In soccer-crazed Brazil, baseball is MLB’s next frontier

By Roberto Salvador Klapisch

It was just about the time Colombia took Team USA into extra innings in the World Baseball Classic that Yan Gomes realized he could no longer watch as a neutral third party — he was flat-out jealous.

That could be us, he told himself. He meant his native Brazil, being pushed off the international stage by a South American neighbor. He was thinking wistfully at the way Colombia would use its WBC performance to propel baseball to the next level. Gomes knew what Brazilians everywhere were thinking at that moment.

It should have been us.

It didn’t matter that the United States ultimately prevailed and advanced to the next round. As heavy underdogs, all Colombia had to do was make the Americans sweat — mission accomplished. To this day, WBC officials marvel at how well Colombia played in nearly derailing the eventual tournament champions.

Brazil? It never got past the qualifying rounds last September, forced to set its sights on the next Classic in 2021. Gomes has no doubt Brazil will be ready, but in the meantime, admits, “We need a little push.”

The frustration is born partly from success. Talk of Brazilians competing against superpowers like the U.S. and the Dominican Republic would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago, but progress has come rapidly for this soccer-obsessed country.

For that, Brazil can thank some current major leaguers: Gomes, the original pioneer who debuted on May 17, 2012, with the Toronto Blue Jays and now catches for the Cleveland Indians; right-hander André Rienzo, who is currently in the San Diego Padres’ minor-league system, pitching for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas after playing for the White Sox and Marlins from 2013-15; and Kansas City Royals outfielder Paulo Orlando, who made it to the Big Show in 2015. Overall, there are 50 Brazilians currently playing in the major or minor leagues.

Who’s Next?

The question is, who’s next? Scouts are already paying attention to a 16-year-old right-hander, Eric Pardinho, who brandished his 94-mph fastball against Pakistan in the early rounds of the WBC at age 15. He, like Gomes and their fellow countrymen, was attracted to baseball as an alternative to soccer. And they say that others will follow in their path.

“I believe that now with all the major leaguers from Brazil, and the players in Triple-A and Double-A playing in the U.S., that baseball in Brazil will grow much more than before,” Pardinho told

If so, it would be a reward for Gomes, considered the godfather of Brazilian baseball in the U.S. Hardly a week goes by without an interview request from a Latin American outlet, usually posing the same pressing curiosity: Is Brazil on the verge of a breakthrough?

The answer is a resounding yes, say executives at the commissioner’s office.

“Brazil is interesting because it sits in a cross-section of lots of opportunities in Latin America,” said Chris Park, the head of MLB International. “There’s a lot of room for growth.”

Brazil could dominate the region by sheer size alone. With nearly 211 million people, its population is not only the largest in Latin America, it’s nearly twice that of Mexico. And there’s no shortage of soccer recruits, as nearly a third of all Brazilians are 19 or younger.

When the floodgates finally burst, it’ll likely be the Brazilians of Japanese descent who’ll be at the forefront — they number 1.6 million and live in and around São Paulo, where Brazil’s baseball academies are found. Not surprisingly, Gomes, Rienzo and Orlando are all from São Paolo, as is Pardinho.

Of course, no one expects baseball to ever replace soccer in Brazil. Gomes says “it would be like asking Americans to give up football.”

But the odds of becoming a soccer star are slim in Brazil; there are nearly two million Brazilians already registered and formally attached to 29,000 clubs. Another 10,000 are playing internationally. Unlike soccer, baseball can offer a route to a college education in the U.S., a powerful lure of its own.

Not that Gomes was even remotely aware of that. As a young boy, he knew baseball was merely “a game they played in the United States. I mean, I had no idea it was in Latin America, too.”

Gomes would’ve drawn a blank had anyone asked him about Roberto Clemente.

“Never heard of him until I came to this country.”

Juan Marichal?

“Not him, either.”

Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig?

“None of them.”

using hands instead of feet

At age 9, Gomes was about to enter a strange new universe. Yet after years of relying on his feet on the soccer pitch, he was intrigued by a game that allowed him to use his hands. A Cuban friend of Gomes’ father offered to teach him the new sport. Gomes took to it instantly — even though he ran to third base after his first base hit.

“That should tell you how much I knew about baseball,” Gomes said with a laugh. It didn’t take long for a change in narrative, however. His family moved to the U.S. when he was 12, opening the door to pursuing baseball in high school and the University of Tennessee.

Gomes was drafted by the Red Sox in 2008 before making his major-league debut with the Blue Jays. His best season so far was 2014 in Cleveland, when he hit .278 with 21 HR and 74 RBI. Today, beginning his age-29 season, Gomes is in the sweet spot of his athletic prime.

Yet, his connection with Brazil remains strong enough that he’d like to participate in the next WBC.

“I would’ve been with (Team Brazil) last fall, but (the Indians) were in the playoffs during the qualifying round, which I actually thought was a little unfair,” he said. “But I still feel like I’m part of the growth of baseball in Brazil. It’s still very important to me. And it’s definitely on the way.”

Featured Image: Jason Miller / Getty Images Sport

Inset Image: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum