Did Major League Baseball see the unofficial birth of its next big talent market on Monday night? Maybe. Despite making just its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic qualifying round, Brazil punched its ticket to next year's main event with a stunning 1-0 victory over Panama.
Only 20 or 30 Brazilian fans were estimated to be in attendance among the 10,000 or so Panamanians in the Panama City stadium, but Brazilians back home are said to have a burgeoning interest in the sport. Hall of Famer Barry Larkin has worked on a development program in the country for a few years and is serving as the manager of the national team. Meanwhile, Yan Gomes made headlines in the country when he was called up by the Toronto Blue Jays last season, making him the first Brazilian-born player to reach the majors. Gomes has since been traded to Cleveland and he bolstered his reputation of Brazil's Mr. Baseball by driving in the game's lone run on Monday night.
Baseball clearly has an interest in mining the country for not only talent but also eyeballs as the country's population is almost 200 million people, a total that makes Brazil the third-largest nation in next year's WBC behind China and the United States.
The Rio Times recently ran a story on baseball's growing popularity:
Introduced to the country by Japanese immigrants, the game of baseball in Brazil has been quietly developing an infrastructure for decades. Popularity has gradually increased with the inclusion of a broader swath of Brazilian society.
Young players from all areas of social spectrum have not only opened up access to and understanding of the game, but have also caught the eyes of Major League Baseball (MLB) scouts along the way. In the spring of 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays called up infielder and catcher Yan Gomes. Although he did attend high-school and college in the states, that promotion made him the first Brazilian-born player in the majors.
Gomes provided the first example that Brazilians can reach and play in the big leagues, but it wasn't too much of a stretch to think a nation of that size could quickly start producing talent if given the resources. The Tampa Bay Rays were the first MLB team to open a baseball academy in the country and it's probably only a matter of time until they're joined by a lot more franchises. Convincing young Brazilians they should be playing baseball and not soccer or basketball might prove to be a challenge but Monday's victory combined with next spring's WBC appearance should help. It's a shame baseball is no longer in the Olympics as the 2016 Games are scheduled for Rio de Janeiro and would have given the sport a fantastic amount of exposure to people just learning the game.
Still, it seems like baseball has been given some decent roots in Brazil. And with the proper amount of attention and care, Venezuela may no longer be the sport's lone stronghold in South America.