Quiroz among several Venezuelan O's
Despite unrest in country, MLB gaining stronger foothold
BALTIMORE -- It could be an All-American story, if only it had taken place within the continental borders of the United States. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz started playing baseball when he was 3 years old, progressed through the Little League ranks and eventually made it to the Major Leagues, but he did it as part of a progressive wave of talent from Venezuela.
Quiroz is one of three Venezuelans on Baltimore's current roster -- along with fellow catcher Ramon Hernandez and third baseman Melvin Mora -- and one of five who have played for the Orioles this season. There were 52 Venezuelans on Opening Day rosters this season, which falls second only to the Dominican Republic in terms of foreign countries.
But if the current trends continue and if the domestic situation in Venezuela improves, those numbers could flip-flop over the next few decades. Quiroz, Mora and Hernandez all insist that baseball is the biggest sport in their homeland, and they say it will only get bigger as more and more Venezuelans experience success on the game's biggest stage.
"It's pretty cool," said Hernandez of his team's structure. "I've never played on a team with more than one or two Venezuelans, but this team has four or five. But it's growing at home, and there are a lot more players coming out. I think the Little Leagues are a lot better and they're teaching good baseball. And that's why there are a lot more players now."
"It makes it different," added Quiroz of playing on a team with two other Venezuelans. "You can joke around, and you can talk about winter ball or talk about your country. It makes you more comfortable, and especially when you've got two guys who have been around a long time like Ramon and Melvin. I mean, I saw Melvin play when I was little. I grew up watching him. And whenever I'd play against Ramon or see him play on TV, I'd think about how I used to watch him at home.
"I remember when I first came up, I was the 167th Venezuelan to get to the big leagues. And nowadays, it's over 250 or something like that. The numbers change every year, and they seem to be getting bigger and bigger."
Quiroz, unlike many of his countrymen, was seemingly born to play baseball. His grandfather was the president of the Maracaibo-centered Little League he played in, and Quiroz can hardly remember a time when he didn't play ball. The game has provided many of the great experiences in his life, and it spurred him to learning fluency in a foreign language.
The backstop first achieved prominence in the Little League World Series, where his team won the title in 1994. And that experience helped him begin to learn English, but it also alerted scouts to his potential. By the time he was 16 years old, Quiroz was one of the most highly regarded players in his country and wound up signing a lucrative contract with Toronto.
"We had a tryout in Port St. Lucie [Fla.]," he said, recalling how it happened. "I signed with an agent about a year-and-a-half before I signed on for professional baseball. In that period of time, I was preparing myself. He put me in English classes, and I had a gym. I had a guy that was helping me every day, throwing me batting practice and stuff."
Mora, meanwhile, took a far more circuitous path to the big leagues. The veteran grew up fixated by soccer and only began to play baseball because of an academy started by the Houston Astros. He eventually gained notice and signed a modest contract, and now he's determined to build more academies and reach even more people of humble backgrounds.
"I'm trying to build one, and any Major League team can rent it out," he said. "I've already talked to the Washington Nationals about it, but I've stopped everything because of things happening in Venezuela. Whenever things calm down, I'm going to start again. Right now, nobody wants to invest there. Nobody else wants to open up an academy, but I will.
"We'd love to play more baseball and open some academies, and there are a lot of players that I know that need to learn how to play. A lot of players end up going in a different direction because they don't have anywhere to go. We should have more players than anybody in the world, but we only have four or five academies to teach kids how to play."
Mora went on to say that baseball education and equipment is sorely lacking in his homeland, a problem he sees as easily correctable over time. And sure enough, he can point to progress from the time his career began.
"When I was starting baseball, there was only one academy. Now, we have four," he said. "It's growing slowly, but it's growing. There are a lot of players, compared to the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is small compared to Venezuela, but we only have four academies. The Dominican has more like 15, so their kids have a better chance to be Major Leaguers than ours do. And we match them right there, or we're pretty close. Imagine if we had at least 10 or 15 academies?"
"In the Dominican, baseball is huge," said Quiroz, making the same comparison. "There's no doubt it's bigger than Venezuela. But with the kind of production we're having right now and the big contracts that the big guys are getting -- like Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera -- that's helping a lot. Everybody wants to play baseball now, and that's a big plus. Even my contract, when I signed. I was probably the third guy in Venezuela to get a contract like that, and that helped a lot."
What helps even more, undoubtedly, is the simple fact that Venezuelan youths can identify with their more celebrated compatriots. When they see players like Hernandez and Mora thrive, they start to believe it can happen to them. Just consider the case of Quiroz and Gustavo Chacin, who played together in Little League and hooked up again in the Majors.
It happened against the Yankees, of all teams, and the Venezuelan connection was enough to seal a late September win. But perhaps most importantly, they realized a dream and showed others that similar ambitions could come true. And somewhere, beyond the winning clubhouse, that game left even more of an indelible memory.
"We played at Yankee Stadium and it was like a dream come true," recalled Quiroz. "And he threw awesome that day -- I think he threw a two-hitter or something like that. He didn't even know he was starting that day. He called me in my room, and I called him back and told him he was starting. He didn't even know, because he got in late after the game."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.