NEW YORK -- While the fan voting for the 2019 All-Star Game was underway, Braves starter Julio Teheran considered asking his followers on social media to support his childhood friend and fellow Colombian Gio Urshela, who has been a revelation at third base for the Yankees this season. Teheran ultimately decided not to because he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to campaign for a player on an opposing team.
Still, for Teheran, it was a welcome dilemma: As one of just a handful of established Colombian Major Leaguers, his opportunities to root for a countryman have, until recently, been scarce.
While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba have produced wave after wave of Major League talent, only 24 of the more than 19,000 players who have put on a big league uniform have been born in Colombia. It’s not entirely surprising: Like in much of South America, in Colombia, soccer, rather than baseball, is king.
The first Colombian-born Major Leaguer was second baseman and outfielder Lou Castro, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902 and was also the first MLB player from Latin America. No other Colombian player set foot in the Majors until shortstop Orlando Ramirez suited up for the California Angels in 1974. But Colombia wasn’t really on the baseball map until the late '90s and early 2000s, when infielders Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria came along.
This season, Teheran and Urshela are two of a record 10 Colombian-born players who have seen action in a Major League game. (An 11th, infielder Adrian Sanchez, was born in Venezuela to Colombian parents.) And they all keep tabs on each other’s accomplishments.
“We always know who has been voted, who is standing out,” said Teheran.
Urshela has emerged as one of the faces of that cohort. While he fell short of joining Teheran, Cubs starter José Quintana and Renteria as the fourth Colombian player to be selected for an All-Star Game, his breakout with a playoff-bound New York team after being cut by Cleveland and Toronto has been of the best stories of the 2019 season.
“I really am proud to be part of that small group [of Colombians] that’s playing here in the Majors,” said the 27-year-old Urshela, who has 20 home runs this season, a record for a Colombian-born player. (Cabrera hit 17 for the Montreal Expos in 2003.)
Indicative of the growing Colombian presence in the Majors, the 2019 Marlins are the first big league team in history to have three Colombians on their roster: outfielder Harold Ramirez, reliever Tayron Guerrero and catcher Jorge Alfaro. It’s given them the kind of community they craved.
“We’re always talking, which helps us a lot,” said Guerrero. “We help each other on bad days. It’s something we’ve always wanted.”
There’s more Colombian talent on the way. Around 90 Colombian-born players saw action in the Minor Leagues during the 2019 season. (That number includes several players who were promoted to the big leagues.)
There’s currently one Colombian on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list: Padres righty Luis Patiño, San Diego’s No. 3 prospect and No. 31 overall. Patiño was one of two Colombians who were invited to the All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland; the other was Rays catcher Ronaldo Hernandez, currently Tampa Bay’s No. 7 prospect.
“We have a chance to see each other succeed,” says 24-year-old Indians outfielder Oscar Mercado, who made his Major League debut in May. “There aren’t many of us, but we’re here to give Colombian baseball a good name.”
A sport on the rise
Growing up, the current crop of Colombian Major Leaguers had two figures to look up to in Renteria and Cabrera. Edgar’s older brother, Edinson, a former Minor League shortstop who since 1999 has been president of the Colombian Professional Baseball League, says the success of his brother and Cabrera helped fuel interest in baseball among the current generation of players.
Edgar won two World Series rings, one with the Marlins in 1997 and a second with the Giants in 2010, when he was named MVP of the Fall Classic; Cabrera was part of the '04 Red Sox team that ended the franchise’s 86-year title drought.
“When my brother played on the Marlins team that won a championship and later Orlando Cabrera with Boston, kids became interested,” says Edinson.
The current generation has also come of age at time when the Colombian Professional Baseball League has enjoyed stability, which hasn’t always been the case. Founded in 1948, the league was inactive from '59-78 and again from '89-92.
“I think those interruptions robbed the Colombian ballplayer of the motivation to play professionally,” says Edinson. “If it had been continuous, from 1948 until now, we would have been on the same level as the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico.”
Since 2004, the Colombian league has belonged to the Confederation of Professional Baseball of the Caribbean, though it has yet to participate in the Caribbean Series. That could change in '20, following an agreement under which the Caribbean Series would feature the winner of the Latin American Series, a tournament that Colombia participates in.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic was another positive step. Team Colombia qualified for the first time and had a solid showing in the first round, going 1-2 in Pool C that also included Team Canada, Team Dominican Republic and Team USA. Both of Colombia’s losses were in extra innings.
The hope is that the growing Colombian presence in the Majors will help to generate more interest in baseball back home, both from athletes and potential investors.
“Hopefully in the future it’ll be 20 or 30 [of us in the Majors],” says Quintana. “That would be really great so that businesses and people can see that there’s great potential for baseball in Colombia.”
To be part of the current wave of Colombian talent in the Major Leagues is to belong to a tight-knit group, on and off the field.
A “brotherhood, like family” is how Ramírez describes the bond.
During the regular season, Teheran and Quintana make time to share meals whenever the Braves play the Cubs. And the majority of the cohort stays in touch via a WhatsApp group.
“We always keep in touch, give each other advice and mess with each other,” says Ramírez.
But it’s back home, during the offseason, that the group really has a chance to bond. They celebrate birthdays together and gather on weekends to play dominoes.
Most Colombian Major Leaguers also train together, as part of one of two contingents. One, organized by Teheran, is based in the city of Cartagena, where the majority is from. The second, led by Quintana, trains two hours away, in the city of Barranquilla. On occasion, the two squads meet up to work out together or face off in a low-key softball game.
“We’re always getting together to train and to help this wonderful sport grow in our country,” said Patiño.
Patiño considers himself lucky to be able to train alongside Quintana, in whom he’s found an eager mentor.
“He’s become a great friend,” says Patiño of Quintana. “He’s like a dad to me in this game. The communication is open to ask him anything, whatever I need. He’s always there for me. Thank God I have the support of such a great Colombian player.”
Nathalie Alonso is part of the editorial team of LasMayores.com, the official MLB page in Spanish. Follow her on Twitter @NathalieMLB