Luis Polonia used to note the lack of Latin American players with the Angels and wondered why the club seemed to be ignoring a valuable source of talent.
“A lot of people used to say that, because normally other teams have Latin players,” said Polonia, a native of Santiago City in the Dominican Republic. “I know they (the numbers of Latin players on the Angels) were not too good ever. I can’t say why, because I didn’t know the situation. Maybe they didn’t have the right connections.”
Eddie Rodriguez, who supervises the Angels’ Caribbean scouting besides being a roving minor league defense instructor, acknowledges that he is concerned by the organization’s inability to find Latin American players and shepherd them through the minors to the major leagues.
“It bothers me at times,” said Rodriguez, a native of Cuba, “and you wonder what it might have been like to go in there earlier, before other teams did. But I’m happy with the way the situation is going now.”
While the Angels will never forsake U.S. high schools and colleges in their search for young talent, they are establishing roots in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, countries routinely mined by most other major league clubs but long considered secondary sources by the Angels.
Not since Venezuelan natives Urbano Lugo (1985-88), Luis Sanchez (1981-85) and Gus Polidor (1985-88) played for the Angels has the organization produced a Latin American player for the major league roster.
Why not? Here’s a clue:
Joe McIlvaine, the San Diego Padres’ general manager, scouted for the Angels in 1977 and ’78. He recalled: “They gave me Latin America, but nobody was down there. They let me hire a guy part time down there (in the Dominican Republic), but that wasn’t enough.”
The Latin American players expected to be in the Angels’ opening-day lineup were obtained through trades:
--Polonia arrived in a deal with the New York Yankees last April.
--Second baseman Luis Sojo, born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and center fielder Junior Felix, a native of Laguna Sabada in the Dominican Republic, were acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in December.
Additionally, infielder Fred Manrique, who was born in Bolivar, Venezuela, was signed as a free agent and has an outside chance of making the club.
Polonia was the first Dominican player to wear an Angel uniform since Jose Moreno, who was acquired through the Rule 5 draft, in which clubs can claim players discarded by other organizations. Moreno played in 11 games for the Angels in 1982, going hitless in three at-bats.
The Angels haven’t found and groomed a Mexican player since Angel Moreno, a pitcher who was 1-3 in 1981 and 3-7 in ’82.
Why haven’t they struck gold in Latin America, as have the Blue Jays, Dodgers and other clubs?
Cuban-born Preston Gomez, whose duties as assistant to the general manager include scouting and overseeing the Angels’ Latin American efforts, has heard that inquiry.
“We have (found) some players there over the years, but never players that come out of the minors,” he said. “So far, we haven’t been lucky enough--of the players we sign from the Dominican--to have them reach the level of the major leagues. . . .
“No question, there is so much talent in those countries. Organizations like the Dodgers and Toronto have had great success with the Dominican because they run programs there all year round. The Dodgers have the best, and Toronto spends a lot of money. The Dodgers have had some great Dominican players. Now in Venezuela, Toronto does a great job. They have a scout, Epy Guerrero, who signed Manrique and Sojo, and he had a lot of people working for him in those countries.
“If we can come up with a good Mexican player, that would be great for that area, Anaheim. But you don’t see too many position players (from Mexico). We have added Mario Mendoza to work for us there, and Bob Fontaine (the Angels’ scouting director) is spending more money. The only way to be able to compete in those countries with the Dodgers and Toronto is to spend money.”
It’s not as simple as that because spending money without a plan is worse than spending no money at all. Only in the past year, after Manager Doug Rader insisted on increasing the scope of scouting in Latin America, have the Angels focused their attention on Latin American countries and Mexico.
Mendoza was hired to scout in Mexico. Polonia’s father, Luciano, a former ballplayer whom Polonia credits with shaping him into a major leaguer, helped Rader and coach Bruce Hines at a tryout camp in the Dominican Republic last winter. The elder Polonia is also watching players there for the Angels.
Although the primary purpose of the Rader and Hines visits was to establish contacts and organize the Angels’ scouting network, they also found some promising prospects through tryouts. Pitchers Jose Carrasco, 17; Juan Gomez, 18, and Miguel Fermin, 19, were signed after those tryouts. They will play in the Arizona rookie league or will be placed on Dominican summer league teams by the Angels.
“If you compare them to what we have in our system right now, raw tools-wise, they go to the top of the list,” said Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ director of minor league operations. “But you have to remember they’re kids. You’ve got to be really patient with them. That’s the toughest thing to do.”
Rader also visited Nicaragua, where he played summer ball in 1967, and touted shortstop Ballardo Davila, whom the Angels hope to sign.
“The (visit to) the Dominican was more productive than Nicaragua because of the war,” Rader said, referring to the Nicaraguan civil war. “All the kids that would normally play at that age didn’t dare surface because the Sandinistas would have put them in uniform.
“We’ve got a guy we signed as a scout down there to oversee it. But we won’t see anything come out of there for another two or three years. We sent some equipment their way, some coaching, to help them get organized.”
Although the Angels have lagged behind other clubs in developing Latin American players, they say they have more than compensated by thorough scouting of American players.
“The Dodgers may have someone like (Ramon) Martinez, but they don’t have a Jim Abbott, a Dick Schofield and a Wally Joyner,” Angel General Manager Mike Port said. “We’re active on that front.”
But no team can afford to overlook potential talent lodes, and the Angels are preparing a purposeful venture into Latin America.
“It’s a question of scouting them and developing them, and I think we just haven’t been as involved in Latin countries because we’ve placed an emphasis on domestic scouting and drafting,” Bavasi said.
“Slowly, and piece by piece, we’ll get involved more strongly in Latin countries. Our emphasis will always be strongly domestic, but as far as development (goes), we’ll be there. The key is to find (players), to have facilities and a network of bird-dogs. We’ll chisel away.”
Jose Gomez heads the Angels’ Dominican scouting from Santo Domingo and employs four or five full-time scouts in addition to part-time scouts, Bavasi said. Pompeyo Davalillo is a scouting supervisor in Caracas, Venezuela; Eusebio Perez is a supervisor in Mexico City; and Vic Power has the same title in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
“The biggest impact now seems to be coming from the Dominican,” Bavasi said. “The kids are everywhere. It’s not an area that’s fished out. It is an area that has the reputation in the past of being inexpensive to farm, and it’s not. You can’t go in there in a haphazard way. . . . You can’t just dump dollars because of the economy today. You’ve got to be careful. If you go into a place, you need to go in well. If you don’t, whatever money you spend you’ve wasted.
“The key is finding the raw talent, beating the bushes. The Dominican is like Dodge City--it’s wide open.”
The Dodgers and the Blue Jays rode into Dodge City with their guns blazing. Both teams established baseball academies in the Dominican, complexes where players live and learn and are nurtured along the professional route. The Angels had a scaled-down version of those academies for four years at a stadium in San Cristobal, an operation they ended after the winter of 1989-90 but may resume in the future.
The Angels also pulled out of the Dominican summer league, another move they may reverse. Many major league teams share operation of a summer league club, with only a few operating a club on their own.
“It’s no use denying, they’ve done a beautiful job,” Bavasi said of the Blue Jays’ and Dodgers’ academies. “Our people that we put in there to work did a good job, but it was more an instructional camp. We didn’t have facilities like the Dodgers and Blue Jays have.
“We’ve taken one step back so we can take two forward. We’ve taken our club out of the league, but we’re going to place players with clubs. We used to sign players just to fill out our club, and we weren’t being selective.
“We’re taking a step back so we can dig our heels in and go ahead harder. We want to do it because we now have some people in our organization who can lend us some credence in that area. We have Luis (Polonia) and Jose (Gomez), and Doug (Rader) is very comfortable down there.”
While teams are free to sign Dominican players, different rules apply in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Puerto Rican players’ rights are distributed through the draft, and those rights have been driven up in bidding wars. Puerto Rico also is well-scouted, making prospects difficult to find.
Mexico has a National Association League, which means major league clubs can’t sign Mexican players without going through the players’ league teams. To play on the professional level, players must go to a national academy and then be drafted by league teams.
“A lot of money has been spent in Mexico since Fernando (Valenzuela),” Bavasi said, referring to the Dodgers’ signing of their former star pitcher, “and it really got expensive. But there’s not much to show for it.”
The Angels are also trying roads less traveled. League activity in Australia is being scouted by Rich Schlenker, and Bavasi wonders about the possibilities afforded by Pacific Rim countries and the Soviet Union. Then there’s the potential of a place such as the Netherlands Antilles, a small Caribbean country that is the birthplace of catcher Ken Rivers--whom the Angels acquired from Toronto with Felix and Sojo--and New York Yankee infielder Hensley (Bam-Bam) Meulens.
“Baseball is out there,” Bavasi said. “It’s becoming an Olympic (medal) sport, and the USSR is going to kick itself. . . . The scope of the game has broadened. The idea is to stay a step ahead of people. You can’t fish behind somebody.”
If relations between the United States and Cuba improve, Preston Gomez wants to help the Angels move to the forefront of re-establishing a once-productive pipeline to the major leagues.
“I hope someday they will be opened up because they have so much talent,” said Gomez, whose effort to bring players out in 1969 was thwarted by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn. “If they open, in 10 years they will have 10 or more players on the big league level.”
Continuing their success on the home front and increasing their chances for success in Latin America are the Angels’ aims.
“What I want to do is keep (the Angels’ domestic strength) and inch into the other thing to keep both effective,” Bavasi said.
Developing players from Latin America and the Caribbean nations will be a slow process.
“Other clubs had a head start on us, and we’ve had basically to start from scratch,” said Rodriguez, who managed Class-A Quad City, Iowa, in 1987-89 and double-A Midland, Tex., last year.
“We’re really bearing down on this. At the start, we didn’t have the proper networks, and there are a lot of other organizations there. You can think a country is saturated, but there’s always a player to be found. You just need the proper network. It’s more than money--you have to have a game plan.
“Most of the (Latin Americans) we have are at the rookie and Class-A level, but I strongly feel a couple could make the climb to the majors. They just need experience. They won’t be in Angel uniforms for a while. You’re talking 17-, 18-year-old kids.”
When they do make it, no one will be more delighted than Polonia.
“When the Angels got me, I wanted to be a good influence and let them know they need Latins and they should get it going in Latin America,” Polonia said. “By me coming here and doing well, maybe that makes them sign more Latin players. I’m sure they will. I’m sure they realize Latin Americans want to play. We love to play more than eat. It’s every Latin kid’s dream, to play baseball in the major leagues.”