Latin pipeline helped fuel '70s powerhouse
Reds' renewed Latino commitment provides hope
By John Erardi • email@example.com • November 15, 2008
"We want to get back to being the Big Red Machine."
- Tony Arias, Reds director of Latin America Scouting, on March 4, 2008, in Baseball America magazine
Time was when the Reds were among the kings of Latin America.
It is exemplified in the Big Red Machine reunion here this weekend. Two of the Machine's stars were home-grown Latinos (Cuba native Tony Perez and Venezuela native Davey Concepcion) and another - Dominican Santo Alcala - was an 11-game winner in 1976.
"Things were different back then when I signed," Alcala said. "The Dominican scout who signed me worked for the Reds - Rafael Campino. He drove over to San Pedro de Macoris and said, 'C'mon, we're going to Santo Domingo to watch you throw.'
"I said, 'OK.' I'd never been to the capital before. I threw for him, about 20 pitches, and he said, 'Sorry, you do not throw hard enough for me to sign you.' No radar gun, just his eyes. I wanted to be a professional. My father worked in a sugar cane factory. We didn't have much money. I said, 'Give me the ball again.' After I got done, he said, 'How does $3,000 sound?' I said, I'll take it.' "
At 6 feet 6 and 170 pounds, Alcala - who was 210 by the time he got to the bigs and is about 280 now - wouldn't escape notice quite so easily if he were a prospect these days. A Dominican agent - a buscone - would have showcased him to the Reds (and any other number of teams), and maybe enrolled him in one of their academies, where he would have learned English, eaten three squares a day and played baseball every day against good competition.
"It's a different world now," Alcala said. "I didn't have any of that. But still, I was lucky. I got to play with the Big Red Machine. I wouldn't be standing here right now if I hadn't."
"Here" is the floor of Duke Energy Center on Friday on Big Red Machine Reunion night.
If the Reds are going to make a run at being another Big Red Machine, it is probably going to take a similar influx of Latin talent. And it's going to take awhile.
A start is Johnny Cueto, who was signed by former Reds scout Johnny Almaraz a few years back.
Cueto was signed for $3,500 - a pittance compared to recent signing bonuses the Reds paid Dominicans Juan Duran ($2 million) and Yorman Rodriguez ($2.5 million) and Venezuelan Ismael Guillion ($625,000). But each of them is only 16 years old. There are some other Latin players in the Reds' farm system, but they're still a year or two away from the big leagues, too.
As Reds director of scouting Chris Buckley points out, many of the Latin players generally have some catching up to do - in nutrition, conditioning and language. So, yes, it's going to be awhile.
Cueto, by the way, wasn't a high-profile guy. He was a third baseman who Almaraz asked to see pitch, a prophetic call.
"Even (the high-profile guys) are a (crapshoot)," said former Big Red Machine scout George Zuraw, who was at the tryout the day in 1973 when Johnny Sierra, a Dominican scout who worked for the Reds, told Zuraw the one player he liked was the "catcher" Mario Soto, whom they worked out as a pitcher.
Soto threw in the unimpressive low 80s, but the scouts liked his arm action.
"Go ahead and sign him if you like him," Zuraw told Sierra.
It cost the Reds $1,000 - for which they got one of the best pitchers in their history.
The good thing about the Reds, say the experts at Baseball America, is that they aren't just cherry-picking good, athletic bodies and putting all their money into them.
Earlier Friday, Buckley said he'd recently gotten home from the Dominican, where he watched the Reds players in an instructional league.
How many players do you have?
"Forty-eight," he answered.
Buckley made the point that Zuraw would make an hour later.
"It's not just scouting - it's scouting and development, " Buckley said.
"That was our secret - good development," Zuraw said.
Even before the oldest of current Reds fans can remember, the Reds produced Latin American players.
From the Cuban connections of their business manager, Frank Bancroft, the Reds brought two of the earliest Latin players to the major leagues in Cubans Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans in 1911.
Gabe Paul, who became general manager in 1951, picked up that banner. His scouts landed Cubans Leo Cardenas and Tony Perez.
The Reds flew Cardenas to a tryout camp in 1956 in Georgia, where he worked out with three other recent Reds signees: Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez and Cookie Rojas.
"The Reds were getting the best players in Cuba," Cardenas marveled.
The Cuba pipeline began to dry up in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power.
The scouts of Reds general manager Bob Howsam signed Concepcion in Venezuela in 1967, and pitchers Alcala and Venezuelan Manny Sarmiento (5-1 in 1976) a few years later.
They helped make the Big Red Machine dominant.
Baseball America's John Manuel and Ben Badler, who both are paid to keep track of such things, laud the Reds' recent efforts in Latin America.
"In the last 20 years, who had they gotten out of there until Johnny Cueto came along?" Manuel said. "But based upon the quality guys you see them signing now, and the academies they're running, they figure to make an impact. And it's not just throwing money at guys. Their best people - Chris Buckley and Tony Arias - are seeing the players. They've both got track records with the Toronto Blue Jays, who got so many good players out of Latin America."