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Tigers' commitment to Venezuela nets growing benefits

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

This story on the Tigers and their presence in Venezuela was was published in The Detroit News and at detroitnews.com on June 26, 2013.

Step into the Tigers clubhouse on any given day, or stand on Comerica Park's lush sod during batting practice. Observe the players at work and you begin to gain a sense for Venezuela, a vast and complex South American country of natural resources more often associated with oil than with baseball.

Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Avisail Garcia, Bruce Rondon, and Brayan Villarreal are Venezuelans, as were golden-oldie predecessors Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.

And yet, it is in the wave of incoming talent that the Tigers could rake their next bonanza, with all the good fortune spilling from a bold move approved eight years ago by owner Mike Ilitch.

The Tigers, at that time, decided to ignore political and cultural hurdles and to trust relationships their front office figures had forged during decades of work, much of which preceded their arrival in Detroit. The Tigers would bypass a socialist government hardly friendly to the United States, especially during the reign of late president Hugo Chavez. They would work around Venezuela's cumbersome banking system and stealthily deal with terrain and towns better known for risks than rewards.

They would, finally, establish an organizational presence in Venezuela. And all with a single objective in mind: To access, sign, and develop skilled and comparatively sophisticated young players. They would become one of the few clubs to do so. And, because they were versed in confronting the country's economic and political barriers, they would understand firsthand why a majority of teams have resisted such incursions, and why only the Dodgers, Cubs, Mariners, and Mets are partners with them in the Venezuelan Summer League.

In establishing a league and teaching academy presence in Venezuela — complete with top-drawer facilities and with a full coaching staff — and in making their scouting staff there more entrenched, it is no coincidence that each year the Tigers roster, in tandem with their playoff fortunes, grows by way of greater Venezuelan influence.

"No question, it's a good situation for us," said Dave Dombrowski, president and general manager for the Tigers, who, along with assistant general manager Al Avila, has been attached to Venezuela since their days with the Marlins, when they signed a generational superstar in Cabrera.

"I remember having conversations with Mr. I (Ilitch) and with Al on how we wanted to grow more in Latin America. We had a lot of ties there from our days in Florida. And so he (Ilitch) gave us the OK. It was quite an investment, especially when we knew we weren't going to see great returns in the short term."

The long-term payoff could be approaching. Players signed as teenagers three, four, or more years ago, are creeping into the picture in 2013.

■Jose Ortega has pitched in Detroit and has one of the organization's best power arms.

■Eugenio Suarez and Hernan Perez, a pair of deft middle infielders, could play in Detroit this season.

■Harold Castro, Danry Vasquez, Endrys Briceno, Steven Fuentes, Dixon Machado and Victor Larez are at lower minor league stops and could easily migrate to Comerica Park as they mature, with Castro, Fuentes, and Vasquez considered potential stars.

"It's really a pipeline that will continue to develop talent for us," Dombrowski said. "It's a commitment by the organization."

Middle class kids

Detroit's devotion to Venezuela is akin to a teenage boy arriving at the doorstep to pick up his date — and being greeted by her father. The mission can be imposing, especially for the inexperienced.

Begin with Venezuela's physical realities. The country is 353,000 square miles, about 25 percent larger than the state of Texas. There are mountains and rain forests buried deep from the coastal cities and not always the best of roads to traverse them in a country of rich diversity.

There also are natural resources galore, primarily oil, the foundation for Venezuela's economy and, indirectly, one reason the Tigers choose to be involved there.

The nation's economy supports generally stable homes where two parents can raise children and educate them through high school. Baseball players in turn benefit from organized programs financed by communities that can sustain a modest quality of life. If signed to professional contracts, players arrive in the U.S., often with a better shot at assimilating into United States society.

They tend to have an easier time learning English. They in many cases have availed themselves of better nutrition during their formative years, which can make for stronger prospects and earlier promotion.

By comparison, countries such as the Dominican Republic are, in many places, the embodiment of poverty. Players signed there have not always had anything resembling the advantages youth would find more commonplace in Venezuela's towns and neighborhoods.

"I always define the differences as education — period," said Oneri Fleita, a consultant to the Reds who previously worked as the Cubs' player-development coordinator in Latin America. "Everything is about education, and that's huge.

"In Venezuela, you have two parents at home, and an economy where people are actually spending money on homes rather than on fancy cars. Because of all that, you have actual Little Leagues organized — and, again, it's all because of education. I think it's huge. And it's often why you see some guys with the same skills from different countries succeed when others don't. There's more to making it in the big leagues than just playing baseball. And, for me, it always falls back on education and on having a structured family back home that gives you some self-esteem and self-motivation."

Ah, but if it were this easy — setting up shop in a country loaded with student-athletes moving toward stardom — 30 teams would all have second homes there.

But only a handful of clubs have made the venture. And the reasons are known all too well.

"You have to have great appreciation for your staff down there," Fleita said. "It's not like the Dominican, where you might have a half-hour drive out of Santo Domingo. Venezuela is pretty spread out. It's a huge country, with a lot of real dense areas. You might drive three hours and then catch a connecting flight to Maracaibo, or to Puerto La Cruz. And those roads sometimes aren't the best."

On another day, there might be power outages. Even something as basic as toilet paper can be in short supply, nationally.

And, of course, there is the matter of personal security. Caracas, the nation's capital, has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world. The Tigers dealt with tragedy in Venezuela in 1999 when Infante's brother, Asdrubal, then a Tigers pitching prospect, was shot and killed during a robbery in Guanta.

The state department warns visitors to avoid certain areas, even during daylight hours. It warns of the potential in some places for kidnappings, of credit-card theft, of pitfalls awaiting ATM users.

Problems related to Venezuela's banking system, and by exchange rates that can wildly fluctuate, are a more entrenched administrative barrier for some big league clubs who avoid Venezuela. Bringing money into the country is difficult. Budgeting for operations can be shredded when an exchange rate suddenly soars five or six times above a rate that earlier applied.

Family bonds

But the complications can be eased, happily so, when a team has people who know the corridors, geographically and culturally. Relationships are built. Families and players come to trust a team's representatives.

It is how the Tigers came to acquire their franchise superstar, Cabrera, who was courted by Avila and by scout Louis Eljua, now with the Cubs, when both worked for the Marlins. Avila was armed with more than a $1.8 million signing bonus — unprecedented cash for a Latin teenager — when in 1999 he coaxed the Cabrera family into signing with Florida.

Fleita saw his competitors make off with a player who 14 years later is regarded as the best hitter in baseball.

"Mom and dad are at home, saying: 'You're going to take my kid to the U.S. and do what?' " Fleita said. "They better trust you. The Marlins had guys who created great relationships with that family."

Relationships, however, require a presence. A decade ago the Tigers were covering Venezuela with one scout. He worked for Ramon Pena, the club's director of Latin American operations, who had a scouting corps nearly as paltry surveying the Dominican Republic.

In the years after Ilitch brought on Dombrowski and Avila as part of a new front office, the Tigers began to restructure Latin America in tandem with remodeling their U.S. scouting network.

The Tigers now have three area scouts in Venezuela reporting to Miguel Garcia, director of Latin American scouting, and an Avila colleague from their early days scouting in Central America and South America.

"If you start any company, in any business, you want people with experience and with background connections," said Avila, who speaks Spanish as fluidly as he commands English, the product of having been raised in Miami where his father, Ralph, a player and scout in the Dodgers organization, emigrated with his family from Cuba.

"You're going to be better-served by the person with experience."

Tom Moore, director of international operations for the Tigers, has also been part of the concentration in Venezuela. Moore says the steadily greater flow of Venezuelan talent is a classic top-down process with Ilitch, Dombrowski, and Avila pulling the levers.

Ilitch has provided the latitude and financing (a reasonable guess is that the Tigers' annual budget for Venezuelan operations is in the vicinity of $300,000), as well as the go-ahead to sign players.

The heaviest investment to date was the $1 million the Tigers spent on Vasquez, a 6-foot-2, left-hand hitting outfielder signed in 2010 when he was 19.

"We're also fortunate to have some prominent Venezuelan players on our major league team at this point, which has helped in our scouting efforts," Moore said. "The Tigers have significant name-recognition there."

In that sense, a man named Cabrera helps in grand fashion. A steady flow of countrymen will follow him to Comerica Park. None, probably, will be on Cabrera's elevation. But all should remind Detroit's baseball community of the prodigies there, and the relationship they share because of a game that is more than America's pastime.