Next baseball juggernaut? Colombia has case

September 24th, 2020

Colombia was the talk of the World Baseball Classic for a few days in 2017.

In many ways, the conversation hasn’t stopped.

More than three years after Colombia nearly upset the United States and Dominican Republic on the same weekend -- only to lose both games in extra innings -- the baseball renaissance continues for the rising South American powerhouse.

Lately, the WhatsApp group chat among the 2017 Colombian roster has buzzed with exciting updates:

• Two Colombian-born players, and , have debuted in the Majors this season, the 25th and 26th all time from the country.

• Barranquilla native , Colombia’s starting shortstop and leadoff man at the 2017 Classic, is enjoying a career year with the Giants at age 32.

has followed his breakthrough 2019 season with another productive one in the Bronx, compiling an .873 OPS before landing on the injured list.

• Luis Urueta, who managed Colombia in the 2017 Classic, interviewed for the Red Sox managerial vacancy earlier this year and is viewed as a future MLB manager.

In all, 11 Colombian-born players have appeared in the Majors this season, evidence of the sport’s evolution there since the era of standard-bearing shortstops Édgar Rentería and Orlando Cabrera.

“With what happened in the last WBC, the growth of baseball in Colombia was affected in a huge way -- immediately,” Urueta, now the D-backs’ bench coach, told in a recent interview. “The popularity of baseball became even higher. The amount of kids wanting to play the game became higher.

“We were inches away from winning the Dominican Republic game. I think about that team now. … We’ve seen [Oscar] Mercado, Crismatt and [Meibrys] Viloria all reach the big leagues. Adrián Sanchez won a World Series with the Nationals. You see what Donovan is doing, what Urshela is doing, [Jorge] Alfaro. … We had all of them in our lineup, but they weren’t [yet] the players they are now. The exposure and experience they gained in that tournament helped them. That makes you feel proud.”

More than three years later, Marlins Park still echoes from the raucous, exuberant crowds of Colombians and Colombian-Americans who nearly created a home-field advantage in the dramatic clashes with the U.S. and Dominican Republic. The 2017 tournament also included Colombia’s first ever victory in the Classic, a 4-1 win over Canada.

“We surprised people in the country,” Solano said in Spanish. “They’re still talking about that game [against the Dominican Republic]. With the play involving [Oscar] Mercado sliding home and [José] Bautista making the throw, was he safe? Was he out? There was so much pride and competitiveness for our team in that tournament. We were a united team.

“The greater goals we talk about now are advancing a little more. It makes me happy that Colombian people are now fanatical about our national baseball team. All of that emotion makes us want to play better and represent our country.”

Any discussion of baseball in Colombia must begin with geography. Almost every Major Leaguer from Colombia grew up in the metropolitan areas of Barranquilla or Cartagena, coastal cities where the culture is closely aligned with Caribbean nations. Baseball is a strong second to soccer in popularity through that northern region of the country, with strong ties between the two sports.

One example: When Patiño received Colombia’s Jugador Revelación del Año award -- Emerging Player of the Year -- the national baseball federation president Jimmy Char also presented the pitcher with a signed jersey from his hometown soccer club, Junior de Barranquilla.
Patiño had two sports idols growing up, the Dominican shortstop José Reyes and Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. He wore No. 7 in honor of both.

“When I was growing up in Colombia, I always saw kids playing baseball,” Patiño said in Spanish. “I love soccer, but I played it in the street and not in school. My passion was always baseball. I played it in school and wanted to learn.”

The sports culture is different in Colombia’s more mountainous interior. Fútbol is the undisputed king in the country’s three largest cities: Bogotá, Medellin, and Cali. Colombian broadcaster Orlando Palma, who calls MLB games for the Telecaribe network, believes star power is necessary for baseball to grow in Colombia beyond its traditional footprint. And Palma sees Urshela as being crucial in that endeavor.

While Colombia claims three Major League All-Stars -- Rentería, Julio Teheran and José Quintana -- Urshela is the nation’s first player to become a mainstay in pinstripes. Palma noted that Urshela’s success, combined with the Yankees’ international magnetism, attracted greater focus on baseball among media outlets and sports fans in the interior of the country.

Freddy Jinete Daza, communications director of Colombia’s national baseball federation, said Telecaribe broadcasts three Major League games each week during the regular season, in addition to the entire postseason. Jinete Daza also said many Colombians follow games through MLB.TV and At Bat, in addition to international feeds of ESPN and FOX Sports.

Urshela has been in pro baseball for more than a decade, having signed with the Cleveland Indians in 2008. He joined los Tigres de Cartagena in Colombia’s winter league around the same time. Last offseason, he encountered undeniable signs of his newfound fame.

When Urshela’s close friend Francisco Lindor visited him in Cartagena last offseason, the two were recognized frequently by the city’s residents.

“I didn’t pay a lot for food in restaurants,” Urshela said, smiling. “It’s fun to watch the people start following more baseball. They’re watching more Colombians get to the big leagues, so they like baseball more now.”

Colombia’s influence on the baseball world can be attributed in part to its improving baseball infrastructure. The showpiece of the country’s rise is Estadio Édgar Rentería, completed in 2018 in Barranquilla, the hometown of the five-time All-Star shortstop and 2010 World Series MVP.

The 12,000-seat stadium was one of two sites for the 2018 U-23 Baseball World Cup and hosted the baseball competition at the Central American and Caribbean Games the same year. Both of Barranquilla’s teams in la Liga Colombiana de Béisbol Profesional, the Caimanes and Gigantes, call it home.

“The Édgar Rentería Stadium represents a lot,” Patiño said in Spanish. “Before, the fields in Colombia were in bad situations. Now there are fields opening across the country. It’s very fundamental in the growth of baseball in Colombia. It’s important to throw a bullpen for Major League scouts on facilities of that quality.”

The stadium embodies Colombia’s aspirations of hosting high-profile events in the future, too. Urshela, who played an exhibition series there several years ago, said the structure and amenities reminded him of a Major League ballpark. The Yankees and Marlins played the Legend Series in neighboring Panama during Spring Training in 2014, so there is precedent for MLB clubs to travel to the area.

Urshela already has visualized what it would mean to step into the batter’s box at Estadio Édgar Rentería, wearing his Major League uniform.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Urshela said. “I really want that to happen one day. It’s going to mean a lot for us with the new stadium. Why not play one exhibition game, or a regular [season] game? It’s going to be fun if that happens.”

The Colombian baseball federation’s Jinete Daza said there have been three eras of pro baseball in the country: first from 1948 through 1958, then 1979 until 1985, and the current iteration of LCBP from 1999 to present.

The league gained notoriety earlier this year when its champion, los Vaqueros de Monterìa, played in the Caribbean Series for the first time. The LCBP plans to operate again this winter, with four teams playing a modified schedule due to COVID-19, based exclusively at Estadio Édgar Rentería.

Colombia shares a border with baseball-loving Venezuela, where turmoil has forced many families to seek safer living conditions elsewhere. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had become common for professional tryouts in Colombia to include players who were born in Venezuela. La Liga Colombiana de Béisbol Profesional also has attracted Venezuelan players in recent years, Jinete Daza said.

“The quality of play in Colombia now has opened a lot of eyes over the last five to eight years,” Solano said in Spanish. “There are more Colombians in the Major Leagues, which reflects the talent in our country. There are more academies for kids to play baseball, and the winter league is closer in quality [to the other top Caribbean leagues]. There’s more support for the kids who want to play now, and it’s important for the investment to continue in order to grow the talent in the country.”

Whether in person or on WhatsApp, the conversations among Colombian players and coaches invariably turn to their next opportunity to score a legacy-making victory in the World Baseball Classic. Although MLB and the MLBPA have not made an official announcement, the COVID-19 pandemic likely will cause a postponement in the planned 2021 Classic. Some reports have said the event is expected to occur in 2023, when Patiño will be 23 years old.

Patiño, the first pitcher from Barranquilla to reach the Majors, said he watched the 2017 Colombia-Dominican Republic WBC game at the Padres’ complex in the D.R., where he was assigned at the time.

“I was the one Colombian cheering against 25 Dominicans,” he said. “The team demonstrated that we have great baseball players in Colombia. We’re going to be a power of baseball in the future, and my mentality is to be on the next WBC team.

“We’re working to create a dream team for Colombia, to play against the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan and the USA. The Classic showed that the Dominicans and the U.S. had to do a lot to beat us, and we’re going to have a stronger and more powerful team next time.”

Solano said his No. 1 objective for the next decade of Colombian baseball is to advance further in the World Baseball Classic and unite Colombians and Colombian-American players on the same team. Solano mentioned Red Sox prospect Jeter Downs as one candidate for the next Classic roster; Downs grew up mostly in Florida but was born in Colombia. Urueta brings up the Classic frequently, to the point that D-backs manager Torey Lovullo tells him jokingly that he needs to find something else to talk about.

Urueta can be forgiven. Colombia’s baseball future is so bright that it’s impossible to ignore.