FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Latin American players are given lessons in English as part of their indoctrination into baseball in the United States. Considering the growing number of Latin Americans wearing Orioles uniforms, the organization may start thinking about teaching Spanish to its English-speaking players.
Players from Latin American countries account for nearly a third of those on the Orioles' 40-man roster, along with six of the 22 nonroster invitees. Reliever Armando Benitez is from the Dominican Republic, outfielder Eugene Kingsale is the first major-league player ever from Aruba, second baseman Roberto Alomar hails from Puerto Rico.
Since taking over as Orioles general manager in November 1995, Pat Gillick has stressed the need for more intensive scouting in Latin America, and he's hired an additional scout, Pat Guerrero, to work in the Dominican Republic.
But the infusion of Latin American talent into the Orioles' farm system began long before Gillick arrived. Carlos Bernhardt, who until this winter was the organization's only Dominican Republic scout, is personally responsible for signing nine players here: pitchers Benitez, Francisco Saneaux, Billy Percibal and Julio Moreno, catchers Cesar Devarez and Gilberto Bello, infielders Manny Alexander and Juan Bautista, and outfielder Wady Almonte.
Scout Jesus Halabi, working in Aruba, has signed Kingsale and right-hander Sidney Ponson, perhaps the best pitching prospect the organization, as well as pitcher Calvin Maduro, who was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies last August for Todd Zeile and outfielder Pete Incaviglia as the Orioles pushed for a wild-card spot.
And since Gillick came aboard, the Orioles have acquired Alomar, minor-league third baseman Willis Otanez (Puerto Rico) and pitcher Esteban Yan (Dominican Republic), and signed free agents Giovanni Carrara (Venezuela), a pitcher, and Francisco Matos (Dominican Republic), a second baseman.
"Basically, we're looking for the best talent," said Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone. "It doesn't much matter where it comes from. If you're going to look for the best talent in the world, you better have interest in the Latin players."
When Gillick was in Toronto, the Blue Jays usually had a strong contingent of Latin players, from shortstop Tony Fernandez to slugger George Bell to Alomar to pitcher Juan Guzman. Malone, too, searched deeply into Latin America for talent as scouting director of the Montreal Expos, who have fielded players such as outfielder Moises Alou and pitcher Carlos Perez.
"If you look into the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Aruba, there's just a plethora of great young players in those countries," said Malone.
In December 1995, the Orioles' front office studied the geographic distribution of all players on 40-man rosters, and the breakdown was somewhat surprising. The state of California produced the most players, 20 percent. Florida produced 10 percent, and the Dominican Republic ranked third, with 9 percent. Malone didn't cite any prior studies, but he is sure the Dominican's share is increasing, a change he believes is, in part, sociological.
"They love baseball down there," said Malone, "and they play baseball every day. It's part of their lives. In the U.S., we have all these distractions. This is the computer age, and kids are doing other things besides playing baseball.
"In countries like the Dominican, they don't have a whole lot of options. A lot of these kids are from very poor families, and baseball is a way for them to have a chance."
Signing players from the Dominican Republic also provides a special financial windfall for major-league teams. The players aren't required to go through the amateur draft, and therefore they earn only a fraction of the signing bonuses earned by drafted players in the United States and Puerto Rico.
Benitez, who has one of the best arms in the game, cost the Orioles a grand sum of $1,500, or more than $1 million less than what is paid to the top selections in the draft.
Even if Latin American players are paid less, Bernhardt says, they are thankful for the opportunities that are coming more frequently. "For a lot of these players here," he said, "this is the best way for them to help their families."
Twelve players on the Orioles' 40-man roster and six nonroster invitees to camp learned their baseball in a Latin American country:
P Armando Benitez Dom. Rep.
P Julio Moreno Dom. Rep.
P Nerio Rodriguez Dom. Rep.
P Francisco Saneaux Dom. Rep.
P Esteban Yan Dom. Rep.
C Cesar Devarez Dom. Rep.
IF Manny Alexander Dom. Rep.
2B Roberto Alomar Puerto Rico
IF Juan Bautista Dom. Rep.
3B Willis Otanez Puerto Rico
OF Wady Almonte Dom. Rep.
OF Eugene Kingsale Aruba
P Billy Percibal Dom. Rep.
P Giovanni Carrara Venezuela
P Sidney Ponson Aruba
C Gilberto Bello Dom. Rep.
C Melvin Rosario Dom. Rep.
2B Francisco Matos Dom. Rep.
Pub Date: 2/19/97