed out the most controversial parts of the law.
The state, however, has appealed the decision, and The New York Times reported that the petition for a hearing will arrive before the U.S. Surpreme Court on Monday, one day before the All-Star Game in Phoenix.
“There has been historically a significant increase,” says Lapchick. “(But) the anti-immigration feelings in this country are going to be a pretty big counter to that.” (Read Lapchick's 2011 report on MLB here.)
Georgia’s anti-immigration law, which like Arizona's has been suspended by a federal court, would allow officials to verify the immigration status of suspects stopped even for minor traffic violations.
The trend has had an effect not just on illegal immigrants, but on legal immigrants as well, including baseball players.
“I have to be careful now with the rules in Atlanta,” says Atlanta Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez, a 13-year veteran from Venezuela. “You do something bad, like get caught speeding, and you don’t have your green card, you might have to go to jail.”
Perez said he is wary of letting his family come to games, for fear of what could happen if the green cards are accidentally left at home.
“I don’t agree with the immigration laws they’re putting up in some parts of the country, especially in Georgia,” Perez says. “I know they need to do something about it, but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
And Navarro, who as a Puerto Rican is a U.S. citizen, is also puzzled by the wave of anti-immigration sentiment, and just wishes people were a little bit more understanding.
“The one thing people don't understand is that we’re not bad people,” Navarro says. “There are a lot of good people out there and we don’t want anything we don’t have to work for.”
Navarro says he appreciates the movie “Gangs of New York,” a Martin Scorcese film set during the Civil War that follows a violent struggle between native New Yorkers and Irish immigrants, pointing out that immigration has been a big issue in the United States for a long time.
“We’re all humans, and we’re not trying to take anything,” he says. “It’s a great country. We work hard, and we pay taxes like everybody else. We just want a better life.”
As Perez found out during his airport adventure, a professional contract does not guarantee an immediate taste of the good life, as the challenges are many for Latino players trying to make their way in the U.S.
“It’s like you and I being dropped into Russia some place and saying ‘hey, survive,” says Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “You don’t know the language, you don’t even know the food. You’ve gotta find a way.”
That’s hardly easy, even for a pitcher like Michael Pineda, a 22-year-old Seattle Mariner who has burst onto the scene this season as one of the league’s top rookies.
At 6-foot-7, he is an intimidating presence on the mound, blowing hitters away with 98-mph heat, but the journey to the majors has been filled with uncertainty.
Pineda was a late-bloomer coming out of the Dominican Republic, a slugging third baseman/shortstop who was convinced try pitching to better attract the attention of scouts. Flying under the radar of most major league teams, he signed with the Mariners at age 16 for $35,000, a pittance by today’s standards.
His first trip away from home was a flight to Arizona at age 18. Far from his family for the first time in his life, in a place where hardly anyone spoke Spanish, life was difficult.
“There were a lot of tears, not only from me but from my mother as well,” he says. “Everybody was happy for me, but at the same time it’s sad when someone leaves.”
The language barrier was the biggest issue, but Pineda tackled English with gusto. As is now standard practice in MLB, the Mariners require their Spanish-speaking prospects to take regular English classes. Pineda is at the point where he does his postgame interviews in English, though he will use the help of a translator for more in-depth interviews.
“I’m very proud of myself,” he says. “When I came here I told myself that I wanted to learn the language. I’m proud that I understand and navigate the language a little better, and I’m still improving.”
In addition to English lessons, the Mariners bring in speakers during spring training to instruct Latino players on many topics, including how to dress, dining etiquette, banking and investing, dealing with the media, and public speaking, says Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ director of minor-league operations,
“I think what’s important is preparing these guys so that when they get up there (to the majors) they are ready,” he says. “We have to prepare these guys on and off the field.”
Grifol remembers the pride he felt when walking into the clubhouse at Double-A Jackson, Tenn., last summer and watching top Mariners prospect Dustin Ackley, a collegiate star from North Carolina, helping Pineda with his Rosetta Stone English course.
“That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to create here,” he says.
But even with all the help a team can provide, the biggest aid might come from within the clubhouse. During the season, Pineda lives with Navarro, and credits the wisdom of his roommate, as well as advice from teammate Felix Hernandez, a Cy Young-winning pitcher from Venezuela, as being a big help in his transition to the majors.
“I’ve learned a lot from (Hernandez),” Pineda says. “He showed me how the system works, how we’re supposed to dress, how we go on trips, all those kinds of things. If I ever have any doubts, they (Hernandez and Navarro) always tell me just to ask. They are always looking out for me.”
Hernandez is only three years older than Pineda, but is already in his seventh season in the majors. He’s made his transition from wide-eye Venezuelan rookie to established star, and he is more than happy to shoulder the responsibility of helping his fellow Latinos.
“Back in Venezuela a lot of young guys want to play baseball,” he says. “They think it’s fun, but you definitely have to put in a lot of work and sacrifice a lot. Because when you get to the United States, you have to learn a different culture, different food, different language. It can be hard, you know?”
But for young Latino athletes, the risk is worth the reward.
“There is a lot of talent in Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Latin American countries,” says Hernandez. “People don’t have a lot of money, so they want to play baseball. It’s a career that can be good.”