One of the greatest underdog stories of recent baseball memory came in November 2012 courtesy of Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world. Well known for its skills at football and volleyball, the South American country has only been participating in global baseball tournaments for than 20 years. Brazil stunned the baseball world by sweeping through the toughest bracket in the 2012 World Baseball Classic (WBC) Qualifiers and earning a spot in the 2013 Classic.
Brazilian Baseball History
Baseball was first played in the 1910s by American workers on short-term projects in Brazil, but did not catch on until Japanese workers began immigrating to São Paulo. Many then moved to the coffee plantations in northeast Brazil. It is there and in the richer parts of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that the game flourishes today. By the 1920s, leagues had formed around the railways that linked the plantations.
Particularly in the north, the game is played by communities with Japanese traditions, and until the last few years had a much stronger connection to Japan. In fact, Brazil has the largest population of Japanese in any nation other than Japan. São Paulo is behind only Tokyo as the city with the most Japanese residents.
Baseball lessened significantly in popularity during the Second World War, but interest returned in 1946, when a São Paulo league was formed. Games were held in any available open space, though without proper facilities, games were sometimes postponed because the fields were occupied by police.
As a result, the first baseball stadium was built in 1948 in São Paulo with space for 3,000 fans. It hosted the first international game in Brazil in 1951, when Columbia University visited, thrashing the national team. The ballpark was a crude affair, so it was renovated and officially opened in 1958 as the Estádio Bom Retiro (a neighbourhood in the city), which is still in use.
The event was part of the celebrations that marked fifty years of Japanese immigration and was attended by His Imperial Highness Prince Takahito Mikasa of Japan and his wife. To inaugurate the ballpark, Waseda University of Tokyo visited and played an all-star team from São Paulo, defeating them 372-5 over the course of the series.
Baseball in Brazil
Baseball has come a long way since 1958, though most of the advances have been in the last two decades. Baseball does not yet have a domestic professional league, but if any nation is ripe for the growth of the sport, it is Brazil, a nation of almost 200 million people. Despite ranking far behind volleyball and basketball in popularity among team sports, the national confederation claims 30,000 players in the country and a growing international connection.
“We’re playing for honor, for the name on our shirt,” stated former national team pitcher Marcelo Arai, as he gestured to his jersey in an interview with the New York Times. The veterinary student continued, “We’re not playing for money or fame, because the truth is that we often pay out of our own pockets to be able to play.”
As Arai indicated, facilities for the sport vary widely. According to a report by the online arm of The Globe, in parts of the country, baseball is played on futebol fields with “bases [made] from cushions”. On the other hand, Brazil boasts one notable baseball academy in Ibiúna, funded by Japan’s Yakult Swallows. The Tampa Bay Rays were in talks to build a second complex, but talks fell apart in 2011. At least half a dozen MLB scouts still attend major domestic tournaments, though.
Major League Baseball International has successfully staged its Elite Camp in 2011 and 2012, which is led by Brazil’s manager for the World Baseball Classic, Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin. Elite Camps involve intense instruction by big league players and coaches and have been held on six continents with more than 300 players having signed professional contracts with MLB organisations.
“If there is a kid that has tremendous ability, then maybe we can create the Ronaldo or the Pelé in baseball, an iconic figure that the country gets behind,” Larkin told the online edition of Dawn in arguing that Brazil can generate high-level prospects.
Cuban-imported coaches agree. “There is an awful lot of talent here,” Juan Yáñez, the pitching coach for the national junior team told the New York Times. “It just needs to be polished.”
This dramatic increase in foreign investment is coupled with an emphasis by the Brazilian government on augmenting their profile in world sport in conjunction with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Foreign coaches have been pouring into the country on federal contracts with the hope of improving the nation’s ranking in top world tournaments. Despite being dropped from the Olympic programme, baseball still receives attention because of its popularity in Asia and the Americas.
There are currently 14 Brazilian born players in the United States, headlined by Yan Gomes, recently traded by the Toronto Blue Jays to the Cleveland Indians. That number may not sound noteworthy when compared to the other countries in the WBC, but consider that only 19 athletes trained in Brazil have ever signed professional baseball contracts and the number becomes much more impressive.
Additionally, more than 30 compete in Japanese and Taiwanese leagues, according to Olivio Sawasato, vice president of the baseball federation in Brazil. Three of those are on top clubs in the NPBL.
The swelling numbers of Brazilian baseball players is important in a country that is still trying to establish the sport at a local level. Everaldo Marques, an ESPN broadcaster for the Brazil’s weekly Sunday MLB game, reflected to the New York Times on the significance of each player signed to a US contract: “Brazilians like rooting for their fellow countrymen, so once we get a Brazilian playing in Major League Baseball, that will help popularize the sport.”
Marques, speaking in 2007, was almost proved right a decade earlier, when the Blue Jays dipped into the Brazilian amateur ranks in 1993 to sign José Pett. Pett, the first player signed by a MLB organisation, was quickly ranked the 75th-best prospect in baseball, but struggled in the upper minors. He did stick around till 2000, throwing almost 500 innings. At his retirement from US ball, he was still the only Brazilian in the minor league, though two others had come and gone.
Pett spent the late 90s trying to catch on in the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB), Japan’s top circuit, but did found the Nippon Blue Jays, an industrial (top-level semi-professional) league team in Japan. Though Pett never earned a promotion to the Japanese big leagues, several of Brazil’s national team played for his Blue Jays.
Gomes became the first Brazilian in the big leagues when he debuted May 17, 2012 for the Blue Jays, but will miss the WBC after being traded to the Cleveland Indians just before the qualifying tournament. Gomes is attempting to crack the Indians’ Opening Day roster and has remained in spring training.
The catcher’s bat and experience behind the plate will be sorely missed. A career .287 hitter with an OPS over .800 in the minors, Gomes earned his first major league hit in his second at bat, and his first four-bagger a day later. He finished with a .204/.264/.367 line in 43 games, playing four positions. Gomes totalled four home runs in only 98 at bats.
“Growing up in Brazil you would never think of [playing in the majors],” expressed Gomes after his debut. “Coming out here and having it, it seems like it happened so fast, so I definitely have to take it in. I’m really proud of it. It’s an honour to represent my country.”
Gomes’ career and Brazil’s success in November may be just the catalyst needed for baseball to see a surge of popularity. After Larkin’s men swept the qualifiers, beisebol was a top-100 trending word on Twitter in Brazil, and the preparations for the main draw have elicited some excitement in the country.
“The community of baseball fans in Brazil is still limited but it can develop and it can grow,” Larkin told Terra recently. “It doesn’t happen overnight. I know that traditionally this is the country of soccer, but Brazil is also strong in other sports, such as volley, so the hope is that we can recruit athletes to play our sport in the future.”
Brazil in International Tournaments
Though the country played in four Pan-American Games (PAG) between 1951 and 1983 and sent a team to the Amateur World Series (later renamed the Baseball World Cup) in 1972, it did not truly begin competing with top-level talent until 1995.
That year, Brazil played once more in the PAG, but also in the Intercontinental Cup, a minor world championship, finishing fifth. It was another seven years before Brazil competed in a global tournament, but has been regular participants since. The quality of the Brazilian national team has risen in the last decade thanks to an agreement with Cuba that allows Cuban coaches to assist with development of the game in Brazil.
Cuba almost tasted the fruit of their success in the 2003 Baseball World Cup. Brazil advanced all the way to the quarterfinals in the competition and faced perennial titans Cuba in the round. The blue-and-gold nearly pulled off what would have been one of the greatest upsets in international baseball history, needing only three outs to secure a 3-2 victory. Brazil’s bullpen could not hold Cuba, who rallied for a 4-3 win and eventually, the Cup title. Brazil settled for seventh in 8-3 decision over a weak South Korean side.
Brazil finished a disappointing 14th at the 2005 World Cup, though it fell just short of a better result. The team was 2-6, with the wins including a one-hitter over South Africa and an 11-4 victory over Sweden. They also lost a 15-inning nail-biter to China and almost defeated Panamá. The blue-and-gold hosted the South American Baseball Championship that year, defeating Venezuela to earn the continental title.
The blue-and-gold also hosted the 2007 Pan American Games at Rio de Janeiro. Brazil started off in fine fashion, shutting out Nicaragua 1-0. The single run scored on a home run by Tiago Magalhães, one of three players still on the national team. Next up was the Dominican Republic , who crushed them 14-2, but they regrouped against the US.
Showing no intimidation, Brazil took a 1-0 lead and entered the bottom of the seventh tied 2-2. As is often a problem with less-established teams, the bullpen could not keep the game close, giving up five runs, though Brazil’s bats made the final score 7-5. The loss eliminated the home team.
Team Brazil finished 2-6 in the 2009 World Cup qualifying tournament, the 2008 Americas Baseball Cup. Their wins were over Guatemala, 7-5, and a 6-3 victory over Aruba. They lost a close match to the Netherlands Antilles, 2-1, and were no-hit by Nicaragua, but still only lost 2-0. Panamá, Venezuela, and Mexico also handed them losses. The seventh place finish did not qualify them for the World Cup.
Brazil had a lull in international competition from 2009-11. In 2010, the team did not enter teams in the South American Games or Baseball World Cup Qualifying Round. Despite this, in 2011 Brazil was rated the eighth-best team by COPABE, the governing body for baseball in the Americas, mostly on the body of work in amateur and youth tournaments. They also climbed five places up the world rankings to No. 33.
They rose five places in the IBAF ratings in 2012, but no one could have predicted Brazil’s dominant performance in the WBC qualifying round. Brazil did not even field a team for the South American Championship and was expected to bow out quickly in a qualifier that had Panamá, Colómbia, and Nicaragua.
In the opener, Brazil set the theme for the rest of the qualifying tournament. Each game featured a starting pitcher who battled through a few innings, a lineup that took advantage of scoring opportunities, and a youthful bullpen which mowed down vastly more experienced hitters.
Against Panamá in game one, it was Rienzo who started, while Paulo Orlando and Leonardo Reginatto with key hits. Murilo Gouvea (single-A), Kesley Kondo (University of Utah), and Thyago Vieira (rookie league) who disposed of a mostly major league lineup.
Reginatto, who played the last two years in low-A ball, was the hero again in game two. He rapped three of Brazil’s 11 hits, while Oscar Nakaoshi kept Colómbia off the scoreboard through four. Larkin then expertly used his bullpen once more.
Gabriel Asakura, who pitches for California State University at Los Angeles, whiffed five in 2 2/3 innings before Rafael Moreno (17 years old) and Daniel Missaki (16) got the last four batters to seal Brazil’s second victory.
Orlando and Reginatto teamed up again in the final, combining for five hits. Orlando scored what would be the winning run in the third inning on a single by Brazil’s first major leaguer, Yan Gomes. Rafael Fernándes tossed six shutout frames in the start, and Gouvea and Vieira shut down Panamá the rest of the way. Vieira earned his second save by striking out sluggers Carlos Lee and Rubén Rivera with runners on second and third.
Brazil hit .316 with a .746 OPS as a team, scoring only a third of the amount of runs the other three qualifying teams did. All of their offensive numbers were less than Canada, Chinese Taipei, and Spain, but they were second only to Taiwan in most pitching categories. Brazilian hurlers had a 0.67 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP, striking out seven per nine innings.
Larkin himself may be the key to Brazil’s success. The first-time manager pushed exactly the right buttons in Panamá. The Hall-of-Famer looked particularly astute against a loaded Panamanian team with home field advantage in a stadium named after the country’s best player (Rod Carew). The hopes of a nation are firmly pinned on his capable shoulders, and Brazil could pick up an upset with the right calls to the bullpen and platoon partners in the outfield.
With Brazil’s superstar out of the lineup, the veteran core of the blue-and-gold order will have to lead the team. Paulo Orlando will continue to occupy the leadoff spot, while the leadership of Daniel Matsumoto, Reinaldo Sato, and Tiago Magalhães will prove vital to Brazil’s chances.
Orlando was the first Brazilian named to a 40-man roster when the Kansas City Royals added the 27-yeard old in 2012 after a 2011-12 winter ball campaign in Panamá that saw him named the postseason MVP.
Before being acquired by the Royals, Orlando was named the fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the Chicago White Sox system. A former youth track star, Orlando is a career .270/.319/.403 hitter with 158 stolen bases. He has been named an All-Star in the Texas Double-A League.
Orlando has played in two tournaments for Brazil, collecting three hits and two steals in 12 at bats during the 2007 Pan Am tourney. He was 4-for-12 with a triple in November.
Matsumoto has a .256/.304/.335 over 11 seasons for the Yakult Swallows of NPB, Japan’s big league circuit. The veteran mans first base for Brazil. In 2002, Matsumoto was the leading hitter for Brazil in the Intercontinental Cup and also made the All-Star Team. He thumped the ball for a .450/.522/.950 line, stole three bases, and had six of Brazil’s 15 RBIs. He was 3-for-11 in the WBC qualifier.
Sato first donned the blue-and-gold in 1999, playing regularly since then. He was the top hitter on Brazil’s 2003 World Cup squad, recording a . 324/.395/.622 line. Sato replicated the production in the 2008 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, recording a mark of .300/.391/.650. He was 4-for-11 in Panamá City. The second sacker was named best at his position in the industrial leagues in 2010.
Tiago Magalhães has been the most productive player internationally for Brazil. The outfielder played for five years in the Cincinnati Reds’ minor league system, hitting .227. Despite his US career, Magalhães is the closest thing that Brazil has to a clutch hitter, as his exploits while wearing the blue-and-gold are almost legendary.
In the 2003 World Cup, Magalhães 8-of-40 (.200), but registered a double and four home runs for a .525 slugging percentage. He scored eight runs and drove in 10 in seven games. Two years later, his performance was even more exemplary as he recorded a .414/.500/.621 line, driving in six in eight contests. Magalhães was 3-for-3 against Bronze Medal-winning Panamá and was named to the All-Star team.
Magalhães did not disappoint in the qualifying tournament for the 2008 Olympics, during which he stroked the ball for a .391/.391/.870 line that included three dingers and six RBIs in five games. Later that year, he played in the Pan American Games, but was only 1-for-6 in part-time duty, though the single hit was the aforementioned four-bagger in the win over Nicaragua.
The veteran did not disappoint in the qualifiers, ripping two doubles in five at bats, driving in one. Magalhães will likely continue to share time in the outfield with Jean Tome. Tome, a former pitcher in the Seattle Mariners’ organisation, converted to hitting after being released in 2009 and was named ‘Best Slugger’ at the 2011 South American Championship.
J.C. Muñiz rounds out the starting outfield. Muñiz was born in Cuba, but defected to Brazil. He has logged time in Cuba, the US minor leagues, and Japan. The rightfielder hit .300/,364/.500 in November.
If Gomes had most of the spotlight leading into the qualifiers, Reginatto stole most of it from him by the end of the tourney. Reginatto is in his fourth minor league season for Tampa Bay. He was a New York-Penn League All-Star after hitting .267/.317/.325, which was in line with his career averages. The utility infielder tied New Zealand’s Scott Campbell for best batting average in the qualifying tournaments, lacing a .583/.615/.667 line.
The rest of Brazil’s infield has one thing in common with Reginatto: their youth. Pedro Okuda, 22, will man shortstop. Felipe Burin is at the hot corner. Marcio Tanaka is the only experienced backup, with the other three reserves averaging 20 years of age.
Okuda moved to Japan for secondary school and competed in the prestigious Kōshien high school tournament. Like a number of Brazil’s other players, the middle infielder shows good plate discipline. Also in the Mariners’ organisation, Okuda has a career on-base percentage of .392 and had a strong 2012. The middle infielder spent most of the season at second in the Venezuelan Rookie League and stroked a .274/.381/.374 mark in 56 games.
Burin, though a little old for rookie league at 20, has put up solid numbers over 222 minor league games for the Seattle Mariners. Though he had a disappointing 2012, hitting only .214/.320/.255, Burin shows great plate discipline and has a career on-base percentage of .400, to go with a .303 average and a little pop. In 2011, he was named the Venezuelan Rookie League Position Player of the Year and accumulated a .350 average over two minor league stops.
Bruno Hirata will fill the sizeable hole behind home plate left in Gomes’ absence. He plays in Japan’s industrial leagues and is 0-for-7 in his international career.
With the exception of Gomes, Brazilian team’s lineup should remain mostly static from November.
Paulo Orlando – CF
Leonardo Reginatto – 3B
Reinaldo Sato – DH
Daniel Matsumoto – 1B
J.C. Muñiz – RF
Felipe Burin – 2B
Jean Tome/Tiago Magalhães – LF
Bruno Hirata – C
Pedro Okuda – SS
Brazil’s Pitching Staff
Without a true power source and with a number of inexperienced hitters, Brazil must continue to receive strong pitching. The nation is traditionally known more for developing pitchers, and will feature a legitimate number one starter in Andre Rienzo.
Rienzo, 24, was signed by the White Sox out of São Paulo in 2007 and has moved steadily through the system. The right-hander was tabbed to the Carolina League All-Star Team in 2011, a season which saw him throw 116 innings and strike out 118.
In 2012, he spent most of the year in Double-A, starting 18 games across three levels. All told, Rienzo was 7-3 with a 2.53 ERA, dropping his career mark to 3.30. He whiffed 9.8 batters per nine innings, equalling his career record. For his last start of the regular season, the No. 18 prospect for the Pale Hose was promoted to Triple-A, and impressed, tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings, striking out 10 batters.
Rienzo continued his campaign in the prestigious Arizona Fall League (AFL), a circuit known for high batting averages and ERAs to match. Earning a spot as a starter, he was 1-1 with a 4.74 ERA and, despite struggling with his command, whiffed almost a batter per inning. Early reports from the AFL tabbed him as the fifth-best prospect, a tremendous honour.
Rienzo can run his fastball into the mid-90s and has a strong curveball and cut fastball. He is very difficult to take out of the park, having allowed only 16 homers in six seasons. This will be crucial as he has been given the starting nod against a talented Cuban side ranked No. 1 in the world.
Brazil’s top starter does have three starts in international events, going 0-2 with a 4.26 ERA in the 2008 Americas Baseball Cup. He was dominant against Nicaragua, giving up two runs in 6 2/3 innings with 8 Ks, but Brazil was no-hit. All told, Rienzo had 16 Ks in 12 2/3 frames. In the autumn, he struggled through 3 2/3 frames against Panamá, walking five and giving up four hits, though he allowed only two runs, one earned.
The blue-and-gold’s other frontline starter is Rafael Fernándes. The right-hander was drafted by Yakult in 2008 after hitting 94 mph/151 kmh on the radar gun. He has spent most of his career in the minor leagues, and has an 8.31 ERA in 13 innings for the Swallows. Fernándes has been on Brazil’s staff since 2003, though his best performance came against Panamá in November’s championship contest.
Brazil’s best reliever is Murilo Gouvea, also signed by the White Sox and since traded to the Houston Astros. He has worked mostly out of the bullpen in six seasons, amassing a 4.77 ERA in 330 1/3 innings.
Gouvea’s most recent season at age 24 was his best, as he threw 77 2/3 innings, striking out 87, walking 29 and claiming a 3.71 ERA. The right-hander will continue to be called on for key outs in the middle and late innings, especially with a career average of 10.3 strikeouts per nine frames. Gouvea drew raves for his performance at the qualifier, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings over two appearances, whiffing five to go with a 0.53 WHIP.
Beyond Rienzo, Fernandes, and Gouvea, the pitching staff is full of unknown quantities, though Larkin managed the bullpen with a magic touch. The average age of the hurlers is only 23, with only one older than 28. This may well work to Brazil’s advantage, as most of the players for the other three countries in the bracket have at least some familiarity with each other. Four Brazilian hurlers to watch will be Oscar Nakaoshi, Gabriel Asakura, Rafael Moreno, and Daniel Missaki.
Nakaoshi is one of three college arms on Brazil’s roster. In 2010, he was MVP of the Kanto Region, a top collegiate honour. The southpaw set Hakuoh University’s career victory mark at 28, and had ERAs of 1.04 and 1.18 in his second and third years. He is the third pitcher on the roster, after Fernándes and Hugo Kanabushi, to attend the university. Nakaoshi has a 1.08 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in international competition.
If Gomes was Brazil’s best-ever college hitter (a .440 career mark), Asakura has earned the label for pitchers. After a solid junior college debut, the right-hander burst onto the collegiate baseball scene with a 7-2, 1.38 campaign for California State University-Los Angeles in 2011. Asakura followed that with a 7-3 record and a 2.71 ERA. Between the two seasons, he has 11 complete games, four shutouts, and has whiffed 135 in 141 2/3 frames. The right-hander was almost untouchable in the qualifying round, fanning 5-of-8 hitters.
Moreno turned some heads with his Dominican Rookie League performance in 2012. Only 17, the righty won his team’s Rookie of the Year Award after compiling a 3.86 ERA in 65 1/3 innings. Moreno struck out 59 and walked 22, giving up only 56 hits. He appeared once in November, getting two key outs near the end of the title game.
Missaki is 16 years old and the youngest player ever if in the World Baseball Classic. Missaki pitches for Pett’s Nippon Blue Jays. They were the 2012 Cup Champions at an invitational tournament at the Ibiúna complex, Missaki was named Best Player and Best Pitcher, but his performance there paled in comparison to the two outs he got against Jolbert Cabrera and Luís Martínez of Panamá, both of whom have MLB experience.
World Baseball Classic Pool A
Brazil, at No. 20 the lowest-ranked team in the 2013 Classic, has been grouped with two of the top three countries in the world. To advance to the second round, they will have to defeat either No. 1 Cuba or No. 3 Japan, while also nabbing a win against No. 18 China.
In earning a draw that includes their baseball parents, their secret weapon has been likely been neutralised. Their Caribbean opponents were clearly mystified by their unique blend of Japanese- and Cuban-style play, and none of them took Brazil seriously. The blue-and-gold no longer have the element of surprise, so it will be up to Larkin to get the most out of his club.
“Our strategy is our strategy, no matter who we play, where we play or when we play,” explained Larkin to Extra Time. “Our philosophy will remain the same, and it is what can make us victorious. The players know that there is an emphasis on doing the little things well to succeed in the game. We are what we are, do what we do, and we have to do well to win.”
Brazil warmed up for the main draw of the WBC with a pair of exhibitions against Japanese clubs. On Feb. 26, they were defeated by the Orix Buffaloes, 9-2. Two days later, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks topped them 2-0.
Reginatto had a hit in each game, though he struck out three times. Orlando rapped a double, but Brazilian pitchers walked 18 in 16 frames and allowed seven stolen bases, exposing the void left by Gomes. Gouvea and Asakura both hurled two shutout innings apiece.
After their success in Panamá City and training against NPB teams, they will continue their trial by fire against Japan in the opening game of Pool A. Fernándes will oppose Masahiro Tanaka of Japan’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Tanaka is two years’ his junior, but has already won Eiji Sawamura Award in 2011 as the Japanese pitcher of the year.
First pitch is at 10 a.m. GMT on Mar. 2 in the Tokyo Dome. It is only the second time Brazil has ever played Japan, with the other contest resulting in an 8-2 victory for Japan in the 2003 World Cup.
The road does not get any easier, as the blue-and-gold will test Cuba on Mar. 4 at 2:30 a.m. GMT. Brazil first played their fellow COPABE (Confederaciòn Panamericana de Béisbol, the governing body of baseball in the Americas) members in 1951 at the Pan American Games, and have lost all 12 of their contests since then. Rienzo will start for Brazil.
The final matchup in the pool may turn out to be the most important for Brazil. If the world rankings and past history are indicative, the game promises to be evenly contested. Separated by only two places on the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) charts, the two nations have split their two previous fixtures, with Brazil winning a 4-0 decision in the 2003 World Cup and China avenging itself 2-1 in the 2005 edition.
While Larkin will certainly expect his men to play for wins against the heavyweights in his group, it is almost certain that the loser of the Brazil-China game will be relegated to the qualifying round of the 2017 tournament. A guaranteed position would do much for the growth of baseball in either country. The two nations will tangle at 8 a.m. GMT on Mar. 5.
Stay tuned for more news, previews, and recaps of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.