The Visiting Team : Ecuadorean Exchange Students at Birmingham Warm to New Country on the Baseball Field

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Had Ernesto Alvarez and Diego Arcos been forewarned about the snowfall in the San Fernando Valley, they might have said no, gracias to the offer of enrolling as exchange students at Birmingham High.

But Alvarez and Arcos, two eager Ecuadorean baseball players, jumped at the opportunity as if it was a belt-high, 2-and-0 fastball.

Says Alvarez in halting English: “We wanted to learn English and play baseball. And this is the capital of baseball in the world.”

Yet, after glancing at the frosty surprise that blanketed the neighborhood one morning last month, heading for home sounded like a capital idea to Alvarez.


“Never, never, never does it snow in Ecuador,” he said. “It was the first time in my life I had seen snow. I was frozen. I thought, ‘The weather here is cold. ‘ “

Arcos, sitting on the bleachers behind the giant backstop at Birmingham, arms folded tightly across his chest, still hasn’t thawed after six weeks in Southern California.

“The weather is cold,” he said. “But we like it here.”

And Birmingham likes them. Alvarez, a junior first baseman, and Arcos, a senior catcher, are friendly, polite, humble, eager to please and eager to play.


Both started in Tuesday’s Mid-Valley League opener against Monroe. Alvarez was hitless in two at-bats; Arcos was one for two.

“They’re very polite and intelligent young men,” Coach Wayne Sink said. “I think they’re going to be big contributors. Any good athletes like that are a welcome addition to any team.”

Alvarez and Arcos, who hail from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city, live in the Granada Hills home of Jose Freire, soccer coach and Spanish teacher at Birmingham. Freire, a native of Ecuador and a family friend of both players, arranged for their stay.

“In Ecuador, the temperature never drops lower than 70 degrees,” Freire said. “So, for them, the snow was a shock. They said, ‘Are we going to practice like this?’ ”

Alvarez and Arcos knew that Southern California would be a far cry from the intense heat and tropical climate near the Equator. What they did not know is that snow hits the San Fernando Valley about as often as a big-leaguer hits .400.

And both know how often that occurs.

“Ted Williams,” Arcos said, speaking in profound awe of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer. “He was the last player to hit .400. And he hit a home run in his last turn at-bat.”

Alvarez’s favorite hitter is an active member of the Red Sox: Wade Boggs.


“He always hits .340, .330,” he said.

The Big Red Machine, The Amazin’ Mets, Roberto Clemente--all are high on the list of heroes for Alvarez and Arcos.

“Diego is a baseball nut,” said Freire, who serves as a part-time broadcaster for XPRS radio, which broadcasts Angel games in Spanish. “Sometimes we talk about baseball and I’m surprised that he knows more than I do.”

Said Arcos: “Mr. Freire sent me ‘Baseball Digest.’ I read it up and down. Also, a lot of Topps (baseball cards). I have, maybe, 6,000 Topps.”

Arcos is difficult to stump with trivia. “Ask me anything,” he challenges. But don’t inquire about his playing ability.

“We’re not used to saying how we play,” Arcos said. “I’m not one to say how I am. I consider Ernesto a very good hitter. He’s always been a very good hitter in the leagues.”

Both began playing in organized leagues as youngsters. They developed into top-notch players, which Freire noticed during regular visits to Ecuador.

“I watched them grow up,” he said. “I asked them if they wanted to come over and learn English and play baseball. They were very excited. They were excited about the major leagues.”


Alvarez, who bats and throws left-handed, has displayed power in batting practice, Sink said, but has had trouble with left-handed pitching. Arcos, a right-hander, will be the designated-hitter when not behind the plate.

“Diego is a little better hitter,” Sink said. “He makes contact. They’re both better than average at this point. They’re going to feel the pressure a little bit. They’re trying to play ball in a strange surrounding.”

Arcos speaks fluent English and Alvarez’s language skills are steadily improving. On-field translations are fielded by Arcos and junior third baseman Ruben Flores.

“I don’t have to translate much,” Flores said. “Just on situation plays. Sometimes they make mistakes and the coach wants me to tell them what they do wrong.”

Said Sink: “They’re not really lost at all.”

Arcos, scheduled to graduate in June, wants to attend a U. S. college. Alvarez plans to return to Birmingham for his senior year. Both, however, will visit Ecuador this summer.

“I’m trying to look at the prices of colleges and then go back to tell my parents,” Arcos said. “In Ecuador, you can’t study and play baseball. If you do both, you’ll do both bad.”

Both have warmed to the idea of playing professional baseball. “It would be a very big dream for me to play in the major leagues,” Arcos said.

Added Alvarez: “It would be a big dream for any player. Not just to be a player, but to be a good player.”