EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available in Spanish.
In the town of Maracaibo, Venezuela, some years ago, a little boy watched his older brother dominate the street games in their neighborhood and knew there was no better baseball player anywhere. Almost surely, the boy believed, his brother Euro, seven years older, would one day play in the United States.
But the brother's talents, as it turned out, were raw. He'd played baseball only in the streets. He didn't know the intricacies of the game that are so important in team competition. On the streets, it was difficult to learn about situational hitting, or proper baserunning, or hitting the cutoff man. In those pickup games, you had only to swing at a pitch and then run as fast as you could to try to score. There was little other strategy involved.
And by the time the boys' father, a mechanic who had only a passing interest in the game, took his older son to play organized baseball, he was already 12 years old and it was too late. Against equally talented boys who had been playing organized baseball since they were young children, he was often overmatched.
Soon, it started to become apparent that Euro's future did not lie in professional baseball.
But he made sure his little brother who idolized him didn't follow on the same path. Euro took him to meet the coach of the 5-year-olds in the little league games in Maracaibo and asked if the youngster could join the team. The coach agreed.
It was one of those moments that change a life. Carlos Gonzalez, not Euro, became the brother who would play professional baseball in the United States, who would become one of the most feared hitters in the major leagues, who would win both Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in just his third big league season in 2010, and who will represent the National League in Monday's Home Run Derby and Tuesday's All-Star Game in Kansas City.
"I have no doubt that having played little league baseball helped me immensely," Gonzalez says. "When you're a kid, what makes you into a better player is competition. When you play with other kids, you can measure yourself and figure out how to improve."
On Opening Day this season, 66 Venezuelans were on major league rosters, the most ever. At the start of this week, 10 Latin American players ranked in the top 25 in on-base percentage; and six of them, including Gonzalez, are Venezuelans. Since 2011, five Venezuelans ranked in the top 15 in on-base percentage against off-speed pitches.
And, according to Baseball America, the top four (and five of the top six) international amateur free agents eligible to be signed by major league clubs starting last Monday are Venezuelan.
The country is thought to be in turmoil because of the reign of a controversial president, and the safety of both players and scouts is often threatened there. And yet major league teams find doing business in Venezuela to be unavoidable. A high quality of player exists in Venezuela, one nurtured by the massive system of its youth leagues.
"We have no choice [but to go there]," says Washington Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia. "We have to go there because there are big league players there."
One of the reasons for that, perhaps, is that some of the stereotypes that are cast onto other Latin American hitters -- they're undisciplined at the plate; they're susceptible to breaking pitches -- don't usually apply to Venezuelans. The argument can be made, to put it crudely, that Venezuelans are the most American type of players outside of Americans.
Among international players, scouts consider Venezuelans the most easily adaptable to professional baseball in the U.S. in part because they come from a stronger organized baseball background than other Latin American players. Venezuelans are considered by baseball people to be more educated, more family-oriented.
"I think the [youth] leagues in Venezuela are helpful," says Yankees vice president Mark Newman. "Relative to the Dominican, the educational level of the kids from Venezuela tends to be higher, and that is also helpful. After several years in the international market, I have come to appreciate the impact that education has on the ability of the player to grow and develop as a player."
Most importantly, Venezuelan players are considered to be fundamentally sound and rooted in baseball knowledge acquired through having played hundreds of little league games. Young hitters learn to recognize breaking pitches through repetition. Young pitchers learn to pitch by adapting to rules that forbid them to throw curveballs at an early age.
"What happens when you're part of a team is that there's pressure to perform," says Padres scouting director Chad MacDonald, who formerly was Arizona's international scouting director. "You think to yourself, 'I can't let down my team.' You're trying to play your part. You can't create that type of pressure unless you've played in games that are meaningful. How can you develop plate discipline or have pitch recognition if you don't play games?"
By the time Gonzalez had caught scouts' eyes at the age of 15, for example, he had played on numerous all-star teams on the local, state and national levels and in several international tournaments. He remembers those games as intense competitions that were more than simply youth exhibitions. The atmosphere was pressurized. Fans booed, cheered, yelled and hung on every pitch as if the World Series were at stake.
Fortunately, Gonzalez almost always played well and didn't hear any abuse. But other boys did. These were conditions under which many could, and did, wilt. Those games provided Gonzalez with a preview of what he found in pro ball in the United States.
"In Venezuela, people love baseball and they will root for any type of baseball, whether it's children playing or winter league," Gonzalez says. "Venezuelan fans are very demanding. If things aren't going well, you're going to hear about it. If you're doing well, you're going to be adored. Having that understanding early on in my baseball career helped me mature as a player. During bad times, you have to maintain positivity; and during good times, you can't get caught up in the adulation. But I always enjoyed playing in those high-pressure competitions as a kid. They motivated me, and as a result, I think that's why I made it to the major leagues."
Youth baseball in Venezuela is a highly structured, three-tiered phenomenon. One portion is managed by the national baseball federation, another is a state-run entity called the Criollitos Corp., and the third is the American-based Little League Baseball.
Criollitos is the most popular and longest-running youth league in the country. It has existed for more than 50 years and has 180 leagues, 9,000 teams and more than 130,000 players active in all 23 Venezuelan states. Past participants include Omar Vizquel, Andres Galarraga and current major leaguers like Johan Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Elvis Andrus.
The Venezuelan culture, in general, promotes physical activity such as baseball as part of the educational process rather than as a prime career objective, so the game isn't necessarily viewed as the key to a family's future as often as it might be in other Latin American countries.
"These days, a lot of kids in our country have behavioral problems," says Orlando Becerra, president of the Criollitos Corp. "We want kids to go to school. We want kids to learn how to be good citizens. Lastly, we want them to learn about baseball. We don't see these kids as prospects. There are other people who handle that part of their development."
While Criollitos and Little League Baseball are separate entities, the Venezuelan Baseball Federation oversees all league rules and sanctions all participation in international tournaments to ensure uniformity.
"There is no private interest in youth baseball here," says Edwin Zerpa, president of the Venezuelan Baseball Federation. "Here, the support for youth baseball is completely provided by the state."
Yet while Becerra says his organization prefers not to treat kids as baseball commodities, Criollitos does a remarkable job of preparing the top players for international competition, which the Venezuelan federation makes a priority. (Zerpa says the Federation aims to win the next World Baseball Classic; in Venezuela, national team play matters.) By extension, that preparation eases the way for the very best talent to reach a professional baseball career.
Criollitos regularly holds player and coaching clinics to ensure the best technical training and has enacted limits to protect kids physically -- 10-year-olds aren't allowed to throw more than 60 pitches in a game, for example. Becerra estimates that about 80 percent of all Venezuelans who have played in the majors at some point played in his league.
The country to which Venezuela is most compared in the baseball world is the Dominican Republic. But the two systems aren't remotely alike.
Aside from the obvious geographical differences, in Venezuela, children generally have more life opportunities available to them and, as a result, aspire to stay in school longer. Approximately 67 percent of Venezuelan children are enrolled in secondary school compared with only 51 percent of Dominicans, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
"Dominican kids are physical specimens compared to Venezuelan kids," says Abel Guerra, formerly the head of the Yankees' Dominican operations and now a player representative of both Dominicans and Venezuelans. "But it all comes down to education. The Venezuelan kids pick up coaching better because they have been educated."
The Dominican Republic continues to produce major league talent on an annual basis -- Opening Day rosters this season included 95 Dominicans, the second-highest number from the D.R. since Major League Baseball began tracking (there were 99 in 2007) -- but the youth baseball system in the country is mired in a muck of disorganization and lack of funding. The Dominican Baseball Federation has little control over youth baseball; instead, the development of players falls to independent trainers, most commonly referred to as buscones, a name they abhor because it is heavy with negative connotations. While trainers have often been cast as villains in baseball's signing system, they have undoubtedly filled a role that the state hasn't provided.
In the Dominican, young players are cultivated to sign professionally. Rather than emphasize games and team play, their training requires that they spend much of their baseball time running through drills to help them hit the ball farther and throw pitches faster -- skills designed to help them shine during individual workouts for teams that could net them, and their trainers, millions of dollars.
There is an effort under way to change that developmental culture, but it's a slow process. Recently, several trainers and agents, including Guerra, have organized leagues in the Dominican where signing-eligible, or soon to be signing-eligible, prospects play in competitive games against each other.
"That's a little too late," says one team executive.
MacDonald recounts the case of a Dominican shortstop he signed several years ago while he was in international scouting for the Diamondbacks. During workouts, the player excelled. He ran a 6.3-second 60-yard dash. He was a switch-hitter with a plus defensive arm who sprayed line drives all across the field during batting practice. And in his first Dominican Summer League at-bat after Arizona had him under contract, the player lined a base hit to center field.
MacDonald remembers smiling toward then-Diamondbacks exec (and now Angels general manager) Jerry DiPoto, who was sitting nearby in the stands. The two thought they'd found a future superstar.
But once at first base, the player was asked to steal. Taking the shortest possible lead, he took off toward second. Even with his immense speed, the player was thrown out by almost 15 feet.
"He had never been asked to steal before," MacDonald says. "He had a great tool package, but he had never played in a real baseball game until the day we signed him."
Three years later, the player was out of professional baseball.
With pressure on team executives to win quickly, it is essential that they sign prospects who can move through the minor league system in just a few years. Those players lacking game experience usually require more coaching and, partly as a result, more time in the minors.
Venezuelans are taught by youth coaches to become well-rounded baseball players who are nuanced in all aspects of the game. By the time the most talented of them are of signing age and have linked up with an agent or trainer, they've already played a significant amount of youth games. The best players, such as Gonzalez, have played on numerous national teams.
"In Venezuela, there are academies but not as many as in the Dominican Republic," says Carlos Pagan, the Latin American head of Little League Baseball. "That's why the Dominican Baseball Federation isn't as strong. In Venezuela, they compete regularly at the international level. They are a potent power in world tournaments and in regional competitions. In whatever tournament they play, Venezuela is always excellent. In the Dominican, they have more professional players; but at the youth level, they are hardly ever a factor."
Since 1994, Venezuela has won two Little League World Series titles and three Senior League world titles. Pagan says that Venezuela regularly wins at least two of the six regional tournaments. Venezuela also participates in IBAF youth competitions.
Venezuela reached the semifinals of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the same competition in which the Dominican Republic, with players unaccustomed to national team play, flamed out in the first round after two embarrassing losses to the Netherlands. Remarkably, that tournament was the first time Pedro Martinez, perhaps the greatest pitcher ever from the Dominican, represented his country in competition.
Gonzalez was discovered by scouts while playing in the Senior League World Series in 2001 in Kissimmee, Fla. His performance there against teams stacked with future major leaguers such as Nationals closer Tyler Clippard and Gonzalez's future Rockies teammate Troy Tulowitzki turned him into a known prospect. Although he wasn't a physical specimen -- Miguel Nava, the Diamondbacks scout who signed him, remembers that Gonzalez was the skinniest on his team -- he knew how to play the game. Scouts guessed that the learning curve would not be severe once he played professionally.
Gonzalez was so impressive in that tournament that he was approached by agent Jose Ortega, who offered to house and train him in Tampa, Fla., to prepare him to sign the following July. With his parents' permission, he quit school just prior to graduation and moved to Florida, where he roomed with five other Venezuelan players -- one of whom was future major leaguer Alberto Gonzalez (no relation) -- in a small apartment. Under circumstances that might have tested many other players, Gonzalez thrived.
His experience playing in out-of-country youth tournaments helped him adjust to being away from his family. His participation in team competition for almost his entire life made it easier to live with other players. His vast game-action experience prepared him for whatever on-the-field challenges Ortega set up for him.
Gonzalez eventually signed in 2002 with the Diamondbacks, who had won the World Series the previous year. During his minor league career, he was traded twice and suffered through several promotions and demotions before finally becoming an All-Star and an MVP candidate (he finished third in the voting behind Joey Votto and Albert Pujols) with Colorado in 2010. Yet while at times he says he was discouraged with the events in his career, he came to accept and learn from the negative things that had happened.
"I came to realize that in those days, I was just a prospect, simply a promise of things to come," Gonzalez says. "I hadn't accomplished anything in the big leagues. I had no understanding of the things that I was capable of doing. And sometimes, ballplayers have to go through those difficult moments."
That understanding also grew out of his youth baseball days. The longer he played baseball, the more he realized it is a game of failure. In fact, there is hardly a significant moment in his career for which Gonzalez can't find a reference point in his experience growing up with the game in Venezuela.
Those who don't play might miss those lessons. In contrast to Gonzalez's story is the way the career ended for the Dominican shortstop who had signed with Arizona. Although the Diamondbacks bought him a ticket to continue his career in the United States, MacDonald says the player simply couldn't get on the plane and face the possibility of more failure. He had never experienced it on the field during workouts. So he quit.
"Venezuelan kids understand the game better," DiPuglia says. "Dominican kids are very talented, but tools alone can't give you understanding of game-time situations. Lack of game-time failure hurts. The lack of playing under lights hurts them. The Venezuelan kids do have the advantage when it comes to that. Those types of settings set up for failure and success."
In 2010, after numerous attempts and a lengthy battle with the U.S. Consulate, Gonzalez was finally able to secure a visa for his older brother, Euro, to attend the Rockies' Opening Day. Euro had never seen Carlos play live in the United States. It was an emotional moment for the family. Gonzalez broke down crying when he told reporters about it that spring.
As a teenager, after his dream of playing professional baseball had died, Euro used some of his work earnings to buy Carlos a glove. When the family didn't have enough money for a bat, a young Carlos used a tree branch and his older brother pitched batting practice for him with a sock ball. Euro gave him all that and inspired his love of the game.
But the greatest gift Euro ever gave Carlos was an introduction into Venezuelan organized baseball. It was the moment that changed his life.