The popularity of baseball is on the rise worldwide, and in recent years Major League Baseball has expanded its outreach to include countries not previously viewed as having a big presence in the game.That perception is changing in many regions, including Brazil, which, thanks to an increased emphasis on behalf
The popularity of baseball is on the rise worldwide, and in recent years Major League Baseball has expanded its outreach to include countries not previously viewed as having a big presence in the game.
That perception is changing in many regions, including Brazil, which, thanks to an increased emphasis on behalf of MLB, has been making inroads in producing talent that has a realistic chance to join the professional ranks.
The desire to play begins at childhood, a concept that has been a central theme to the Play Ball program since its inception in 2015. In the past four years, the program has spanned all over the globe.
This week, MLB hosted a three-day series of Play Ball events in three locations in the Federative Republic of Brazil, drawing more than 600 participants and a couple of Major League prospects who are natives of the country.
"This is part of the grass-roots programming," said Kim Ng, MLB's senior vice president, baseball & softball development. "We've done one-off type events in Brazil before, but this was to more fanfare. We averaged about 200 kids each day."
The Play Ball events, the first MLB has hosted in the country, made stops in three Sao Paulo cities, beginning with Bastos -- where the kids played on a field built in 1933 -- continuing in Marilia and concluding at the MLB Brazil Academy in Ibiuna. The first two events included appearances by two Astros prospects -- infielder/outfielder Victor Coutinho, and pitcher Heitor Tokar.
Ng called Marilia "the baseball capital of Brazil," noting the popularity of the sport, which was apparent by the high attendance at the Play Ball event.
"We had 260 kids show up," Ng said. "Baseball is popular there."
The events included baseball- and softball-centered stations, including home run hitting, running bases, bat and ball games and more. Attending kids received a bat and ball, Play Ball-branded T-shirts and wristbands to take home.
Since 2015, Major League Baseball and its many partners in the Play Ball initiative have hosted hundreds of Play Ball-focused events throughout the U.S., Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and Canada. MLB was pleased to add Brazil, the largest country in South America, to the list.
Interest in the game in Brazil is gaining steam. In the past few years, 10 signings have come from MLB's annual Elite Camp in Brazil, with most of those players products of the MLB Brazil Academy, a joint elite development program between MLB and the Brazilian Baseball Federation.
MLB also has hosted two coaching development programs in the country.
Overall, more than 50 players have signed contracts with Major League teams. Included on the list of Brazilian players who have reached the big leagues are catcher Yan Gomes (Blue Jays 2012; Indians 2013-18; Nationals 2019), who in 2012 became the first player from Brazil to play in the Majors; pitcher André Rienzo (White Sox 2013-14; Marlins 2015) and outfielder Paulo Orlando (Royals 2015-18).
The next big name to keep an eye on is pitcher Eric Pardinho, a native of Lucelia, Brazil, who is ranked as the Blue Jays' No. 7 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The 18-year-old produced a 2.88 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 11 starts for his Rookie League club in 2018.
MLB's commitment to having a strong presence in Brazil may lead to more top prospects bubbling to the surface, with youth events serving as a possible springboard to sparking interest in the game at a young age. Judging from the week's attendance, the efforts are producing results.
"We've done many events in a lot of countries, but this is the first time we're bringing Play Ball to Brazil," Ng said. "There was a great turnout each day."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter