Baseball’s popularity fades as Panama’s economy booms

Story posted May 5, 2017 in CommMedia in Panama, Sports by Matt Martell

JUAN DIAZ, PANAMA –– Enrique Saldana tapped his glove and bent his knees to ready himself for the ground ball bouncing toward him.

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He shuffled two paces to his left, scooped up the ball and underhanded it to Luis Chaves at second base. Chaves tapped the shredded, off-white bag and fired to first to complete the double play.

Less than a minute later, Saldana went through the same motions, except this time, moving to his right and flinging the ball side-armed to Chaves.

Then they did it again. And again. And again.

The drill went on for the next 15 minutes. It was 10:30 a.m. and the sun was already beating down on the infield rubble here in Juan Diaz, a suburb of Panama City. It was hot, a blistering 90-degree day in early March, but nobody seemed to mind. They were playing baseball, as they do every other day.

Scenes such as the infield drill at the sandlot in Juan Diaz no longer are as common as they once were, and if present trends continue, may become nothing more than a reminder that baseball, once a cultural cornerstone of Panama and a reliable producer of Major League talent, has lost its place as the country’s No. 1 sport.

Panama, which produced two of the best players in Major League Baseball history, Mariano Rivera and Hall of Famer Rod Carew, has struggled to develop the big league talent it once did.

Between 1995 and 2000, 12 different Panamanian players made their MLB debuts, according to Baseball Almanac. The following six seasons saw just five players make their debuts, a 58 percent decrease. Since 2013, there have been four first-year players from Panama, though this doesn’t include the 2017 season because it isn’t over yet.

For the second consecutive World Baseball Classic tournament –– baseball’s equivalent of soccer’s World Cup –– Panama failed to even qualify. The one Panamanian player in the tournament was Bruce Chen, a 39-year-old pitcher who played for his family’s native country of China.

Reasons offered for the decline vary, but most come down to economics.

Panama’s international economy is among the strongest in Latin America. Baseball, seen as the ticket out of a life of poverty in countries like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, is more and more seen here as just another recreational activity.

“Panama, compared to most of the countries in Latin America, is doing very well economically. Baseball isn’t their only way out,” said Damaso Espino, a scout in Latin America for the St. Louis Cardinals, who is originally from Panama. “That is the main reason why I go to the Dominican all the time to see players. Baseball is all they do. It’s their way out.”

He added: “In Panama we have multiple scholarships and we can get visas to get to the United States and go to school. The urgency to dedicate yourself to just baseball is not the same as it is in other countries.”

Moreover, soccer, and to a lesser extent basketball, have grown in popularity in the last 15 years, so the best athletes from the isthmus no longer are playing only baseball.

Henry Cardenas, a sports reporter for LaPrensa, Panama’s leading newspaper, agrees the game’s popularity is declining, but admits he doesn’t quite know why.

“We all ask ourselves that same question,” he said, before offering some possible answers.

He said new technology has created more distractions for both players and coaches, so collectively they aren’t as emotionally invested in baseball as they used to be.

***

Espino, the scout, knows as well as anybody the difficulty of making it to the Major Leagues. He played in the Minor Leagues from 2000 to 2013, but he never reached the majors.

Still, he realizes there are potential MLB players in Panama waiting to take their stab at the show.

“As a scout, the one thing we always talk about is if you find a guy in Panama with talent, sign him because those guys know how to play baseball,” Espino said. “They’re usually smart guys that have the instincts for the game.”

These instincts are considered the intangible attributes for ballplayers; they don’t relate to how far they can hit a baseball or how hard they can throw a fastball, but they’re the characteristics that make players good teammates, smart baserunners and eager students for their coaches.

Most players develop these instincts when they play organized youth baseball, such as Little League. It teaches them to cooperate with teammates, to respond to criticism and to focus on team successes over individual accomplishments.

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Cardenas said Panama emphasizes its youth leagues at a time when many other Latin American countries are concerned with producing future MLB players. As a result, Cardenas said, Panamanian players learn how to play fundamentally sound and team-oriented baseball, which helps them have successful Major League careers, so long as they reach the big leagues.

“Panama Little Leaguers contribute more to their teams than stand out as individual players,” said Cardenas through an interpreter. “We have only four million people, yet we’ve had baseball superstars. It’s impressive.”

It’s true, at least in a general sense, that those who develop these instincts tend to be better MLB players.

Take Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is from Cuba. Few have doubted his talent since he burst onto the scene in 2013 as the runner up for the National League Rookie of the Year award. Yet, throughout his still-young career, Puig has had trouble assimilating with his teammates in the clubhouse, so much so that Bleacher Report wrote a lengthy piece in December 2015 with the headline, “Is there anybody else in Los Angeles whom Yasiel Puig hasn’t alienated?” For the most part, Puig hasn’t played as well since his first two seasons, and as the Bleacher Report piece and other articles suggest, both his poor attitude and lack of instincts are to blame.

It takes more than talent and instincts to make it in the big leagues, which is part of the reason why scouts spend much of their time evaluating players from other Latin American countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela.

In those countries, baseball is considered the path to a better life for many young men, a life away from their political and socioeconomic hardships.

***

Saldana, the shortstop from Juan Diaz, was decked out in Colorado Rockies purple and black: his cap, his shirt and even his shorts. Last summer, he was selected in the MLB International Draft when he was 16 years old. Now, he was working out on his old stomping grounds with the PTY Baseball Academy, where he had been playing since he was 15.

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On the same morning he and Chaves turned double plays, Saldana also took scores of swings off a batting tee into a net and worked through agility drills.

“Fundamentals for me are the most important part of the game,” said Saldana through an interpreter. “The rest comes little by little.”

German Gil has been the president of PTY for the last eight years. He never played baseball growing up. Instead, he swam and played soccer. He became involved with the sport when his son started playing at age 4. His son is now 22.

The PTY Academy’s purpose is to develop players who will eventually be candidates for the MLB International Draft, for which they become eligible when they turn 16.

“Right now, Panama is getting 15-20 prospects signed to the minors each year,” said Gil through an interpreter. “Four or five of them come through this academy.”

***

While the players like Saldana and Chaves were going through their morning workouts in early March, the World Baseball Classic was beginning its first round. As expected for those living in a culture built on baseball, Panamanians were tuning in to see the 16-team international tournament, which, like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, is played once every four years.

In part, the lack of representation in both the 2013 and 2017 WBCs highlights the decline of Panamanian baseball, at least at the sport’s most competitive level.

“Panama had 12 players in MLB in 1999, now there aren’t as many,” said Cardenas, the sportswriter. “We’ve got to keep working to create more talent and develop the players with more talent.”

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Cardenas said baseball isn’t receiving the same financial support it once did, mainly because large private businesses and the government are no longer sponsoring teams. Most of the financial burden is falling on local small businesses, few of which have the resources to adequately fund these clubs.

These reasons, Cardenas said, explain why soccer is on the rise.

“It’s more economically feasible to run a soccer team,” he said. “It’s a much bigger investment in baseball.”

To play soccer, a ball, a field and two makeshift goals are all the players really need. Sure cleats, shin guards and uniforms help, but they aren’t necessary. At its least expensive, baseball requires a bat, a ball, at least nine gloves, catcher’s equipment and batting helmets.

“In the poorer areas, they play soccer — you need a ball, you get two rocks and a goalkeeper,” said Espino.

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Still, the rise in soccer addresses only part of why baseball has declined at the highest levels. There still are plenty of opportunities for Panamanian children to play baseball, mainly because the local Little Leagues are so organized.

Instead, it’s the recreational focus of youth baseball in Panama, which is different than it is in other Latin American countries, that also has played a role in the decline.

Other Latin American countries try to mold gifted athletes to look like they have the talent to become ideal professional players. They learn the physical skills necessary to attract MLB scouts so they can sign contracts. That’s what matters most to them.

Panama doesn’t focus only on teaching its ballplayers how to showcase themselves to scouts. Yes, the players at Panama baseball academies are working on developing these specific physical skills, but they also play in organized games.

“You go to other countries and they don’t have leagues like that, but the kids are getting prepared for the majors,” Espino said. “They’re lifting weights to get stronger. We’re more focused on amateur baseball, which is not bad, but it doesn’t help with the amount of Major League baseball players we produce.”

***

Manny Sanguillen was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s who is originally from Panama. A three-time all-star, Sanguillen retired with a .296 batting average after 13 seasons. He played MLB at the same time as Rod Carew, the country’s only Hall of Famer –– though Mariano Rivera will almost certainly be elected when he’s eligible –– and Omar Moreno.

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Sanguillen, 73, who still works with the Pirates as a special instructor for the team during Spring Training, said he’s disappointed that the game he loves is attracting less players from his home country.

However, he believes there’s too much talent in Panama for its players to continue to be overlooked. As Sanguillen sees it, it’s only a matter of time before baseball picks up again on the isthmus.

“We have a lot of great players and the people of Panama love baseball,” Sanguillen said. “So I believe that every year they’re going to be better and that soon we’re going to have a team in the World Baseball Classic and the Caribbean World Series.”

He added: “I hope before I go to heaven, we’ll have a couple of great teams.”

This hope to make Panama a baseball-first sports culture again echoes around Panama City, mainly because Panamanians know baseball still gives them the best chance to play professionally at an elite level.

“We don’t have guys on Real Madrid,” said Espino. “We don’t have anybody in the NBA. We still continue to produce Major League players. That’s what kids need to focus on.”

Tapping into Panama’s professional baseball potential, though, isn’t as easy now that the game is declining.

Today, there’s less of a chance that children will choose to play baseball –– and continue to play it –– because there are more opportunities for them to participate in other activities. It’s not as easy to expose them to baseball, or even make baseball appealing to them.

For this, Sanguillen had an idea.

He said he wants the high-profile MLB players from Panama to help organize youth baseball clinics in the country. If these children can learn baseball from its most iconic Panamanian figures, they will want to play the game too.

These clinics, he proposed, would have to be held regularly, for example, every certain amount of months. The frequency of these clinics would allow the Panamanian youth players to develop a bond with these MLB players. The point would be for the children to have fun, and hopefully, they’d start to love baseball too.

“They need to find out the beauties of baseball,” Sanguillen said. “There’s a lot of talent in Panama, but we have to go look for them.”

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Pitchers tethered to weights run through conditioning drills in the outfield during a morning practice with PTY Baseball Academy. Photo by Rachel Johannes

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