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Eric Pardinho was playing racquetball on the beaches of Brazil one day when he was a child. It was at this moment his uncle noticed something — his nephew could hit a ball pretty well.
“My uncle saw me and said, ‘You should play baseball,'” Pardinho said through an interpreter.
Pardinho was eventually taken to a baseball field and thus began his love affair with the game. While the 15-year-old pitcher doesn’t necessarily rely on his hitting skills anymore, he is part of a new crop of Brazilians playing baseball instead of the nation’s most popular sport — soccer.
There are a myriad of opportunities to learn and develop baseball skills in countries like the United States (it is called ‘America’s pastime’ after all), Japan, South Korea, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and so forth, but the facilities and opportunities are comparably barren in nations like Brazil.
Yet, Brazil is being considered by some as the next big baseball market — an untapped plethora of riches and talent. Major League Baseball established a national training center there in 2010 and the league holds an annual Elite Camp for 14-17 year-olds in the country as well.
MLB Hall of Fame member Barry Larkin has been an active participant in those camps. It’s how he became Brazil’s manager for the 2013 World Baseball Classic and was reappointed for the 2016 WBC Qualifier in Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier this month.
“The kids who play soccer and then give baseball a try, they end up becoming skilled because they’re so good on their feet,” Larkin said. “It gives them a huge advantage. That’s why we’re hoping baseball can become a viable alternative, as opposed to beating your head against the wall (with soccer).”
Baseball was first introduced to Brazil, the fifth-most populous country in the world, by the Japanese in the early 1900s, who emigrated to escape poverty and unemployment in their home nation. Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan — approximately 1.8 million people of Japanese descent live in the country.
So it’s no surprise Brazil’s national team has a Japanese influence. Players including Felipe Fukuda, Hugo Kanabushi, Claudio Matumoto, Bo Takahashi and Vitor Ito are of Japanese descent. There are also many Brazilians who play professionally in Japan.
“I fell in love with baseball through my family,” said Takahashi, a pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks system born in Presidente Prudente, Brazil. “In the beginning, baseball in Brazil had a more Japanese style, but now it’s a mix of Japanese, American and Latin — Brazilian baseball is a big mix of that.”
The Brazil team that played in Brooklyn also had four Cuban defectors on its roster — Ernesto Noris, Irait Chirino, Angel Luis Cobas and Juan Carlos Muniz.
“Everybody is on the same page,” Larkin said. “The one thing we don’t do here is we don’t teach them their style; we allow them to have their own style. There are some basic fundamentals that we hold them accountable for, there are some things we expect them to execute and if they can do that in their own style then that’s fine. They adjust well because everybody speaks baseball and everybody knows we need to record outs.”
The amalgam of players like Takahashi (Japanese-Brazilian), Pardinho (Brazilian) and Dante Bichette Jr. (Brazilian descent) signify the sport’s growing popularity in the culture and country.
Bichette Jr., who was able to play for the national team with brother Bo because their mother, Mariana, was born in Port Alegre, Brazil, said representing the national team not only meant a lot to him, but to his family as well.
The Bichettes’ maternal grandmother is a lifelong Brazilian and their grandfather is a native of China who emigrated to Brazil. Both were in attendance over the weekend.
“I’m blessed and really humbled and thankful for the opportunity to play with these guys and how much they’ve accepted us given that we weren’t born in Brazil,” said Bichette Jr., a shortstop in the New York Yankees system. “It means more to my grandma and grandpa than anyone can imagine.”
The Bichettes, Takahashi, Pardinho and every player on the roster is trying to follow in the footsteps of the successful Brazilian baseball players. Paulo Orlando is an outfielder with the Kansas City Royals, Yan Gomes is a catcher with the Cleveland Indians and pitcher Andre Rienzo has played in the MLB with the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins.
“I believe now with all of the major leaguers from Brazil and players in AAA and AA playing here in the U.S., baseball in Brazil will grow much more than before,” Pardinho said. “Now we have people we can look up to and use as a model for us. I think baseball will grow a lot within the next few years.”